Artibus et Historiae no. 24 (XII)

1991, ISSN 0391-9064

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JAMES BECK - Michelangelo's Pentimento Bared

The ongoing restoration of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel has aroused heated controversy. The author of this article, who is no stranger to the debate, here demonstrates that the restorers, acting on the misguided assumption that they were undoing damage done by their predecessors, in fact removed a pentimento by the artist himself.

In the first phase of the project in 1980-85, the naked breast of the woman holding an infant in the lunette inscribed "SALMON BOOZ OBETH" was "discovered" through the elimination of the bit of drapery that had covered it. The Vatican team claimed that the drapery, painted a secco instead of buon fresco, was a later addition motivated by prudery. However, none of the proposed datings for the alleged intervention is remotely convincing. Nor has it been explained why, out of all the exposed breasts depicted in the frescoes, this one would have been singled out for censorship.

That Michelangelo was responsible for adding the drapery is clear from the presence of the drapery over the breast in sixteenth-century engravings of the figure and, in particular, in a drawing done in the decades following completion of the ceiling.

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