Digital photo project to show Sistine Chapel in unprecedented detail

Three-volume collection uses 270,000 digital frames to reproduce Michelangelo frescoes with 99.9% accuracy

Reuters in Vatican City

The last time the entire Sistine Chapel was photographed for posterity, digital photography was in its infancy and words such as pixels were bandied about mostly by computer nerds and Nasa scientists.

Now, after decades of technological advances in art photography, digital darkrooms and printing techniques, a five-year project that will aid future restorations has left the Vatican Museums with 270,000 digital frames that show frescoes by Michelangelo and other masters in fresh, stunning detail.

“In the future, this will allow us to know the state of every centimetre of the chapel as it is today, in 2017,” said Antonio Paolucci, former head of the museums and a world-renowned expert on the Sistine.

Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes include one of the most famous scenes in art – The Creation of Adam.

The Renaissance master finished the ceiling in 1512 and painted the massive Last Judgment panel behind the altar between 1535 and 1541.

The Creation of Adam. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

The last time all the Sistine frescoes were photographed was between 1980 and 1994, during a restoration project that cleaned them for the first time in centuries.

The new photos were taken for inclusion in a three-volume, 870-page set that is limited to 1,999 copies and marketed to libraries and collectors.

The set, which costs about €12,000 (£10,000), was a joint production of the Vatican Museums and Italy’s Scripta Maneant art publishers.

Post-production computer techniques included “stitching” of frames that photographers took while working out of sight for 65 nights from 7pm to 2am, when the chapel where popes are elected is closed.

The set includes the mosaic floor and 15th-century frescoes by artists who have long languished in Michelangelo’s giant shadow.

More than 220 pages are printed in 1:1 scale, including The Creation of Adam and Jesus’s face from The Last Judgment. Each volume weighs about 9kg (20 pounds) and fold-out pages measure 60cm x 130cm (24in x 51in).


The Sistine Chapel features frescoes of the Genesis and the Last Judgement by Michelangelo. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

“We used special post-production software to get the depth, intensity, warmth and nuance of colours to an accuracy of 99.9%,” said Giorgio Armaroli, head of Scripta Maneant.

“Future restorers will use these as their standards,” he said, adding that each page was printed six times.

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