Modesty forbids paintstripping Michelangelo's Sistine 'breeches'

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The Independent Online
THE most famous articles of underwear in the world, those painted on to the nude figures of Michelangelo's great fresco of the Last Judgement over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, will not be removed in the current restoration of the painting, Vatican authorities have decided.

Contemptuously referred to as 'breeches' in Rome over the past four centuries, they are actually floating draperies painted in to hide the more private areas of the stupendous figures of Christ and those being judged, on the orders of scandalised Vatican officials. Michelangelo had painted them naked, to express truth and the eternity of the human soul, but a few years later the Renaissance spirit gave way to the oppressive Counter-Reformation and Inquisition. The Council of Trent ordered that all such works should be destroyed and Michelangelo had to knuckle under to the new prudery or see the fresco smashed.

Now the long-distant successors of those officials who are presiding over the restoration of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel have decided that the 'breeches' should stay. Not solely out of prudishness, but partly because it has been discovered that the original paint was scraped away when the draperies were added in or around 1565. The world will never again see the fresco exactly as it was painted by Michelangelo. It would be possible to reconstruct the original, however, since there are contemporary copies still in existence.

But Gianluigi Colalucci, head of the Vatican Museum's restoration workshop, said: 'The decision we took is of a historic nature, not an aesthetic one; we have chosen to respect the acts of the Council of Trent.'

Rome would not be Rome without artistic controversy. Just as the original fresco had its opponents - Michelangelo painted the face of one, with ass's ears, in Hell - now the restoration has its critics. 'They say they wanted to bring back the work as it was when Michelangelo had just finished it,' protested Toti Scialoja, painter and former head of Rome's Academy of Fine Arts. 'Now, as well as the patina of time and the touchings-up of the artist, which should stay, why are they not taking away the breeches painted 20 years afterwards? Once again, modesty has prevailed.'