2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot

Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.


2015-05-20 - Alexander Eliot Frank Mason

A Powerful Advocate for Art: Celebrating the Life’s Work of Alexander Eliot.

Ruth Osborne
2015-05-20 - Alexander Eliot Frank Mason

Frank Herbert Mason, Alexander Eliot (1997). Courtesy: The Salmagundi Club.

This week we are saddened to announce the recent passing of writer and painter Alexander Eliot, whose effort in the battle against the controversial Sistine ceiling cleaning had a major impact on the founding of ArtWatch and our continuing efforts to provide a voice for artistic heritage where it is all too often overshadowed by greed and prideful motivations.

Former Director of ArtWatch International, Einav Zamir, was able to interview Mr. Eliot just two years ago on his experience covering the Sistine Chapel for the landmark the 1967/68 documentary “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream.” This film, at the time both groundbreaking and immensely popular when it broadcast, was created thanks to a tower that moved the researchers along the entirety of the ceiling over a six-week period. Just a few decades later, another scaffold tower would set about erasing the work of Michelangelo as it moved slowly along the immense canvas of ceiling like an eraser across a chalkboard. What Eliot and his colleagues were able to capture for the public eye via film now serves as a rare testimony to the original work of the artist before it was scrubbed by cleaners in the 1980s and 1990s.

“almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”

Eliot’s view of the frescos before the cleaning demonstrated they were in “fabulous condition…the painting itself was all there…extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure.” As one given a rare opportunity to record them up close less than two decades before the cleaning commenced, his eyes, and those of his wife Jane and others working on the documentary, served as the best proof there could be that the cleaning had white-washed Michelangelo’s a secco detailing atop the under-painting.

It was Eliot’s involvement in this documentary, and his care and concern for better stewardship of our artistic heritage, that connected him with Beck at the beginnings of ArtWatch.  Eliot’s efforts with great New York classical painter Frank Mason, and later ArtWatch, against the destructive cleaning of the Sistine ceiling by Colalucci and his chemists was something only to be taken on by those who viewed art as something above their own sense of pride and name. Instead of sacrificing what was handed down from Michelangelo over centuries, at the risk of coming up against the Vatican authorities, Eliot with Mason and Beck pursued a tireless campaign for the voice of art in the face of great opposition.

Anne Mason speaks of Eliot’s efforts with her husband:

“those years when Alex, Jane, Frank and so many others were desperately trying to prevent the destruction of the Sistine Chapel…those devastating years.  That’s the only word that comes to mind — devastating.”

And yet, though their efforts did not change the unwilling minds of those involved with the cleaning, stubbornly standing behind their spun stories of a “new Michelangelo,” Anne still spoke with hope in the greater purpose behind their campaigning. She saw what this effort was evidence of – that people like Eliot were passionate enough to rally for the art itself, for something greater than themselves that need not be wiped out for the sake of a PR campaign.

Eliot wrote of the value of art that:
“…every genuine work of art exists in more than the material sense…To maim or destroy a work of art is reprehensible in the same degree that its creation was admirable. A masterpiece by Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, say, deserves a natural life of centuries, not years, because it has so much to give. By the same token, it deserves to be kept free of alien encroachments if at all possible.”

His testimony is also recorded in the full-length biography A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason (2011), which documents his efforts with Frank on the Sistine. His daughter, author Winslow Eliot, will continue to maintain the website devoted to her father’s writing.


By Ruth Osborne

2013-05-26 - Delphic Sybil Sistine Chapel Michelangelo

Evidence of the Eyes: An Interview with Alexander Eliot

Einav Zamir

In the landmark 1967/8 documentary, The  Secret  of  Michelangelo,  Every  Man’s  Dream, Alexander Eliot, painter and former art critic and editor for Time magazine states that “almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”  The film, produced by Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, directed by Milton Fruchtman, written by Alexander Eliot and narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell, provided a brief, one hour tour of the expansive Sistine ceiling. Through the use of close-ups, audiences were presented with details of the fresco never seen before, details that were impossible to grasp at great distance:

At the time, the film was both groundbreaking and immensely popular. Now however, it serves as a testimony to what has been stolen, through subsequent cleaning and restoration efforts, from the fresco’s  original  glory.  Barely  obtainable  (there’s just one copy at the Central Michigan University Library in Mount Pleasant), and no longer broadcast on national television, The Secret of Michelangelo has become quite secret indeed.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Eliot about the film, the chapel, and his fight against the cleaning, which began in 1981.

How are you connected to ArtWatch?

I’m all for ArtWatch. I was there at the beginning of it with Frank  Mason  and Jim Beck, and I think you’re really onto something very important.

What sort of evidence made you believe that the restoration was damaging the ceiling? How did you come to that conclusion?

It’s really the evidence of the eyes. Jane and I were up there on a tower that  was built for us to research and write a one hour documentary on the ceiling years before the cleaning. The tower could be moved to bring us within touching distance of each section, over a six-week period.

That must have been an incredible experience. What kind of condition would you say the fresco was in while you were examining it?

Fabulous condition. There were some craquelures – it had cracks here and there, which happens naturally over the course of centuries, but the painting itself was all there. It was extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure – it was Michelangelo, and absolutely unbelievable. Jane [Jane  Winslow  Eliot,  Alexander’s  wife] first realized and pointed it out to me that the surface had mostly been done a secco (in the dry) because Roman fresco plaster goes porcelain hard within hours. So Michelangelo spent almost two years embellishing his quickly sketched under-painting.

And after the restoration?

They used a cleaning agent developed to wash stone exteriors. It took away all the a secco. What you see now is the under-painting. The conservators  said  “No, he just painted in the Florentine style, and on top is just a lot of glue-varnish, unknown hands, and dirt, and we need to remove it.”

How did you react? Was there an initial impulse to object?

Frank Mason said “We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning” to which I  responded “You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.” Then Frank said,  “Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,” and so he recruited  me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.

Upset? In what way, and why?

Beck was such a prestigious figure, being a professor of Italian Renaissance art at Columbia University, so they hired a PR firm, a Madison Avenue outfit, to promote their ceiling scrub and make the three of us appear like childish, publicity seeking nut-cases. And they succeeded in that mission by inviting a number of VIPs – art critics, art historians, and museum directors – to come free of charge and take a look for themselves. They took them up on their comfortable scaffold with all their so-called “scientific equipment,” and even gave some a cloth to personally wipe off the accumulated “filth,” as they called it, from the painting. Instant experts were made that way, and simultaneously hooked.

So there was support from the academic community for the cleaning – who were some of its advocates?

Thomas Hoving was one; A previous director of the Metropolitan Museum and then editor of Connoisseur Magazine. Robert Hughes, Art Editor of Time Magazine, as I had been for fifteen years, was another. He wrote in his last book before he died that seeing Michelangelo’s cleaned work ‘the way he painted it’ from the restorers scaffold was the most vivid experiences of his whole 50 years as an art critic. It’s really too bad. The cleaning went on for years and years and they destroyed the thing.

And what about the film you produced? Is it still available to those who wish to view the ceiling as it was before the cleaning?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights to the film, so in that sense, it’s not  available. For years it was rebroadcast on holidays by ABC. It was a TV success at the time.

And now, after so much time, with the evidence supporting your position so abundant, are there influential people out there that still applaud the cleaning?

People don’t  like to admit that they were mistaken, but by now everybody in the art community knows that we, Jane and I, Jim Beck, Frank Mason, and Michael Daley, were right.

Do you think the  Vatican  should  restrict  tourism  in  order  to  preserve  what’s  left  of  the  fresco?

They would never restrict visitation – they make too much money from it. It was all about money to begin with. They wanted to make a big publicity stunt in the first place, make it more “accessible to the public,” and beef up  tourism. As long as they’re making money off of it, they’re never going to restrict  access.

What do you think can or should be done to prevent further degradation?

It doesn’t matter what I think or believe. They’ve lost the picture already.  The under-painting, the concept, is still there, but the painting is gone. It’s  been scrubbed away with chemicals. They can’t do anything significant to  save what’s left, either. Maybe they’ll apply some pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus, but they won’t reduce the influx of tourists.

At the conclusion of our conversation, while coming to grips with the grim reality of the circumstances, I asked Eliot if he believed the Vatican would ever admit its guilt in this crime against our cultural heritage, to which he responded with a memory. He spoke of a time when Fabrizio Mancinelli, Curator of Painting at the Vatican, spoke to him regarding the highly debated restoration:

“I respect your opinion Mr. Eliot, and I trust that you’ll respect mine.”

To which Alexander Eliot, the man who once stood mere feet below the magnificent fresco, responded:

“You and I don’t matter, but the Holy Father will go down in history as the  destroyer of the world’s greatest painting.”


For more on Alexander Eliot and his writings, please visit:

Eliot, Alexander. “Save Sistine From the ‘Restorers'” Los Angeles Times 20 Sept. 1987: 5.