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Did the Vatican Ruin the Sistine Chapel Frescoes?
One of the most unforgettable spiritual and artistic experiences I’ve encountered in my life happened in the Sistine Chapel years ago. Straining my neck as fellow tourists did the same, I looked up at Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in awe—both at the wondrous expression of faith and at the sheer magnitude of human achievement. When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes “in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering” (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure. Did the Vatican ruin the Sistine Chapel frescoes?
In the first part of a series, Art Watch UK lays it out plainly from the beginning: “The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting.” I’ve watched documentary films about the restoration and read plenty of books with generous “before and after” images (such as the one above) all praising the restoration as removing centuries of grime and dirt that stood between modern viewers and how Michelangelo himself saw the frescoes and wanted posterity to see them. After the dimness of the “before” pictures, the “after” images seemed like sunshine flooding into the chapel—a time machine carrying us back to the Renaissance itself.
However, Art Watch UK argues that the “brighter is better” adage is anachronistic, something we accept today but was not accepted in Michelangelo’s day. Citing (with a photograph) Marcello Venusti ‘s1549 copy of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement “which was made not only within Michelangelo’s lifetime but also met with his approval,” they contend that the original frescoes were meant to be darker in overall tone. I’m reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue. Even when Eakins’ widow, painter Susan Macdowell Eakins, swore that her husband intended the darker tone, her voice when unheeded until the 21st century, when modern restoration efforts returned the painting through archival research to something approximating its original look.
The Art Watch UK piece indicts not just the Sistine Chapel conservation effort, but also the entire conservation world. “Ironically, the ‘cleaning’ of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skillfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated ‘conservators’ of all that is valuable,” they write, “even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics.” Thus, conservation itself becomes an elaborate con game, with, in this case, the Vatican as the dupe. “The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments,” Art Watch UK acidly accuses.
The article does step back from that hard-hitting position by adding in an appendix Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt’s more level-headed point that “the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” Conservators should hesitate to go where even angels fear to tread (or clean, in this case) unless they follow the oath to do no harm, i.e., make no permanent changes that later generations can’t undo in the light of additional information. I’ve heard enough conservation success stories full of patient, thoughtful respect not just for the work, but also for all those who wish to enjoy it now and hereafter to believe that this possible abomination is an aberration—malpractice on an epic scale that deserves note but not something that should bring down a whole discipline.
Creeping papal infallibility over the past couple of centuries threatens to go beyond matters of faith into all fields of human knowledge, but it seems time for the Vatican, in at least this matter, to admit it goofed. The main point of asking the question of whether the Vatican ruined the Sistine Chapel frescoes isn’t to assign blame, but rather to salvage these treasures before it is too late. The first step, however, is admitting that something must be done quickly. The truth, as always, will set them free.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.