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Last judgement on Vasari fresco: it's not all it's cracked up to be

Florence/ pounds 4m restoration

Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 24 June 1995 23:02 BST

IT WAS ONE of the costliest restorations ever undertaken, for one of the biggest artworks ever produced. After 14 years hidden away from the public behind scaffolding, the 16th-century frescoes of The Last Judgement inside the cupola of Florence cathedral were finally revealed in all their shining splendour last week.

Well, perhaps splendour is not quite the right word. You would not have guessed it to hear the gushing speeches at the inauguration ceremony, but the vast panorama of angels and devils by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari is one of the least-loved artworks in the whole of Italy.

As the packed congregation watched the white cloth attached to the base of the cupola dramatically fall away to the rousing strains of the cathedral orchestra, many of them must have been wondering, "Why on earth did they spend 11bn lire [around pounds 4m] just for this?"

Poets and art historians have been disparaging Vasari and Zuccari's handiwork ever since the last lick of paint dried back in 1579. The frescoes have been described as amateurish hackwork and a distraction from Brunelleschi's magnificent dome, the architectural wonder that they adorn.

The 16th-century poet and playwright Antonfrancesco Grazzini satirised the frescoes in a humorous ditty. More recently, the eminent postwar Italian art historian Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti suggested obliterating them with a coat of white paint.

Other suggestions have included removing the frescoes and sinking them in a hole in the ground for children and skateboarders to play on.

Close inspection of the work shows up its shortcomings all too painfully. True, it is quite fun, even perverse in parts, with condemned souls being dragged into hell by their testicles or sodomised with giant pitchforks. But to say there is scant attention to detail would be the understatement of the century. The brushwork is downright slapdash - looking more like an art school sketch than the Mannerist masterpiece it aspired to be. In one place a bear has hurriedly been turned into a donkey, and it shows. In some sections, the figures of the damned and the saved have been left as mere outlines.

Not all the problems are the fault of the artists. Vasari, that great chronicler of Florentine artistic gossip, initiated the project in 1572 with ambitions to rival the Sistine Chapel, but was thwarted by the stingy attitude of the sitting Tuscan Duke, Cosimo de Medici.

Zuccari, whose previous credits included the Farnese palace at Caprarola, north of Rome, finished off the job rather hurriedly after Vasari and Cosimo both died. As a result, The Last Judgement is strong on size - it covers an astonishing 4,500 square metres - but little else.

Curiously, the restoration effort has prompted little controversy in Italy, with newspaper critics preferring to attack the dissenters rather than the frescoes. "God save us from the art historians," concluded the Turin daily, La Stampa.

The project leader from the culture ministry, Cristina Acidini, has her own reasons to be enthusiastic, since she is one of the country's leading authorities on Zuccari. She has described the work as "so important that the two artists and their role in Italian pictorial art will have to be entirely reassessed".

That judgement will have to undergo the test of time, especially in prickly Florence. But if the Florentines aren't complaining too much about the restoration, in a cathedral once described by Mark Twain as "sapping the purses of her citizens for 500 years", there is one very good reason. The restoration budget was put up, not by the city authorities, but by the central government in Rome.

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