Andy Fuller | November 30, 2018
It’s a descriptor for something so awe-inspiring, so moving that an encounter doesn’t just capture our imagination and our emotions, it elicits a physical response. It’s a common reaction among the millions of people who visit the Sistine Chapel each year, where Michelangelo’s frescoes on the chapel’s ceiling depicting several Old Testament scenes (most famously, the “Creation of Adam”) are among the most recognizable and significant works of art in the world. They at once capture the imagination and contextualize faith and humanity in ways so powerful and moving that for many, an actual physiological reaction is warranted. Breath is taken away.
Several years ago, there was a sense that perhaps the Vatican Museums were becoming victims of their own success. The number of annual visitors was soaring ever higher, and as they passed through the galleries and the sacred Chapel, they brought with them dust from the outside. They also raised the temperature with their collective body heat and they did something else quite natural and necessary, but also potentially harmful: They breathed. The dirt, heat, humidity and carbon dioxide was rising to the ceiling where it settled on the paintings, threatening to degrade their appearance over a period of many years if the problem wasn’t addressed. In 2014, U.S.-based Carrier Corp. donated and installed a new ventilation system that would channel air — and the pollutants it carried — away from the artwork on the walls and ceiling. Breathtaking in the literal sense, you might say.
It was a solution with an immediate impact: The Vatican had mulled limiting the number of people allowed into the Sistine Chapel if a resolution was not found, or even creating some kind of virtual experience wherein visitors would see “Creation of Adam” in pixels, not paint. Not exactly something worth waiting in line for. Instead, the 6 million annual visitors can continue to view the works in their (climate-controlled) natural state.
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