The present controversy around the restoration of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling prompts the following reflections on restorative work in general, and that of our time in particular.

Our age will be known by future historians as one in which all certitudes were questioned, while the True and the Good were on the defensive. Beauty, also tottering, still rallies the largest number of enthusiasts. The onslaughts against it—tasteless monuments, purposeful wrecks in metal and cement in public parks, puzzles on museum and exhibit walls—are violently resented by lovers of art, at least those bold enough to go against popular approval. The restoration work on ancient masterpieces also begins to attract attention because of its increasing abuse.

Paul Valéry spoke of civilizations being mortal; we are now aware that the art of the past, safe from “death,” is nevertheless vulnerable to cleansing, the use of new chemicals, to the indiscriminate removal of layers on painting, to retouching, as well as the search for the alleged original lines and colors. Although motivated by good intentions, many restorers are tempted to play the demiurge and “know better” than the work’s creator, whether Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Michelangelo. The trouble is that misapplied zeal carries them away, as restorers become competitors against the artist whose work they ought to serve. This is how we get statements like: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science!” This by Gianluigi Colalucci, chief restorer now working on the Sistine Chapel.

Before anything else, a cultural misunderstanding should be dispelled: The great masterpieces are not embodied only in the work themselves, as they appear, localized and dated. They have also evolved a life of their own during the centuries or millennia since their coming into existence. The “search for the original” is merely a modern prejudice, although it may look like a reasonable and an attractive notion to which we all are impelled, partly by curiosity, partly by the desire to meet the illo tempore. Yet this search may also be an ill-conceived enterprise, considering the probability that the artist himself foresaw the effect of passing time, and would be the first to protest against a periodic return to an increasingly hypothetical “original,” or to what his work was like in the exact moment he put down his brush or chisel.

Each Gothic cathedral was built over the decades, indeed centuries, by successive patrons, master-masons, teams of architects and workers. It was the common religious inspiration of merging centuries that created unity of conception and style, not this or that master. Appropriately, no one individual signed the work— the final product may not have exactly conformed to the first blueprint. Similarly, Michelangelo planned the lunettes and the barrel vault ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to serve as transcendent inspiration at religious ceremonies for many centuries. He knew that what popes and priests would see when looking up and around would not be quite the same in the second decade of the 16th century as in remote future times and generations. More concretely, he knew that there would be the chemical reactions in his materials compounded by candle smoke, the breathing of multitudes, and the climatic and seasonal changes.

What Michelangelo could not know—in contrast to us—is that taste not only changes but may also one day be so corrupted that it would try to erase time. Watch indeed the contemporary infatuation with hermeneutics—in plain language, the search for hidden motives (like “investigative journalism” in Washington): What did the writer, artist, scholar, thinker really want to express? Did he know exactly what he wanted, was he aware that it was not he who wanted it, but his social class, degree of wealth, his race, his hidden interests, the structure of the language he spoke? The game around the “masters of suspicion” fascinates our contemporaries, the Merleau-Pontys, the Gadamers, the Freuds, the Ricoeurs. Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? Did Leonardo paint a self-portrait under the features of Mona Lisa? And now: Was Michelangelo responsible only for the fresco painted on the walls, while an unknown super-Michelangelo painted, decades later, the musculature, the gradation of light and shadow, the wrestling of God and man?

The theory about this mysterious Other, which in a way authorizes the present restorers to erase perceived non-Michelangellian layers and layers of grime, is flatly contradicted by art-chronicler number one, Giorgio Vasari, the painter’s contemporary. When in Rome, Vasari writes, Michelangelo painted every day, rain or shine, in great discomfort from constantly looking up. He remained on his 60-foot-high scaffolding night or day, eating and sleeping there, “but in the ardor of labor he felt no fatigue and cared for no discomfort.” More, he talked back to the pope (Julius 11, no namby-pamby, or a “Hamlet”), who threatened to have him cast down if he did not finish the job by the agreed date. “I shall finish,” Michelangelo replied, “when I am satisfied in my artistic sense.” And so he did.

All this explains why a work of art today (this is also true of music as new instruments are invented) is not quite the same as it was in its creator’s atelier, when it was blessed by qualities of survival. Time does effect some erosion and decrepitude, but it also brings maturation. Most importantly, not every age should regard itself as competent to restore great art. It is one thing to rebuild baroque Dresden after its barbaric destruction, quite another to meddle with the wear and tear of centuries. Contemporary taste, working with surviving original blueprints of public buildings, streets, or facades, cannot do much harm; but looking at the Sistine frescoes before and after, we become painfully aware that contemporary taste favors the style of posters, large, brutally colored surfaces, geometric designs. The tourist wants to see quickly and superficially and carry home a bundle of snapshots. In the Sistine Chapel where he dislocates his neck in the effort to look upward (this, the crowds of tourists, not even a Michelangelo could foresee), the restorers may have wished—am I guilty of hermeneutics?—to alleviate the neck breaking exercise. At any rate, the cleansed sections appear splashy, ready to be seen from a distance.

Is this still Michelangelo? That is a hard question to answer. Art critic Alexander Eliot, mural painter Frank Mason, Prof. James Beck of Columbia, art dealer Roland Feldman, plus the 15 most prominent American painters who signed a letter of protest to the Vatican, agree that the present restoration is guilt)’ of what I would call “puritanism,” the earlier-mentioned impulse to erase time. To which the chief theoretician of the Sistine restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, answered that Michelangelo, a Florentine, was trained in the rapid work that the fresco painting demands. Since the fresco dried in one day (“giomata“), the artist could move on to the next. The answer to this argument is that Michelangelo was working in Rome (he even rejected advice by his fellow Florentines who had come to visit him) in whose damp and marshy air he knew he had to use another technique and paint slowly, repeatedly, devotedly, expressing his real vision a secco. . . . The fresco was only a working outline, the struggle of genius was superadded. There is proof, even outside Vasari’s description, that the master worked slowly, with a light attached to his hat, “his loins penetrating to his paunch”—these are his own words—”his rump a crupper as a counterweight.” He painted over and over, reworked, and in the process he renewed Renaissance painting. How are we to conclude that this daring man would have been content with bare sketches, that he would have refrained from his titanic struggle with angels, saints, sibyls, and prophets?

Let us repeat that the times are not propitious for large-scale restoration except when mere technical know-how is involved, as in the protection of the Parthenon, And our times are not propitious for restoration because they are not creative times. Our contemporaries believe in nothing—how could they think along the lines of great creators, whose art, no matter how perfected, was in their minds only a reflection of the divine? There is something typical and symbolic, certainty not incongruous, in the fact that the restoration is partly paid for by the Nippon Television Network Corporation (three million dollars), in exchange for rights to film the process. Commercialism does not just mix here with beauty and spirituality; it obscenely interferes with both, while strengthening the Restorers’ Faction. Let’s face it, the latter have the support of an international pressure group of museum directors heavily engaged in restorations (the art must shine to attract visitors and donors, mustn’t it?), art critics, professors, publishers. . . .

A compromise? Perhaps; slow work, frequent interruptions in order to survey the effects before they became irreversible. One illustration: Restoration on Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan is planned to take 12 years; the much vaster Sistine Chapel is supposed to be completed in the same amount of time. There is an evident rush. Yet why should the domain of beauty not also be subject to moral prudence? Moral prudence combined with aesthetic reverence would reassure those who want not only to restore, but also to preserve.

This article first appeared in the July 1987 issue.