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.
THE HISTORICAL EVENTS
The Pauline Chapel was built during the works of renovation around the Sala Regia commissioned by Pope Paul III (Farnese, 1534-1549). These renovation works lead to the demolition of the Chapel of St. Nicholas and the construction of the "Staircase of the Maresciallo".
The construction of the new sacellum (small chapel), which began in 1537 and was based on the project of Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, was meant to serve the very same functions as the previous chapel and would be located not on the east side as before, but on the south side of the Sala Regia. The works must have been almost completed by November 1538 because on All Saints day Mass was celebrated in the "Cappella Noviter Erecta". The Pauline Chapel, as still today, had a rectangular plan, covered by a vault "a schifo," followed by a more narrow rectangular room which was covered with a barrel-vault and destined to become the presbytery with the altar.
The commission given to Michelangelo to decorate the new chapel must have been contemporary to the finishing of The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The artist first painted the Conversion of Saint Paul between the end of 1542 and July, 1545. The works for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter began immediately after the completion of the Conversion of Saint Paul and ended in March of 1550.
The glass in the windows was completed in 1543 by Pastorino, while Perin del Vaga was commissioned in 1542 to decorate the vault with stuccoes.
The final appearance of the Pauline Chapel after the interventions of Perin del Vaga and Michelangelo is unclear and it is particularly uncertain if the decorations were even completely finished.
L’abbellimento della appella riprese con The The embellishing of the Chapel started again with Gregory XIII (Boncompagni, 1572-1585) who, in 1573 sought the advice of Vasari for a new iconographic program, but which was never carried out. However, the second phase of the decoration started during the same year when Lorenzo Sabatini painted the Stoning of St. Stephen, the Healing of Saint Paul in the house of Anania and the The Fall of Simon Mago, which were all completed by the end of 1577, the same year as the death of the artist. Between 1580 and 1585 Federico Zuccari and some helpers finished the decorations by painting the Baptism of the Centurion and replacing the ceiling decoration with the fifteen Stories of St. Peter and of St. Paul.
Nei due ecoli successivi sono During During the next two centuries, restorations are documented during the papacy of Alexander VIII (Ottoboni,1689-1691), possibly in order to repair damages caused by a fire while another three minor restorations occurred in the XVIII Century. To Clement XI (Albani, 1700-1721) we attribute the construction and embellishment of the wooden structure or "machina" of the 40 hours devotion for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which covered the area of the altar. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV (Lambertini, 1740-1758) commissioned Domenico Spolia "restorer of paintings and stuccoes" the complete restoration of the Chapel. Another intervention, probably more limited, must have been done in 1786 by the "figurative painter" Bernardino Nocchi who was paid for the "restorations of paintings and frescoes in the Pauline Chapel and in the Sala Regia."
È nell’ambito dei lavori di PioIX During the During the works commissioned by Pius IX, the "machine of the 40 hours" was placed back in its former location. The same machine was definitely removed once again during the papacy of Leo XIII during the years of 1890-91. This renovation focussed once again on the altar wall and the floor where the architect Virgilio Vespignani replaced the coat of arms of Paul V with the coat of arms of the reigning pope. The execution of the works was given to the "marmoraro romano" Paolo Medici (a specialist in marble sculpting). Also the walls of the presbytery, which were evidently affected by the presence of the machine of the 40 hours, were newly decorated.
The restoration took place simultaneously with the one of the Last Judgement, under the direction of Biagetti and utilised the same methods. The restoration started with the Conversion of St. Paul (January 1933 — November 1933), followed by the Crucifixion of St. Peter (August 1933 — February 1934) and continued with the side frescoes of Lorenzo Sabatini and Federico Zuccari. The restoration of the decoration of the vault was continued between July 1935 and January 1936.
Celebration of Vespers on the occasion of the re-opening of the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican Apostolic Palace (4 July 2009)