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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Vacuuming Vatican Visitors

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on March 18, 2013 in Uncategorized |

by columnist Madeline Karp

If you’ve been following the news these days, then you probably know that there is a new pope in town. It’s a big deal, but I confess, I feel kind of left out when it comes to most things Papal. As an American Jewish girl with a penchant for Zen mediation, the choosing of a new pope is more of a curiosity than the be-all end-all of my spiritual well being.

There are many components of the Roman Catholic religion that elude me. There are many subjects upon which we disagree. Yes, I have gotten into arguments about teaching religion in schools and how to best display religious artifacts as intellectual objects without disrespecting associated beliefs, and whether the Messiah has really come yet or not. My deeply Catholic friends and I have more or less agreed to disagree on many of these topics.  And yet, there are two things upon which we all agree: Genesis and Michelangelo.

Once upon a time a great and powerful deity created a man named Adam, and (S)He put him down in the Garden of Eden and all was well. Then in 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint this story, among others, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it was deemed a masterpiece.

I did not take this picture in the Sistine Chapel. That would be breaking the rules. But if I *had* taken this picture, rest assured I would not have used flash.

A masterpiece that eventually made it onto the art world’s endangered species list alongside Silver Spring’s “Penguin Rush Hour” mural, Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statie, and the Ecce Homo fresco of Jesus in northern Spain.

You may recall back in the late 1980’s, Vatican conservators, art historians and scientists spent the better part of a decade restoring the Michelangelo’s ceiling and famous Last Judgment fresco. (But if you need, I’ve got painting primers for you here and here. Pun intended.)

Critics and art historians have debated whether the job was done correctly ever since. Some argue that the bicarbonates used in the restoration actually damaged the frescoes, and caused the colors to be more brilliant than Michelangelo ever intended.

Personally, I am so thankful I went to the Vatican several years post-restoration, in 2008. The team left a corner of the chapel untouched, to demonstrate the contrast between the frescoed ceiling as it would have looked pre-1980s, and today. The untouched corner was black. I’m talking charcoal black. I can’t imagine being able to admire or really appreciate the work pre-restoration.

But as we students of conservation and museum collections care know, restorations do not last forever. Eventually dust, dirt, humidity and sunlight creep up on us and slowly destroy our beloved art works, documents and objects. It was only a matter of time before the Sistine Chapel needed a booster shot.

But this time, it’s not the Chapel getting a cleansing. It’s the visitors.

To combat environmental pollutants, the Vatican is now looking to install a state of the art cleansing chamber, through which visitors will have to pass before entering the chapel. The chamber will more or less act as a vacuum and refrigerator – visitors will be dusted off and cooled to an appropriate temperature for optimal artwork viewing.

This solution strikes me as costly and kind of extreme – and yet I sort of can’t wait to get back to the Sistine Chapel to take a stroll through the Vatican Vacuum. It sounds like quite the experience.

What do you think, museum friends? Is this idea too costly? Too extreme? Would it work in other places like the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie (home of Leonardo’s Last Supper) or the Caves of Lascaux? Let me know what you think in the comments!

To read more about the new cleaning system check out this article from the Daily Beast.

Haven’t been to the Vatican? Take a short stroll through the Sistine Chapel here, courtesy of the History Channel.

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