Picks and Pans Review: The Sistine Chapel a Glorious Restoration

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Michael Hirst et al.

In the spring of 1980, restorers cleaning frescoes in the entrance hall to the Sistine Chapel found themselves within reach of a Michelangelo lunette, one of the small architectural artifices between ceiling and windows.

Finding the proximity irresistible, one restorer leaned over and dabbed a corner of the maestro's masterpiece. The result was breathtaking. The muted tones that had prompted generations of viewers to label Michelangelo and his work introspective turned out to consist almost entirely of grime caused by centuries of candle soot; beneath was a patch of incandescent color.

By early 1994, there was not even a patch of grunge. Following the inevitable controversy (Columbia University's Prof. James Beck has labeled the cleaning "an obscenity"), the chapel's ceiling and frescoes were completely restored. The sensuous forms that are the supreme examples of Michelangelo's draftsmanship remained, but, as this volume amply and beautifully demonstrates, as the layers of dirt were wiped away, his original colors—greens, purples, blues, reds, oranges and yellows—appeared in a new vibrancy that added a layer of dynamism to the figures' grandeur and showed the artist to be a supreme master of the palette as well.

The planning and execution of this transformation, hailed as a triumph by most denizens of the rarefied world of fine arts, are described in accompanying essays. Some of these border on the scholarly, but the photo Captions contain all the information most laymen will need. As for the nearly 300 color photos: While they cannot replace a trip to Rome, they let us share an intimate glimpse of Michelangelo's God, Adam and attendant prophets that few but the restorers and photographer Takashi Okamura have enjoyed. More important, they manage to persuade us that the autumnal haze through which we looked on the frescoes before was never intended by the artist, prompting us to reappraise not only the Sistine Chapel but Michelangelo himself. (Abrams,$75)"

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