By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture
This year’s Slade Professor David Ekserdjian kindly offered to hold a workshop for History of Art students in the Department’s Visual Resources Centre. The topic of this event coincided with his Slade Lecture on Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Students had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Ekserdjian the visual historiography of art history since the invention of photography, using examples from the Department’s photographic collections.
The Sistine Chapel, accessed only by a handful of people in its original context, is now open to all visitors who can afford a ticket. Since Michelangelo completed the vault’s decorations in 1512 it has been represented in different mediums, which have enabled this once socially enclosed space to be known to the wider public. Sketches and prints of the chapel initiated this process as early as the Renaissance, but it is only in the late nineteenth century that more reliable and less expensive photographic reproductions grew increasingly popular. In the History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre copies from nineteenth century campaigns are held alongside contemporary reproductions.
Professor David Ekserdjian, this year’s Slade Professor at Oxford, explored their historical and documentary importance in a workshop tailored to students. As graduates specialising in Italian Renaissance Art, we felt especially eager to take part. Professor Ekserdjian looked specifically at photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes, considering how they have been used by scholars and conservators before and after the chapel’s restoration, completed in 1999. Adding an interesting layer to his discussion, he also encouraged us to reflect on changes in accessibility to images and how they have affected the practice and study of the history of art.
© Department of History of Art
The workshop started off with Adolphe Braun’s large photographic prints of the Sistine Chapel, the first photographic survey of this space ever attempted in 1868. Housed in large leather-bound volumes, these prints are themselves works of art, showing beautiful views of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Although objects of clear aesthetic interest, Braun’s photographs failed to capture some of the details due to their low contrast and wide perspective.
This is no fault of Braun’s studio of photographers but of the technology and aesthetic preferences of the period. The prints are large (37x47cm) because they are contact prints and reflect the size of the glass plates used to take the photographs. Photographic technology at the time relied on the collodion wet plate process, which had a slow exposure time, up to several minutes in low light conditions indoors such as the Sistine Chapel. Photographers had to work quickly to coat, sensitize and expose the plate within a time frame of 15 minutes before the collodion set. It was necessary for a portable darkroom to be employed when working in the field. Considering Braun had large scaffolding constructed in order to photograph the ceiling at height, it becomes clear what a huge feat this first photographic survey of the Sistine Chapel was.
© Department of History of Art
The Braun photographs are carbon prints which gives them their matte brown tone. Carbon prints can be produced with a variety of colour pigments including reds, browns and cool blues and greys. They are resistant to fading and were commonly used from the 1860s onwards for commercial prints. The matte quality, soft focus and colouring of the photographs give them the look of a painting or drawing. Indeed they are treated as such in their presentation, they are housed in grand portfolio boxes as if they are Renaissance drawings themselves.
As Professor Ekserdjian remarked, Braun’s series, initially released in 1869, constituted a first attempt to replace previously circulating prints and sketches. However, the reach of prints of this size and quality was still relatively limited because of their high cost. The smaller prints distributed by the commercial publishers Alinari and James Anderson later in the nineteenth century, were a partial solution to this problem. At once more affordable these images record more effectively the status of the Chapel before its restoration. Indeed, thanks to their sharper printing, these photographs allow us to see more of the minute features in Michelangelo’s frescoes while, at the same time, showing the extent of their damage.
Reflecting on the documentary quality of these photographs we were made aware of how key aspects of the frescoes, still visible on the ceiling when Braun’s and Alinari and Anderson’s pictures were taken, have either irreversibly disappeared or reappeared in the process of restoration. The lines dividing different sections of the frescoes, easily discernible prior to the conservation intervention, are now impossible to decipher. Similarly, the finishing touches on the frescoes, also known as tracce a secco, were removed during the cleaning of the ceiling.
Lantern slides © Department of History of Art
Looking at the photographs gave Professor Ekserdjian an opportunity to discuss with us how this ambitious restoration altered scholars’ understanding of the cycle by bringing the frescoes’ original colours back to light. In particular, the symbolic value of one of the Chapel’s lunette had to be re-evaluated when its dark tones, which had been interpreted as a metaphor of the obscure ages preceding Christianity in pre-restoration literature, disappeared in the cleaning process, revealing the lunette’s original bright colours.
Colour, an especially striking feature of the Sistine Chapel and a traditionally important category of analysis for art history, was also central to our discussions as a group. As we moved from black and white prints to slides in colour, we were invited to think about the limitations of the photographic medium in capturing and faithfully reproducing shades of colour in the artwork. Precisely because of these inevitable limitations, we were encouraged to be cautious when using photographic reproductions in our academic work. However, Professor Ekserdjian did not fail to place emphasis on the immense contribution that colour photography, and photographic slides in particular, have made to the study of the history of art. The crucial didactic value of this medium was that it finally allowed professors to incorporate images of faraway artworks like the Sistine Chapel into their teaching practice.
35mm slides © Department of History of Art
No physical resource, however, has been able to compete with the internet in terms of widening accessibility to artworks’ reproductions. Thus, as the workshop came to an end we touched upon free digital collections of images, undoubtedly the most democratic source available at this stage. We were introduced to a range of key databases, including the Fondazione Zeri online catalogue, which collects 290,000 digital images of Italian art and architecture. Making digital photographs accessible to the general public, these platforms also indirectly transformed slides themselves into aesthetic objects, collected as such in the Visual Resources Centre alongside valuable printed photographs. As a final note, students were encouraged to reflect not only on what is gained but also on what is lost in this change of medium and accessibility. Platforms that provide easily accessible digital photographs should not fully replace the exercise of memory, crucial in allowing art historians to recollect the details of an artwork.
Ultimately, Professor Ekserdjian turned a workshop on photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes into an opportunity to raise much broader questions around the history of art. Professor Ekserdjian certainly did provide us with an interesting overview of the resources on the Sistine Chapel available in the Department. What is more, he reminded us of the need to constantly question not only our views, but also the availability and reliability of the primary sources we employ.
Sofia and Irene are both MSt History of Art and Visual Culture students and take the MSt Women and Art option with Professor Geraldine Johnson.
To listen again to Professor Ekserdjian’s lecture on Michelangelo watch the podcast.
The Department of History of Art holds several large photography collections, for more information about the Adolphe Braun Sistine Chapel prints and our other photographic material please see the Visual Resources Centre page.