Vatican app feeds art restoration frenzy

Too clean? Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Musei Vaticani)

Too clean? Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Musei Vaticani)

From the bankers and princely families of the Renaissance to Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III (well, OK, that was fiction), the Vatican has a history with art patronage. It has a genius for getting money for art from the great and the good, not to mention the bad.

Now it is pioneering new ways of attracting money in the 21st century. The Vatican Museums have launched Patrum, an application designed to create a community of philanthropic supporters for the Vatican’s artistic treasures. It’s a kind of elite crowdfunding venture.

The Vatican’s biggest ever – and most controversial – restoration project was sponsored by the Nippon Television Network Corporation for $4.2-million in the 1980s, for the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Did the conservators overclean and overpaint Michelangelo’s masterpiece? Sadly, yes.

The frescoes are still staggering, but they have had too many of the marks of time removed. I’m lucky I saw them as a child before they were restored. Patrum sounds lovely and philanthropic, but it is pandering to the culture of restoration that does as much harm as good. Italy is full of artistic marvels. 

Restoration excites people
They need careful protection and obviously that includes restoring where restoring is essential. But it is a delicate balance. The problem with restoration is that it excites people – it becomes a story –and in a country full of old things, it allows modern generations to make the past their own, or make it new. Come and see the new, improved David! Roll up for the latest version of The Last Supper!

The Vatican Museums, which comprise a series of interconnected museums on painting, Egyptology, ethnographic art and modern religious art, are among the world’s oldest. Exploring them is an epic journey that culminates in the Sistine Chapel.

The fascination of this journey is enhanced by the lack of modernisation of most parts of the museums. There is a very old-fashioned gallery where Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci twinkle in the shadows. There is the Octagonal Court, practically unchanged since the Renaissance, where classical statues such as the Laocoön and the Belvedere Apollo impress modern crowds just as they impressed 18th-century tourists on the grand tour.

It would be a shame if Patrum led to misguided enthusiasm from loaded art lovers to splurge on polishing the Laocoön or glossing up Da Vinci’s St Jerome. I’m sorry, but restoration is a dangerous obsession that needs restraining. Most restoration projects are pompous acts of self-promotion that cover museums in scaffolding and close galleries for no good purpose.

Don’t give the Vatican money to spoil its heritage. Dust is beautiful. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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