Five centuries of blinding light
Every day at least 10,000 people – 20,000 in high-tourist season – enter the Sistine Chapel. People from all backgrounds, languages and cultures, from every religion or no religion. The Sistine Chapel has a fatal attraction; it is an object of desire, that essential point of arrival for international people of museums, for migrants of so-called “cultural tourism”.
On 31 October 1512 Julius II celebrated Vespers, inaugurating the vaulted ceiling after Michelangelo's unbelievable effort which lasted four years (1508-1512). The Pope never could have imagined that the more than thousand of metres of frescoes were to bring about a violent torrent, a bearer of happiness but also devastation, as Woelfflin's beautiful metaphor from 1899 goes.
In fact after the ceiling, art history radically changed in Italy and Europe. It would never be the same again. The vaulted ceiling began a season of art that textbooks call “mannerism”. The ceiling, according to Giorgio Vasari, was to become a beacon destined to light the history of styles for the many future generations of artists.
Today five million visitors a year inside the Sistine Chapel, 20,000 per day at peak periods, certainly bring about a difficult problem. The anthropic pressure with dust, the humidity which bodies bring with them inside, the carbon dioxide produced by perspiration involves discomfort for visitors and damages to the painting in the long run.
We could limit access, introducing a maximum number of entries. And we will do this, if the pressure from tourism were to increase beyond a reasonable level and if we were to fail in resolving the problem efficiently. But I believe, despite what has come out in the media, that in the short to medium term limiting entry will not be necessary. However it is necessary to implement the most advanced technological provisions capable of ensuring the removal of dust and pollution, the fast and effective exchange of air, and temperature and humidity controls.
Giovanni Urbani, a great master of our studies, said that our era has not been graced with a new Michelangelo. But we have been graced with technology which allows us, if used correctly, to preserve Michelangelo's work which history has given us under the best conditions, for the longest possible time.