Magazine article The Spectator

Restored to Glory

Magazine article The Spectator

Restored to Glory

Article excerpt

The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was without question the most talked about restoration of the 1980s. Those in favour - as I am - and those against were only able to agree about one thing: Michelangelo's frescoes were changed utterly. The spotlight of publicity on the Vatican, which was anyway part of the deal they struck with the Japanese, had the unintended effect of sparing the Brancacci Chapel, which was being restored more or less concurrently, although even there Adam and Eve's fig-leaves in Masaccio's 'Expulsion' were cleaned off on live television (they should have been left on). For the rest, the Chapel was closed off to the public in such a way that a casual visitor to the Carmine in Florence could not even sneak a glimpse of how the work was progressing. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have clambered about on the scaffolding with a chain-smoking restorer, after going through the surreal experience of making an appointment by telephoning the Chapel itself.

In the wake of the unveiling, English readers have been positively bombarded with heavy-duty tomes on the Chapel itself, Masaccio and Masolino, Masolino alone, and now Masaccio alone. No doubt, in theory, there must come a point when newcomers to the fray are doing little more than arbitrating between the conflicting opinions of previous scholars, but that point has not yet been reached. John Spike, who is perhaps best known as a specialist on Italian baroque painting, is perfectly conversant with the field, but at times reveals an outsiderish capacity to look at old problems with fresh eyes.

Given how deeply unsatisfactory it is to count a substantial fresco and a small panel as one and the same in a listing of an artist's works, it is impossible - as well as question-begging - to try to decide which great artist has left the smallest oeuvre. It nevertheless remains the case that Masaccio, whose known career lasted a mere six years, and whose frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel were spared in a disastrous fire that destroyed most of the surrounding church, cut things remarkably fine. Vasari's praises guaranteed his posthumous reputation, but apart from a few bits and pieces, his only other works are the gauche early triptych from San Giovenale, which no one would have dared attribute to him were it not dated, the `St Anne', on which he collaborated with Masolino, the Pisa altarpiece, of which the central Madonna is in the National Gallery, together with a panel from another joint effort with Masolino, and the stupendous fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, the bottom element of which was only uncovered after the last war. …

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