Last year, five million people visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to see Michelangelo's magnificent, 500-year-old frescoes. Attendance was double the 2.5 million in 1993, when the paintings were famously (some said controversially) restored.
That was good news for the Vatican, which ended 2012 more than $19 million in the red, so the additional income from admissions was doubtless welcome. But it was bad news too because the crowds were damaging the frescoes, the paintings and mosaic floor, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel, said Thursday.
"Such a large crowd brings in sweat, breath -- carbon dioxide -- and all kinds of dust," said Mr. Paolucci in a phone interview, "and this negative cocktail is moved around by wind and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork."
So Mr. Paolucci intends to vacuum visitors before they enter the church where popes are elected in conclave. In addition to updating the chapel's climate control and lighting, the Vatican is installing technology that would "dust, clean and chill" people, he said. Work is progressing well and Mr. Paolucci expects the completion some time next year.
Workers are laying a shoe-cleaning carpet on the marble floor leading to the entrance. "We are also installing suction vents on either side of the route to remove dust from clothing, and lowering the temperature to remove body heat and humidity," explained Mr. Paolucci.
At a time when the Vatican is said to face another financial deficit this year, and Italy -- which goes to the polls to elect a new government on Feb. 24-25 -- is one of the sick members of the eurozone, Mr. Paolucci said, "There is no problem with money for the renovation -- the money is there." He did not disclose the cost of the work.
He doesn't think this elaborate procedure will either slow down the crowd flow, or discourage visitors. "In times of economic stress people are visiting the Sistine Chapel in larger numbers for consolation," he said. "Looking at art can bring comfort to someone facing today's problems."
Aside from the election of the new pontiff, the Sistine Chapel is used for major church ceremonies, but not on a daily basis.
Restoration of Michelangelo's ceiling fresco, one of the landmark works of the Italian Renaissance, was carried out in 1993 amid controversy that too many layers of pigmentation had been removed from the work's surface thereby increasing its exposure to pollution -- and making it brighter than the artist had originally intended.
Mr. Paolucci has been under pressure from some leading Italian critics to limit the number of visitors to the Sistine Chapel to save the frescoes from damage. Last year, 15,000 to 20,000 people visited the chapel every day. In September, Pietro Citati, a leading critic and biographer, had complained about the crowds in an article in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"In the universal confusion no one saw anything," Mr. Citati wrote, and "any form of contemplation was impossible." Mr. Paolucci answered in the Vatican paper, L'Osservatore Romano. Cutting back on the number of visitors was "unthinkable," he said. "We have entered an era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our culture."
His answer was to make the environment safer for the art. "I'm hoping that technology will let me keep the chapel open to all," he said Thursday.
Mr. Paolucci, who has been director of the Vatican Museums for five years and is a former minister of culture, is also planning to create a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel -- a standard feature at other museum sites and churches, but still a novel idea at the Vatican.
Its purpose, he said in a recent interview with Italian news media, was to give people a better understanding of what they are seeing when they enter the church. He envisions it as a place "where visitors can listen to, in all the world's languages, an explanation of Michelangelo's frescoes while images of the vault and the Last Judgment pass before their eyes, but in oceanic dimensions that would never be perceived in the real Sistine Chapel."