Pauline Chapel

For five years, Maestro De Luca and his team have worked on the restoration of the Pauline Chapel. The very first step in the restoration process consisted in the cleaning of the gilded and coloured stucco decorations and the restoration of the frescoes, which were painted by Lorenzo Sabatini and Federico Zuccari. The very last step of this restoration consisted in the cleaning and conservation of the two frescoes painted by Michelangelo, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, which face one another on the side walls of the Chapel. This extremely important and delicate phase started in June 2008 with the constant effort and work of Maestro Maurizio De Luca with his principle assistant Maria Putska.

For a proper restoration, which aims at allowing the public to appreciate the authentic Michelangelo, our restorers had to clean each area and remove every detail that was not originally done by Michelangelo’s hands. In fact, the Pauline Chapel is a coherent work of art, where all the painters, with their distinct styles and techniques, were able to work in consonance with the style and genius of the supreme master, Michelangelo. In fact, these painters did not engage in any competition with Michelangelo, but instead humbly sought to create a harmony within the Chapel by playing supporting notes. Thus, it would have been erroneous to place the emphasis solely on the frescoes of Michelangelo presenting them as exceptional testimonies which outshined the rest of the artist, and in fact, leaving them in his shadow. If we had done so, we would have been unfair not only to them, but to art history itself.

The painters, sculptors and decorators who worked in the Pauline chapel some twenty years after Michelangelo, were surely flattered to have been chosen to work in the same Chapel as the Great Master. Indeed, the work inside the Pauline was challenging enough for them, but became all the more intimidating because, after the publication of the “Lives of the Artists” by Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo was considered a Genius and almost a “deity.” Thus, both Sabatini in the Fall of Simon Mago and Zuccari in the allegorical nudes of the vault, tried to keep a low profile by using a style as similar as possible to Michelangelo, avoiding every possible dissonance with the overall style of the Chapel.

Restoration, as our professors have taught us, is above all a critical work which descends directly from one’s interpretation of the story that has been refigured. It was this interpretation of the story that lead to the philosophy of intervention, which was then elaborated and defined by the Direction of the Restoration Committee for the restoration of the Pauline Chapel (Professor Arnold Nesselrath, Maurizio De Luca and with your author).

Of course the cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes is based on coherence with the chromatic values, with the tone and the “patina” of the whole of the frescoe itself. However, in order to better understand the reasons and difficulties of the restoration, one should know the construction problems confronted during the building and decoration of the Pauline Chapel. All these difficulties are the direct consequence of the particular character and the special destiny of a sacred space, so utterly unique for what it represents.

The Pauline Chapel has been the Papal Chapel for ages. It is the most intimate and private among the chapels of Apostolic Palace. The Pauline is the chapel which, even more than the Sistine, is called to evoke the mission and destiny of the Universal Church. In fact, this Chapel is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. On the first rests the historical and juridical legitimacy of the roman pontiffs. The second is the corner stone which sustains and justifies the doctrine of the Church and its ecumenical mission.

The Popes of the XVI century, amidst the Reformation and Counter Reformation, were utterly aware of the extraordinary symbolic meaning of this place which explains the complicated construction and decorative itinerary of this chapel, so full of interruptions, reworkings and adjustments by multiple Popes. Antonio da Sangallo was the first architect in charge of the construction of the Chapel, between 1537 and 1542, during the papacy of Paul III Farnese. Also, Perin del Vaga took care of the stucco decorations, which were eventually removed at the time of Gregory the XIII Boncompagni.

In the forties of the same century Michelangelo, who had just completed the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, started painting his last two frescoes. These years are extremely hard for Buonarroti, who is also dedicated to the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and the designing of the Cupola, despite his old age and fragile state of health. The existing written documentation shows massive purchases of ultramarine blue (we found so much and of such high quality during the restoration!), but it also shows several interruptions in the decoration of the Chapel (summer 1544 and summer 1546) because of the Master’s declining health.

In 1550, Michelangelo completed his works of art, but the renovation of the Pauline Chapel would be suspended for more than twenty years, until the papacy of Pope Gregory XIII. This Boncompagni Pope was a man of intelligence and exquisite taste. He reformed the calendar, commissioned the construction of the Tower of the Winds and the Gallery of the Geographical Maps. During his papacy the Pauline Chapel is again a construction site full of artists and decorative professionals of every kind. Painters like Lorenzo Sabatino and Federico Zuccari and their assistants work alongside decorators, sculptors and goldsmiths whose names (Andrea Svolgi, Bartolomeo Fiorentino, Cesare Romano, Prospero Bresciani, Giacomo Casagnola etc. etc.) are written in the accounting books of the period.

The present image of the Pauline Chapel is basically the one that Gregory XIII wanted during his papacy (1572 – 1585) and it is characterized by the large murals of Sabatini and Zuccari, which describe the most important episodes of the life of St. Peter and Paul and by the gold and coloured decorations of the vault, which recall the Gallery of the Geographical Maps.

The last renovation was completed in the years of Pope Paul VI (1974-75) and focussed on the remodelling of the presbytery. This rearrangement, in agreement with Archbishop Harvey, his Excellency Paolo De Nicolò and the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, with Monsignor Guido Marini, Master of the Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations and with the approval of the Holy Father, who visited the Chapel on the 25th of February 2009, was completely removed in order to restore the presbytery to its original arrangement. The Technical Services of the Governatorato, under the direction of the Engineer Pier Carlo Cuscianna restored the old marble altar. This altar has been detached from the wall in order to allow the celebration of the Mass both towards the public “versus populum” and towards the Crucifix “versus crucem”. The restoration of the frescoes by Michelangelo was carried out with infinite care and attention (also thanks to the collaboration of Gianluigi Colalucci, former restorer of the Vatican Museums now retired, who worked in the Sistine Chapel twenty years ago).

Everyone expected these two frescoes to appear “sub specie negra,” under a dark layer of dust. We anticipated finding darker colours in comparison to those of the Sistine as an expression of pessimism and melancholy which characterized the last years of Michelangelo’s career. The old master, at the end of his life was confronting himself with the concept of the “Absolute” and with History. He was focussed on his ultimate challenge with the “affettuosa fantasia che l’arte mi fece idolo e monarca” (the affectionate fantasy which made me an idol and a monarch). And so, seen through the prism of his final sonnets, and in the spirit of the “Rondanini”, thus we loved to think of the Michelangelo of the Pauline chapel.

The cleaning revealed a suffering and almost tragic Michelangelo, but with extraordinary and solid plasticity and firm, urgent, cromatic appearance. The colours are the same of the Last Judgement and serve to highlight a terrible, violent and desperate humanity. Never before has the style of Buonarroti revealed such ravaged faces and hate-filled expressions, eccentric and complicated postures, as well as such a great exposition of wild energy and darkening of reason. Only in Goya of the “Black Caprices” and “Quinta del Sordo” some two centuries later, will anyone move amongst these unsettling regions of emotion. It seems almost as if the painter is questioning the theological enigma of a Salvation mysteriously offered to an unmerriting humanity, immersed in Evil and covered with the sin here represented. Michelangelo questions himself about all this and we have the impression that Saint Peter interrogates himself as well depicted as he is, irately staring out in the very moment in which he is lifted upside down on the cross, almost second guessing the usefullness of his martyrdom. As we all know this terrible idea was destined to affect another great Michelangelo: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who represented the same subject on the canvas of the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo.

The restoration gave very consoling results, far beyond our prudent expectations. All the previous restorations were removed with extreme care in order to leave behind only the original Michelangelo. The frescoes of Michelangelo were finally freed from the layer of oil and dust which was suffocating them and are now ready to shine in all their beauty and vivid colours. On the 4th of July, when the Holy Father unveils the “parva” Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, I hope nobody will say that this restoration brought the frescoes of the Pauline to their “original splendour” (as too often our inexperienced journalists like to write). On the contrary, this restoration merely sought to hand over the frescoes of Michelangelo, Zuccari and Sabatini along with the decorations of the entire Chapel, in the best possible conservation condition for the best possible appreciation and enjoyment of those who enter this space of prayer, and after all, that is all we can ask of a well done restoration.

Antonio Paolucci
Director of the Vatican Museums

~ by superbowlnyc on February 23, 2011.

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