Vital Signs

Art Restoration: The Sistine Chapel

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...

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