Moses, Cleaned and Unveiled

The tomb of Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, including Michelangelo’s Moses, was unveiled following a cleaning that lasted for nearly three years. In keeping with the commemorative trend of recent restorations, the celebration of the project’s completion was timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the inauguration of Julius’ pontificate, which began on the 1st of November, 1503.

The restoration was funded by Lottomatica, which holds the state concession from the Ministry of Finance to run the Lotto in Italy, and which has touted its “many promotional and communication campaigns to mark the opening of major restoration projects”. In addition to copious signage on the facade of San Pietro in Vincoli, as well as throughout the interior, the cleaning was publicized through its hig-tech website, which featured Michelangelo games and trivia, along with a feature that allowed cyber-visitors to manipulate on-site cameras to watch the restoration in real time.

During the course of the multi-media “Project Moses”, which began with a conference in November of 2000, many occasions were celebrated as grandi momenti, including the completion of a film documenting the tomb, the composition of a musical score to accompany the unveiling of the statue, the receipt of the “Interactive Key Award” by Lottomatica for the website, and the release of the Project Moses screensaver.

All of which served as a distraction to the real issue at hand, the restoration of Michelangelo’s Moses, along with the pendant figures of Rachel and Leah. Initial comments by the restorer suggested a minimalist approach to the cleaning, which seemed appropriate considering that the work has remained inside for its nearly 500 year history. Eschewing the often-heard claims of returning a work to its original splendor, chief-restorer Antonio Forcellino instead warned in at the onset of the project, “It will never be as it was when Michelangelo made it.” Claiming that the Moses was stained by a waxy substance following the production of casts, Forcellino noted that removal of the stains would be “too risky an operation” and promised to limit the cleaning to minimize or “lower the tone” of the discolorations.

Nonetheless, more common restoration rhetoric emerged upon the completion of the statue, as Forcellino stated, “Our aim was to rediscover the real work of Michelangelo, first mutilated by the critics and then the builders… When we arrived it was filthy, but little by little we have rubbed away the stains”.

Rubbing doesn’t seem the half of it. While Forcellino claims that the “actual cleaning process isn’t rocket science” and that the success or failure depends more on the restorer’s skill, he technique employed by his team is not without controversy. The restoration was carried out through a technique of distilled water applied to the surface of the marble in a compress of Japanese paper for 40 minutes at a time, the same technique that has aroused massive concern from the art historical community since its selection for the restoration of Michelangelo’s David.

Another unveiling ceremony is planned for January.