The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gianluigi Colalucci, who gave fresh color to Michelangelo’s frescoes, dies at 91

Gianluigi Colalucci labors over the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in 1986. (Gianni Giansanti/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)
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“Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel,” the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in “Italian Journey,” an account of his travels across Italy in the 1780s, “you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.”

“One hears and reads of so many great and worthy people, but here,” Goethe continued, marveling at the frescoes adorning the ceiling of the chapel at the heart of the Vatican, “above one’s head and before one’s eyes, is living evidence of what one man has done.”

That man was Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Italian artist who in 1508, at age 33, began painting the Sistine ceiling on the commission of Pope Julius II. Along with the depiction of the Last Judgment, which Michelangelo added to the chapel’s altar wall nearly three decades later, the ceiling is a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

But for generations — until the restoration effort undertaken in 1980 by Gianluigi Colalucci, chief conservator of the Vatican Museums — visitors who entered the Sistine Chapel saw not only the living evidence of what Michelangelo had achieved, but also living evidence of the ravages that time had wreaked on his art.

A dusky hue had come to hang over the chapel, darkening Michelangelo’s representations of God giving life to Adam and Christ dispatching the saved and the condemned to their destinies. The darkness, scholars determined, was the result of the accretion of dust and dirt, fungi, varnishes and wine used in primitive restorations, and soot from candles lit during papal conclaves and other religious observances.

Even Goethe had noted the mix of smoke and incense released into the chapel and that, “with sacred insolence, not only wraps the sun of art in clouds, but also makes it grow dimmer every year and in the end will totally eclipse it.”

To paint the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo labored atop a towering scaffolding, his neck craned skyward and paint dripping onto his face. In an enterprise that captivated the international art world, Mr. Colalucci assumed the same position for the delicate task of cleansing the chapel of the layers of filth that had accumulated during the intervening centuries.

It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine ceiling and 10 for Mr. Colalucci and his small team of restorers to clean it, not including the four years they then spent on “The Last Judgment.”

The restoration, although deeply controversial at the time, is regarded today as one of the most consequential undertakings in art history — liberating Michelangelo’s work from a shroud of grime and allowed millions of visitors to experience the full palette of his colors as they had not been seen since the 16th century.

“The cleaning basically gave us a new Michelangelo,” Carmen C. Bambach, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who witnessed the restoration process, said in an interview, describing Mr. Colalucci’s work as “a gift that is of lasting, monumental contribution.”

Mr. Colalucci died March 29 at a clinic in Rome, according to his wife, Daniela Bartoletti Colalucci, who said that he had heart ailments. He was 91.

One of the most experienced art conservators in Italy, Mr. Colalucci was hired by the Vatican in 1960. He became chief restorer in 1979, the year before the work on the Sistine Chapel began, and retired from the Vatican Museums in 1995, the year after it was concluded.

A New York Times reporter once noted that by the end of his efforts in the chapel, Mr. Colalucci’s brown hair had turned white.

Some artists and art historians feared that any hand laid to Michelangelo’s frescoes could subject the Sistine Chapel to ruinous harm. In 1987, a group of artists including Robert Motherwell, George Segal, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and Andy Warhol petitioned Pope John Paul II to order a “precautionary” pause in the restoration.

James Beck of Columbia University, the most prominent art historian to oppose the restoration, denounced it as an “artistic Chernobyl,” while another preservationist accused Mr. Colalucci of “cleaning Michelangelo like a rug.” But by the end of the process, any fears had been allayed.

Mr. Colalucci, who displayed a seemingly constant equanimity under international scrutiny, once commented that “you don’t do this kind of work if you’re the nervous sort.” Acknowledging his critics’ reservations, he observed that dirt had befouled the frescoes for so long, even experts struggled to imagine the chapel, or Michelangelo’s capabilities as a colorist, in a different light.

Generations of art scholars “preferred a brooding Michelangelo, the painter of mysterious figures hidden in the shadows, and concealed from us in their secrets,” Mr. Colalucci told the Wall Street Journal. Because of the restoration, he added, “there’s a younger generation of art historians just waiting to interpret him differently.”

Through the painstaking application of a mild solvent, inch by inch across the chapel’s vault, Mr. Colalucci and his colleagues revealed the blazing greens and oranges and pinks and blues that lived beneath the accumulated grime.

“The Last Judgment” was even dirtier than the Sistine ceiling. At one point in its history, Mr. Colalucci said, the wall had been coated in a glue concocted from horses’ hoofs. The heavens had come to resemble a “polluted lake,” in the description of a Reuters wire-service reporter. With Mr. Colalucci’s restoration, the azure shades Michelangelo had rendered from lapis lazuli reappeared.

Throughout the work, Mr. Colalucci and his collaborators allowed art historians from around the world to ascend the scaffolding and observe their technique. The effort was filmed by Japan’s Nippon Television, which financed the project with a grant of more than $4 million in exchange for exclusive photographic rights.

The final result, which included the removal of some of the loincloths and other coverings added over the centuries to conceal the nudity in Michelangelo’s original work, was met with “universal admiration,” said William E. Wallace, an art historian at Washington University in St. Louis who, like Bambach, observed the restoration process.

“The newly revealed ceiling looks overwhelmingly beautiful,” critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the Times in 1990, when it was unveiled, adding, “If it is too much to say that there was a history of Renaissance art before the project and another history that must now be written, it is true that Michelangelo will no longer be perceived as he has been since the third quarter of the 16th century.”

Mr. Colalucci reflected in a commentary published in National Geographic that “there comes a day for each of us when nothing will ever be the same again.” For him, that day was when John Paul II celebrated a Mass in the newly restored Sistine Chapel.

The chapel “became transfigured by the sacredness of the Mass, a sacredness that emanated not only from the pope, but from the very frescoes that the day before I’d considered simply works of art,” Mr. Colalucci wrote. “. . . I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning, and suddenly understood two important things: the transcendent spirituality of Michelangelo’s paintings and the true meaning of working inside the Vatican.”

Gianluigi Colalucci was born in Rome on Dec. 24, 1929. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker. Accompanied by an aunt, Mr. Colalucci visited the Sistine Chapel for the first time at age 14, his wife said, and was immediately struck by its splendor.

After high school, Mr. Colalucci attended the Institute for Restoration in Rome, graduating in 1953. He spent the early years of his career working in private and public art collections in Sicily. He restored celebrated frescoes of Raphael, among many other works at the Vatican, and also participated in the restoration of Giotto’s 14th-century frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua, Italy.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In a book, “Michelangelo and I,” Mr. Colalucci reflected on the emotions that washed over him as he stared up at the Sistine Chapel, “face to face with those eternal giants.” The most daunting figure of all was the image of Christ in “The Last Judgment,” whose eye Michelangelo had painted in several determined strokes.

“The whole Judgment revolves around this gaze of Christ, the Judge,” Mr. Colalucci said in an interview last year with the Vatican Museums. “If these two brushstrokes get ruined while you are cleaning, you are lost. The painting is lost. We are all lost. I thought about this and reflected on it a lot before confronting it.”

“Then I faced it,” he continued. “It did not betray me. The result is what you see today.”

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