Light in the Darkness
The Sistine Chapel Gets Mood Lighting
A new super-sophisticated system of LED illumination and climate control makes the masterpieces more visible, more beautiful, and more secure than ever.
VATICAN CITY—In the 500 or so years since the Sistine Chapel was decorated, it has never looked so good. That’s in part because no one has ever seen Michelangelo’s frescoes portraying the book of Genesis and “The Last Judgment” in quite the right light. Now, with the help of 7,000 light-emitting diodes or LEDs, the detailed work has emerged from the shadows.
The new lighting system was unveiled last week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the chapel’s restoration and the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. The lighting project, together with a new climate control system, cost nearly $4 million, paid in part by funds from the European Union through a consortium called Led4Art, led by German light bulb giant Osram, which developed a special color temperature to best enhance Michelangelo’s hues at around 3,550 Kelvin units, according to the Osram explainer on the magical illumination. The rest of the work was donated either in supplies, expertise, or technology by firms who wanted to be involved in the project, meaning the Vatican didn’t have to spend any resources for the extraordinary enhancement.
As a bonus, the new lighting will use 90 percent less electricity, and is expected to lower the Vatican’s energy bill for the chapel by around 60 percent now that the standard ultraviolet light bulbs have been scrapped. The older UV bulbs, which proved damaging to the artwork, were introduced in 1980 when the chapel’s original windows were boarded over as part of a restoration project that took 14 years.
Several highly specialized lighting engineers and art historians spent a series of after-hours evenings inside the chapel individually adjusting the 7,000 new lights to produce the perfect effect. The new system also illuminates the chapel’s works by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino that adorn the side walls, which visitors often overlook.
The new climate control scheme that was unveiled features a state-of-the-art system with 70 sensors and video cameras that measures the overall body mass of the people in the chapel at any given time to adjust the air conditioning and oxygen levels accordingly. It will also take into account outside temperatures and even accommodate for people with fevers. But not to worry, the Vatican won’t be starving visitors of oxygen—more breathers mean more oxygen will be pumped in to protect the works.
Oxygen levels will be decreased to accommodate fewer people. For instance, when there are only a few hundred cardinals inside the chapel electing a new pope, or there’s a private function like the upcoming event sponsored by Porsche exclusively for its car owners.
The chapel receives around six million visitors every year, and their breath, sweat and floating dandruff all threaten the integrity of the art work, says Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums. Paolucci tells The Daily Beast he hopes to cap the number of visitors inside the chapel to 2,000 at any given time, and limit the daily visitors to 20,000. “We are asking for zero growth in terms of visitors,” he said. “If the numbers continue to rise we have no choice but to set up a reservation system that limits the length of the visit and the number of visitors.”
Paolucci also said that in early 2015 the Vatican Museums intends to offer a holy version of “Google Glasses” to enhance the viewing experience while visitors wait to go into the chapel. “Visitors are going to be offered special, disposable smart glasses similar to Google Glasses that will enable them to explore the Sistine in 3-D and go deeper into history before the actual visit,” he told reporters at the unveiling last week.
Even now, visitors walk along a magic carpet that cleans their shoes and through a subtle vacuum system that lifts the loose dust off them before entering the hallowed halls. The new ventilation system inside the chapel is the final phase of a plan to protect the masterpieces inside from damage caused entirely by those who appreciate the artwork most: the tourists.
"I felt very moved and very happy, too," Paolucci said at the unveiling. "Even I got to see the Sistine Chapel like I had never seen it before. This light allows you to see every little detail of the paintings and at the same time it allows you to grasp and experience the Sistine Chapel as a whole, in its entirety."