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It seems truly unbelievable. The fourth Biennale Internazionale dell’Arte Contemporanea, which convenes in Florence this December, has awarded one of its Premio Lorenzo il Magnifico awards to the restoration laboratory of the Vatican Museums (the other went to Ferrari) in honor of the laboratory’s “unequalled and continuing efforts” in its projects, “above all the complex restoration of the cycle of frescoes (15th-century works and those by Michelangelo) the Sixtine Chapel”.

All of this despite the fact that the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistina was — and remains — among the most controversial cleanings of the past decades, garnishing richly deserved criticism from both artists and art historians. Not deterred by public outcry or calls for open debate and discussion, the Vatican has continued its drastic cleaning methods, applying them not only to the lower register of 15th century frescoes in the Sistine Chapel by Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli, but also to the Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura and Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the Chapel of Nicholas V, all with equally drastic and irreversible results.

Perhaps this award is appropriate in light of the fact that the Biennale is celebrating contemporary art, which these radically cleaned 15th and 16th century works may now rightly be considered. Nonetheless, any celebration of the efforts of the Vatican’s cleaning machine can only be considered an attempt to attract publicity and to flatter a powerful institution.

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