As one of the Michaelangelo works at the Vatican that have just undergone a $4 million restoration, a critical debate is brewing over “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” and the naughty bits of the martyred saint. You step into the Pauline Chapel at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and there he is, twisting his neck and shoulders to lock his gaze onto you. Crucified upside down, St. Peter — the Catholic Church’s other founding father — peers out from Michaelangelo’s fresco with an almost accusatory look on his face, asking you to confront your own sins and commitment to holiness even as he proves his. And, yet, for all the urgency and immediacy conveyed by this 1550 work on plaster (the last painting Michaelangelo would ever complete), the years have seen the fragile fresco change with the times.
Originally painted without nails (because he was offering himself freely to God) and without a loincloth (because the was naked and humble before his Lord), Peter was provided with nails and athletic support by another anonymous painter working some thirty years after Michaelangelo completed his work on the “Crucifixion”. Art historians have noted the additions as simple, unimaginative, old-fashioned censorship. Interestingly, though, for all the concern given to the intent of the original artist in the craft of modern restoration, neither the nails (which a anonymous restorer said “look like cockroaches”) and the loincloth were removed during the fresco’s recent cleaning. A member of a Vatican committee instituted to track such changes noted that, “”we can never reverse history, nor should we; the subsequent additions were also part of the history of the fresco, and while they speak of the concerns of different persons and different times from the artist, they are not to be discounted but, rather, respected.” Whether you agree with that or whether you think that “respecting” these changes is just a rationalization for the Vatican’s continued priggishness, it’s a fascinating reversal of the contemporary logic of restorations. Indeed, maybe the way in which art and artifacts have been censored and changed tracks history even better than a perfectly preserved original.
If you do yearn for rough, uncensored while you’re in Rome, you’ll want to pre-order