Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Michelangelo's Ghost


The last time I was in Rome and Florence was to cover the Mille Miglia races in the early 90s for a Japanese TV station. Just a few hours and a short night on the outskirts of Rome to interview the racers. Before that was in the late 70s as an impoverished student doing the Backpack-Through-Europe-On-As-Little-As-Humanly-Possible Thing. (You were supposed to able to travel on $20 a day. I didn't have that much money then.)

"The people have changed, but Roma is still Roma," said Sergio, the owner of the little residenza across from the Lago Argentina ruins.

Yes, they have. In 1977, the place was filled with tourists, but now, it is absolutely jam-packed, and with the kinds of people who weren't even traveling back then. Everyone behind the Iron Curtain, the Chinese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, Indians, Middle Easterners, South Americans...

But with the influx of tourists, Rome has also changed. Every place charges a hefty admission. (I remember much being free for students back in the 70s.) There are long lines for everything. Spots like the Fountain of Trevi and Spanish Steps are a zoo of humanity.
Overlooking crowds from the top of the Spanish Steps
The biggest shock was waiting for me at the Vatican. And it wasn't the throngs either.

I was last inside the Sistine Chapel pre-restoration project. That happened sometime in the 80s when Japanese companies had too much money to waste, including Nippon TV who underwrote the project.

After tiring ourselves out trying to see everything inside the Vatican Museum, my mother and I were swept along a human river to the Last Spot. The Sistine Chapel. Guards are shouting "Silence!" trying to quiet the murmur of hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder in the famous Chapel.

Oh my god. The colors are nothing like what I remember. It's all too vivid, too...colorful. But the most shocking aspect of the "new" Sistine Chapel was that in removing centuries of soot from the frescoes, they seem to have taken away some of the charcoal shading. Things look flat. Some figures lack eyes. Faces have lost detail.

This was not how Michelangelo painted the celebrated ceiling. At least, not in my relatively uneducated opinion.

Some say this is due to the misunderstanding of the restorers who thought Michelangelo painted on wet plaster, buon fresco, and did not come back to add details to the dried paster, so everything on top of the original painted plaster was removed.

I imagine Michelangelo rolling in his grave. Until I remember how even during the painting of The Last Judgement, he had conflicts with the clergy about nudity. I think clothes were painted on some of the figures later on, by an artist who got the nickname "Breeches Painter." Michelangelo's ghost has been rocking and rolling for a loooong time. If it stayed here at all. Nah. Why would it. Why would it stay here when there's...West Hollywood?

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