Moment of truth for 'Last Judgement': Fiona Leney in Rome sees the colourful climax of the row over cleaning Michelangelo's masterpiece

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The Independent Online
WHEN curious journalists file into the Sistine Chapel today they will be able to judge for themselves the final outcome of the most controversial restoration saga in the history of art. Has Michelangelo's Last Judgement been restored to its original glory, as the Vatican's art experts claim, or has this been a disastrous and wanton act of vandalism?

The cleaning of the Last Judgement is the culmination of a 14-year project to restore the frescoes in the Pope's private chapel, the first large-scale treatment they have received since Michelangelo mounted the scaffolding to begin work more than 400 years ago. Although the chapel has remained open, some part of the masterpiece has always been covered by the work in progress. Last night the scaffolding and drapes covering the great altar wall on which the Last Judgement is painted were removed. This morning the Pope will be the first non-expert to view the restored frescoes in their entirety, before a grand opening to the press later today. The public will be allowed in from Monday.

Judging from results obtained on the ceiling, they are likely to be stunned by a feast of strong colours where before there were sombre tones of tan and olive, sky blue and grey. If the restorers are to be believed, what they have found under the grime overturns accepted ideas about the master's work. 'We have discovered a new Michelango, a great colourist, an artist who plays with subtle variations of colour,' Fabrizio Mancinelli, director of the restoration, has said.

But the battle for the soul of Michelango's masterpiece has bitterly divided the art world. Frescoes were created by painting on still-wet plaster, and Michelangelo was renowned for working at phenomenal speed. Opponents of the restoration say it has been over- hasty and brutal, stripping away a top coat of paint bound with glue which Michelangelo applied once the fresco was dry in order to add the sculptural quality, the subtle play of light and dark for which his work was renowned. Professor James Beck, of the history of art faculty of Columbia University, has led the campaign against what he considers an act of vandalism.

'It is as if the soul of the fresco has been torn out. They have ripped away the layers that Michelangelo himself added,' he said in 1990 as work ended on the ceiling of the chapel and began on the Last Judgement. He said Michelangelo is recorded as remarking that his frescoes were still unfinished, as they had not yet had 'the last touch' put to them. Professor Beck said commercial considerations (the pounds 2.9m restoration has been funded by Japanese television in return for photographic rights) were behind the reckless pace of the work.

Michael Daley, a sculptor and Independent illustrator who has published a book* with Professor Beck attacking the restoration, has seen photographs taken during work on the Last Judgement. 'I expect the Last Judgement to be even more shocking (than the ceiling), judging from pictures I have seen. The main figure, of Christ in judgement, was fantastically sculptural, his legs muscular and taut. The photos show that the anatomical detail has been completely reduced and his legs are left looking like frogs' legs. Around him, faces have actually been washed away. Copies made only a few years after he completed his work show there was shading that with restoration has disappeared.'

Nonsense, say the Vatican restorers. They say the layer of glue they removed was a clumsy later attempt by restorers to keep the paint from flaking off. 'We removed the grime, we didn't remove the patina nobile - the very thin layer of dirt which is protecting the original colour,' Mr Mancinelli has said. Yesterday a request to speak to him or one of his team about the criticisms was refused.

Mr Daley says: 'It is such a monumental work, they can't admit they've made a mistake. They've concocted a new history of art to support the restoration. They claim Michelangelo is a brilliant colourist, but all contemporary accounts praise the ceiling for its play of light and shadow, not its colour.' Mr Daley is also concerned that the cleaner used on the ceiling had not been properly tested: its long-term effects are unknown.

The brightness of the colours, it must be admitted, is seductive. Visitors yesterday were enthusiastic about what they could see of the ceiling. 'I think it looks wonderful. I am sure Michelangelo would have used those bright colours, as it's a celebration of faith,' said Helen, an Australian amateur artist.

'Certainly it will look brighter and more colourful, but the professional test is what was there before and what is left now. From pictures of the work before restoration, it is clear there have been massive losses,' Mr Daley says.

* 'Art Restoration: The culture, the business, the scandal.' John Murray.

(Photograph omitted)