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Alien eyes control the Sistine Chapel

· Micro-climatic monitoring for the most famous place of worship in the world ·

For some time a traditional practice, the Pope administers the sacrament of baptism to a small number of  Roman babies in the Sistine Chapel on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. This time the rite will take place on 8 January and, as always, it will be broadcast on “Mondovision”. Thus believers of the Catholic oecumene will be able to understand visibly, as would never be possible on any other occasion, the formidable theological and catechetical message that is portrayed in the Sistine chapel's frescoes (painted in the 15th-century by Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio, and those by Michelangelo on the vault, as well as his Last Judgement).

On 8 January, the “painted word” communicated by the Sistine's pictorial cycles will be the scene of  the most evocative ritual occasion and the loftiest symbolic context imaginable.

Yet this year those who take part  in the liturgy with the administration of baptism will notice that something unusual is present in the Sistine Chapel, that strange visitors have crept in to keep  the world's most famous frescoes company.  They are long and somewhat disturbing black tubes draped across the 15th-century murals from floor to ceiling, they are electrical equipment and monitors temporarily hanging next to the famous details by Botticelli and Perugino; they are sensors, placed along the cornices and partially screened by them.

The fact is that the Sistine Chapel is under close scientific observation. This has been the case since the summer of 2010, namely since the time when a radical campaign to examine and clean the painted surfaces   –  a  campaign carried out by the Vatican restorers with the use of sophisticated equipment – recorded the presence of large numbers of particles, even dense, deposited on the walls.  The particles suspended in the atmosphere that are commonly known as “dust” and produce displeasing aesthetic effects when it collectgs on any work of art, in specific circumstances and situations – over time, the presence of high quantities of carbon dioxide, conditions that favour humidity and temperature – can trigger undesirable chemical reactions on frescoed surfaces.

The estimation of visitors to the Sistine Chapel permits, among other things, a reflection of “cultural sociology” that is far from unimportant. All those who enter the Vatican Museums want to see the Sistine Chapel, they hav e come especially for it, a fatal attraction, the object of desire. One might therefore presume that the visitors to the famous chapel would be as numerous as those who cross the threshold of the Vatican Museums. But no. They are more.

This means that having had a first glimpse of the Sistine Chapel some people return to it before leaving,  to remember it, to keep it alive in their minds and hearts. This leads us to realize how impracticable and perhaps even inappropriate a selective entry system would be. The Sistine chapel is not only an eminent site of universal art, it is far more. It is the home of the Catholic Church's identity, it is a catechism in figures, it is the destiny of  each and every one of us, entrusted to what may be considered the absolute masterpiece of Renaissance painting. It is a consecrated context. And in addition, it is a shrine. Can one limit the public at Lourdes or at Loreto? One can understand why, in the brief space of a tourist visit, people find the time and the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel and then to see it again.

We shall endeavour to keep it open in the conviction that it is possible to do so without risk to the paintings. We shall work to equip the Pope's most important chapel with a new and efficient air-conditioning system that can ensure the change of air and the destruction of pollutants present in  solid, gaseous form.

It is a very demanding challenge because it is a matter of working in one of the world's most “special” places, but I am convinced that it is possible to achieve this target. Effective planning is necessary. I have no doubt that Carrier of the United Technologies Corporation will be able to provide us with it now that it will have at its disposal the impressive mass of scientific information that our survey campaign is rapidly concluding. The job of the alien presences that will witness the baptisms will soon be coming to an end.

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