WAACNewsletter
Volume 18, Number 2 .... May 1996

CONFERENCE REVIEW

ACTS OF RECONSTRUCTION. THE SISTINE CHAPEL

The conference was co-sponsored by the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. The two day conference took place March 8-9, 1996 at UC Santa Barbara. Over 100 participants attended. A brief account of the conference proceedings follows.

The first paper titled Cosmos, History, Destiny: Space, Time, and Power in the City of the Popes was presented by Charles Stinger (History, SUNY Buffalo). Stinger spoke of the history of the Sistine Chapel from its inception during the papal reign of Sixtus IV, who was Pope from 1477 to 1483 to the times of the commissions of frescoes. Julius II, nephew of Sixtus IV, was Pope 1503 to 1513 and he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508. Pope Paul III commissioned him to paint The Last Judgment in 1540. "Rome was a new Jerusalem, the Holy Latin Jerusalem". Stringer ventured to "perceive human history from a cosmic perspective".

On the Sistine Before Michelangelo. Arnold Nesselrath (Musei Vaticani). Nesselrath discussed the architectural transformations that the Chapel building had undergone since its conception as well as the various decorative schemes before the Michelangelo commission. New scholarship by Shearman and Marinelli establishes the medieval origins of the chapel and the exterior medieval walls appear to be incorporated in the current structure. The top third of the structure was added by Sixtus IV for the vaulted ceiling. From the existing original contract document we know that five painters were commissioned to paint ten frescoes which were to be completed in 5 months. They were Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino (his workshop included Pinturicchio), Luca Signorelli, and Cosimo Rosselli. All artists signed one contract and shared assistants. It appears that they formed a single workshop for the duration of the project. Perugino used detailed cartoons for the lower half of the design where precision was of importance and no cartoons for the landscape. Perugino's was the only signature found. Botticelli used sinopia drawing before application of paint as well as a multitude of secco pigments. Some of his architectural elements are incised into plaster.

The Problems of Restoring Frescos. Georgio Bonsanti (Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence). Bonsanti first discussed a four year long conservation project at Florence Cathedral where 3,600 square meters of fresco had undergone treatment for severe flaking of secco parts (two thirds of the fresco surface) followed by an overall cleaning. Giorgio Vasari began painting in buon fresco technique in 1572, the remaining two thirds were completed after Vasari's death by Federico Zucchari in secco technique. Bonsanti outlined treatments of Cimabue frescoes in Assisi and Signorelli frescoes in Siena where lead white pigment oxidized into black and was successfully chemically reformed to white. He then talked about frescoes by Piero della Francesco in Arezzo where "every damage known to fresco conservators was encountered," problems further complicated by close proximity of different painting techniques. The treatment is nearing completion, approaching its last stage of visual reintegration. Neutral tone will be used to convey the impression of plaster for the large losses. The "selezione chromatica" technique will be employed for abrasions and smaller losses. frescoes were recently found on the facade of Palazzo Fossi in Florence, a 16th century building. Historic and stylistic attributions for these beautiful 16th century paintings are being conducted at present. On closing he added one more gem to his long list of fascinating projects. When panel paintings were removed from two side altars at San Marco church in Florence, fresco paintings were discovered in the spaces behind. The paintings are attributed to Antonio Veneziano (a rare occurrence), dating back to the 1380's. His technique included such intricate elements as a metal cartoon of a glove in relief. More on all of the above can be gleaned from the annual magazine of Laboratori di Restauro di Firenze, published since 1986.

Disegno and Decorative Structure in the Sistine Ceiling. Robert Williams (History of Art & Architecture, UCSB). In the elongated chapel, no one point of focus exists. Michelangelo means for us to move through space. His conscious variation in handling of paint is apparent from the beginning. As he proceeds along the vault the design is reduced to essentials. His use of hierarchical design, i.e. figures painted with various degree of detail was brilliant and appears effortless. Stained glass windows used in the Renaissance were much denser than they are at present (Shearman). Michelangelo may have compensated for dimmer light with brighter colors.

In the Wake of the Sistine Cleaning: Michelangelo's Color and its Influence. Marcia Hall (Art History, Temple University). Hall introduced the term "coniunctismo"--coniuncti colori--"a color variation for ornamental effect". She illustrated the use of the technique by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel paintings. His was a rich display of coniunctismo. He "brought the technique to new heights" by using standard fresco pigments in new color combinations (Colalucci), using it volubly in sections directly above the windows which are difficult to view and were painted in very contrasting colors (Shearman). Since fresco palette is necessarily limited the coniunctismo was an important new tool to allow for the display of technical virtuosity. Michelangelo's ingenious use of ultramarine background in the Last Judgment was not only visually successful, but used as a metaphor of power (rarely found in fresco painting and on such a large scale due to cost of pigment). The artist displayed his virtuosity by painting all figures on this tragic final day in a multitude of dramatic poses. A contemporary criticism stated that it was "inappropriate to display excellence of individual genius in a sacred image".

Some Consequences of Cleaning the Last Judgment. John Shearman (Art History, Harvard University). Shearman addressed the figure of the prophet Jonah and the lost pendent of the vault. He discussed the relationship of Jonah with The Last Judgment. Jonah in his altercation with God counts out on his fingers. It is a High Renaissance gesture of argument. Pope Julius II intended it so. Shearman raises the question of chronology: were the lunettes painted at the same time as the vaults proper or later. As the scaffolding would have still been in place for the painting of the vaults, this would have been an opportune moment to do more work below the vaults. Just as in the last conservation, the lunettes were cleaned at the same time as the vaults. Was the Last Judgment considered in 1511 etc. Chronology remains unclear. Two documents came to light recently; they were both records of commissions by the Pope. Please refer to publications by John Shearman.

Panel Discussion. Of the seven panel participants, conservators Gianluigi Colalucci (Musei Vaticani, Rome) and Andrea Rothe (Paintings Conservation, The J. Paul Getty Museum), were perhaps most expert on the subject at hand. Colalucci discussed objections, polemics, and justifications; difficulties not related directly to treatment but elements inevitably present with such a project. He also discussed some technical aspects of the ceiling with beautiful illustrations. With three distinct planes of focus the figures of Sibyls were painted with the greatest degree of precision. The central part of a figure in each vault was painted in more detail while the receding body parts less so. Michelangelo understood that viewing a figure painted completely in focus, i.e. in detail, one instinctively places it in the foreground. Being a sculptor rather than a painter, he constructed his paintings intellectually, detached from the process of painting, and with great precision. The ceiling paintings were prepared in "spolvero"--pouncing, while the Last Judgment figures bear no trace of such preparation. Colalucci, with the able assistance of his interpreter Rothe, elaborated on his approach to cleaning. The choice of cleaning methods goes well beyond the technical aspects, and the decision determines the outcome. In the case of the Sistine ceiling it affords a new reading of the frescoes.

Conservation and the Interpretation of Art. Richard Wollheim (Philosophy, UC Berkeley). Wollheim traced the process from "painting to interpretation of painting, to conservation of painting". The conservator has a task of conserving not just the painting but the "visuality of art", and as "agent" is not independent but entwined as a spectator. The artist as "agent" is motivated to mark the support. What is the distinction between the fulfilled and unfulfilled intentions? What lies behind the distinction? The appropriate spectator is sufficiently sensible and sufficiently informed. The spectator's experience has everything to do with his reading and understanding of the work of art. The conservator's role is a structural parallel to that of the artist's. He uses his eyes in service of judgment of what he has done, (hopefully with no enduring consequences). Even when we have done it (conservation), there is an element of regret or remorse. Wollheim spoke wistfully of "Bellini's Feast of the Gods before Titian did whatever he did to it".

Aneta Zebala

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