November 20, 2014

3D Movie Shows The Creation Of The Vatican Museums’ Greatest Treasures


TWENTY years ago there was a monumental row when the Sistine Chapel was given a makeover using what seemed to be the most startling shades of paint in the Dulux catalogue. 
The Vatican defended this eye-popping, 10-year restoration project by claiming it was exactly that: dissolving five centuries of grime to show us exactly how vivid the colours were when Michelangelo first painted his frescoes. For many art critics, however, it seemed more like a Disneyfication of Rome’s greatest interior, giving these massive religious paintings a lurid sensationalism that the artist never intended.

In a press conference last month, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, was still defending the restoration, claiming that Michelangelo “wasn’t just agony and ecstasy” (a reference to Carol Reed’s 1965 biopic about the Tuscan artist) but “pure colour too”.

Now the Vatican has initiated a project likely to cause a similar controversy. Of course its new 70-minute promotional film The Vatican Museums 3D hasn’t physically altered the artworks inside the 54 galleries and chapels. It has, however, applied “three-dimensional” cinematography to how punters will view them.

And that isn’t the only startling aspect of the documentary, which is directed by Marco Piangiani for Sky 3D and Sky Arte HD and was shown in cinemas across Britain and Ireland this week. Making use of the advanced surround sound technology, The Vatican Museums 3D has the sort of pumped-up synthesised soundtrack usually heard accompanying kung-fu movies.

As the gorgeous actor portraying Michelangelo chips off shards of marble from his nascent sculpture, apocalyptic percussion effects rend the air. Works of art emerge through mists of dry ice. A bland commentary of almost continuous cliche is spoken in the hushed and reverential tones of a television presenter covering a state funeral. And there’s far too much unchallenged sycophancy from Paolucci about the far-sightedness, benevolence and cultural wisdom of popes through the ages.

Yet the film delivers the one thing that truly matters: gorgeous, high-definition close-ups of some of the greatest art in Western civilisation. Here is Giotto’s Triptych, Leonardo’s St Jerome in the Wilderness, Raphael’s Transfiguration and The School of Athens, Caravaggio’s Entombment and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel as they have never been seen before on film or TV.

And although the film is brutally selective — just a couple of dozen paintings and sculptures are displayed and discussed out of the thousands acquired by the popes throughout the past five centuries — it does show something of the spectacular variety of what is inside the Vatican.

The film is released at a crucial time for the Vatican Museums. In a sense they are victims of their own success. Last year 5.5 million people visited them, making them collectively the fifth most popular art museum in the world.

Unlike the Louvre, however, the Sistine Chapel is not a purpose-built gallery and the art it contains is being gradually but perceptibly eroded by the dust and carbon dioxide brought in by visitors. To counter that, the chapel’s lighting and air-conditioning systems are being upgraded at a cost of millions of euros.

The Vatican also proposes to limit the number of Sistine Chapel visits per day to 20,000 and also to limit the amount of time each visitor can spend gawping upwards.


Shuffling in a massive crowd of humanity through one horribly overcrowded gallery or chapel after another, being allowed a mere glimpse of the art treasures they contain — these might perhaps be accepted as the penances of a pilgrim.

For millions of nonbelievers, however, the art is the draw, not the sacred ambience of proximity to the Holy Father. The Vatican needs their money too and it must offer a museum experience that doesn’t seem exploitative and superficial.

The Vatican Museums 3D may strike many art “insiders” as a crass and superficial film, but at least it is an attempt — very much in the outward-looking spirit of the present Pope — to share some of the stupendous cultural glories of Rome with the millions of people who will never see them at firsthand.


Above: Michelangelo's Pietà (1498–1499). He was 23 years old when he sculpted it.

With thanks to The Australian

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