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Vatican: No plans to limit Sistine visitors

- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican is determined to avoid limiting the number of visitors to the Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo frescoes, despite harmful buildup of dust and other pollutants, the director of the Vatican Museums said Wednesday.

"We will try to keep it open" without putting a limit on the growing number of visitors to the chapel, "in the conviction that it is possible to do so without risk to the paintings," Antonio Paolucci wrote in the Holy See's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

Paolucci, who also is one of Italy's most renowned art restoration experts, said the Vatican was working to give the chapel where popes are elected an "updated and efficient air conditioning system able to ensure the refreshing of the air and the combating of pollutants in both solid and gas forms."

Some 4 million people visit the Museums annually, with the chapel the highlight _ or even the sole aim of the visit _ for countless numbers of them. Ticket sales are a big moneymaker for the Vatican.

Dust, sweat, humidity and carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors who jam into the chapel to crane their neck to look at the frescoed ceiling can build to unwanted levels.

Last year, a high-tech monitoring system was installed in the chapel to obtain data, and the monitoring "is a good way along," Paolucci said.

The monitors register temperature and relative humidity at various heights in the chapel as well as the temperature of the frescoes themselves, dust levels, and the concentration of carbon dioxide, as well as the direction and speed of air currents in the cavernous room, he noted.

One surprising result of the study is the finding that many visitors loop back for another look at the chapel during their tour of the sprawling museums, Paolucci said.

"You would think that the number of visitors in the celebrated chapel would be equal to those who enter the Vatican Museums," Paolucci said. "Instead, no. They are more."

"This means that some, after having visited the chapel a first time, return, before leaving" the Museums, he said. "This makes us understand how impracticable and perhaps even inopportune it would be to put a cap on the number" of chapel visitors, Paolucci wrote.

In 1993, an air conditioning system was installed after the conclusion of the restoration of the "Last Judgment," Michelangelo's masterpiece on one of the chapel's walls, which he painted after his frescoed work on the ceiling.

The chapel, which also features works by Botticelli and Perugino, underwent an ambitious restoration that spanned two decades and ended in the 1990s. Some critics found the cleaning made the colors look too bright for their tastes, but defenders said the restoration removed centuries of accumulated dirt and candle smoke, making it possible to marvel at the original vividness.

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