Friday, September 14, 2012

Sex and the Sistine Chapel

The Prophet Daniel, before and after cleaning.

I returned to Rome first and foremost to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which I hadn't visited for something like thirty years, and which I've been eager to inspect ever since its popular (but controversial) cleaning.

From the many images in the press, I expected an utter transformation.  Still, it is one thing to see "before and after" photos, like the one above (of the prophet Daniel) - and something else again to encounter Michelangelo's entire masterpiece suddenly made luminous, and glowing in the flesh (or at least the fresco).  Indeed, the moment I gazed up at the fabled ceiling, I knew my 4,000 mile trip had been worth it.

Of course the cleaning and restoration has had its detractors - whose arguments were often passionate, for they hinged on a troubling question: had the cleaners (whose M.O. was to strip away the varnish applied over several previous "restorations," and get down to the paint-impregnated plaster itself) unintentionally removed some of the master's own a secco treatments of his imagery? (A "fresco" - Italian for "fresh" - is painted directly on wet plaster, so the paint becomes a part of the surface; "a secco" - or "dry" in Italian - paint is applied after the plaster has set.)

It's true that there is reason to believe this may have been the case in some areas of the ceiling - a degree of modeling of minor figures was clearly lost in the transition (as were the details of pupils on a few eyes).  But the evidence is far from conclusive, as the vast majority of the modeling survived, even in the lesser figures (as in my favorites of the "ignudi," below left and right). It is also known that previous restorers (unbelievably) were fairly free with their own a secco flourishes; their additions - some of them three centuries old - may have long been taken for Michelangelo's.

And even if some of the original modeling was sacrificed, this loss must be balanced against the ravishing color field that the restorers have revealed (and which maps re-assuringly to the tones of the Uffizi's Doni Tondo, Michelangelo's only surviving painting-on-panel; I took the bullet train to Florence during my trip partly to see it again, too).

It's hard to over-estimate the meaning and impact of this dazzling change, so I can sympathize with those academic idolizers who have been reeling ever since the unveiling of the Chapel's vibrant new ceiling and walls.  The Sistine Chapel was one thing until the cleaning, and now it is another; all the theory and interpretive history that had accreted to its imagery had been stripped away with that varnish.  So in a way, even if no actual modeling by Michelangelo was lost, the "old" Sistine Chapel had vanished in its entirety, anyway.  It is no more.

I can think of no parallel to this in my experience of art - the presentation of what other iconic masterpiece has ever been so drastically altered?  Where once the prophets, gods and angels of the Sistine Chapel seemed to glower behind a kind of amber veil, now they glow in hues so vibrant they seem to almost hover in space before the plaster.   Indeed, prior to the cleaning, the painting seemed almost recessed, a kind of titanic cavern in which lurked the mystery of creation; now, however, the fresco seems to press itself upon you like a lover - or perhaps God himself - and I had to fight the urge to simply lie flat on the floor and succumb to its raptures.

The grandest homosexual erotica ever?
This eroticization has rarely been commented on directly, but of course it's in complete accord with the larger arc of Michelangelo's art, and the Renaissance project in general - which over and over again subverts its Biblical pretext with pagan sexual idealization.  The David, for instance, is utterly transformed by its forceful erotic aura (by which Michelangelo converts his hero into a paragon of humanism, not pietism, whose moral stature is reified by his physical perfection).   Hell, even in the Doni Tondo, gorgeous studs are lounging just behind the Virgin, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling probably counts as the greatest, and most gorgeous, gallery of sublimated homosexual erotica ever constructed.

Of course that kind of comment is the sort of trendy, academic-sex trope that I usually hate; so never fear: you don't have to be gay to appreciate Michelangelo's vision!  And if anything, the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel has only brought the universal dimensions of that vision into bolder, clearer relief.  Indeed, it seemed to me that the ceiling's newly vibrant palette drew out detail that had been almost invisible before.

Take, for instance, the iconic scene that is essentially the centerpiece of the entire work (and one of the cornerstones of Western art), The Creation of Adam (below).  Even prior to the cleaning, it was stunning, but now it seems even closer to the floor, more "present" to the viewer; I noticed more than one person stretch out their own fingers toward it unconsciously.  I was struck even more, however, by the sense of depth and detail now revealed in it - particularly within the folds of God's scarlet mantle - and by something else as well.  For the first time, I noticed how the folds of that crimson nimbus roughly map to a cross-section of the human brain - and quickly discovered I wasn't alone in that perception; the idea was all over the Web.  Indeed, medical scientists have begun to find similar anatomical "puns" elsewhere in the ceiling as well.

Here Michelangelo's subversion of his religious yoke is at its clearest, and most resonant.  In The Creation of Adam, Jehovah reaches out directly from the mind of man to create Man himself; the painting's schema is perfectly circular, and it operates not only as an unforgettable illustration of an ancient text, but also as a probing metaphor for the mind-body problem (which, to be fair, in concert with the beauty of Nature and the inevitability of death, largely validates the existence of religion in the first place).  But are the ceiling's restorers responsible for this sudden insight?  I don't know, but I like to think they had something to do with it - and I'm grateful to them either way.

The mystery of creation and the mind-body problem.

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