An interview with Dr. Antonio Paolucci, head of the Vatican Museums.

Is the Sistine Chapel at risk? Are Michelangelo’s frescoes disappearing like the paintings in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt? Vatican officials say there is no reason for concern despite the alarm recently caused by rumors circulating for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the completion of Michelangelo’s work. Do we really risk losing Michelangelo’s, Perugino’s and Piero della Francesca’s frescoes?

There is a problem with the Sistine Chapel; indeed, it has been here for a long time. It involves the control of microclimatic conditions in the vast, often overcrowded hall, where it is impossible to open windows to change the air.

When the Last Judgment, painted on the wall behind the altar, was restored in the early 1990s, the problem, though in its early stages, was visible. So measures were taken.

What has changed in these 20 years?

Dr. Antonio Paolucci

Dr. Antonio Paolucci

Dr. Antonio Paolucci: There has been a dramatic development in mass and cultural tourism. The problems with the Sistine Chapel are the same as those facing the excavations of Pompeii and the Louvre in Paris.

This is what Antonio Paolucci says calmly as we sit on a bench in the back of the Sistine Chapel. In front of us tourists move by in droves, wearing earphones and looking up.

Cultural tourism, says the director of the Vatican Museums, has become a great source of business; the number of visitors has doubled. Nowadays we have come to realize what we did not perceive as a problem in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet they were provident in the Vatican; the administration had an air conditioning unit installed by Carrier, the leading company in the sector. The unit, which was inaugurated in 1994, has been working till the present day. But everything gets old and we have noticed that this unit, once in the forefront of technology, is now inadequate and has to be adapted to new needs. Thus Carrier, which is still the world’s leading company, is working with me on a new project which will soon be defined in further detail. Fortunately, we have the money and, all going well, the new air conditioning, dust, and pollution control unit will be put into operation at the end of next year.



So, can we be sure that the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel will not disappear?

Paolucci: Definitely, the Chapel will be safe for the next 500 years; this is my hope and aim. There would be an alternative: limited admission, but this is a solution which nobody wants. We could, for example, limit admission to 3,000 visitors a day. But the Sistine Chapel is not just a work of art; it is a consecrated chapel,

a sanctuary, a symbol of the Catholic Church, the catechism, a visual representation of doctrine and theology, so a Catholic believer wants to visit it, whether he comes from Brazil or New Zea­land, as it is the place symbolizing his faith.

You once said the Sistine Chapel is an elaborate theological-scriptural charade, difficult even for Catholics to understand…

Paolucci: Yes. A charade is something which has to be decoded. For instance, what does the raising of the bronze serpent stand for? How many people know who the prophet Jonah was? How many people know that Michelangelo depicts the punishment of Haman, which is part of the story of Esther and Ahasuerus?

In other words, the Sistine Chapel must be visited with a guide; somebody must help the simple believer to interpret it. It is a theological charade because it represents all of Catholic theology from the creation of the world to the Apocalypse, including the theology of the body, which John Paul II seems to have conceived looking at Michelangelo’s frescoes. It is a scriptural charade because it features an uninterrupted string of biblical quotations.

Who knows whether Julius II, blessing Michelangelo’s four years of work on October 31, 1512, imagined what the future of his private chapel would be. He certainly did not imagine that 5 million people would visit it every year, looking up and trying to decode the most elaborate, eloquent charade in the history of art.

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