“Cleaning the Sistine Chapel: A Journalist’s Notes (photographs by Robert Polidori)”

Cullen Murphy speaking at a podium

Cullen Murphy ’74 is editor at large of The Atlantic magazine; and chair of Amherst College’s Board of Trustees from 2012 until 2018. His most recent book, Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, was published in 2017.

Play audio of talk:

Loading the player...

See the honorary degree citation read by President Biddy Martin at the 2019 Commencement ceremony.


Prof. Douglas: I'm Lawrence Douglas. I teach in the Department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought and I'm delighted and honored to welcome Cullen Murphy back to Amherst. For those of you who are familiar with the recent history of the College, Cullen requires very little in the way of introduction. He served as Amherst trustee from 2002 through 2012, at which point he was elected chairman of our board, serving, a secure term, which ended just last year. Amherst I think it's fair to say was uncommonly fortunate to have Cullen as a board chair just as he was, I think it's fair to say, an unusual choice to lead us. For one thing, Cullin in his woolen vests and corduroys and his air of genteel dishevelment...

audience: [laughter]

Prof. Douglas: Doesn't kind of look like your typical trustee chair. I remember a colleague's bewildered exclamation. That's our new chair?

audience: [laughter]

Prof. Douglas: He looks like a, like a professor.

Prof. Douglas: You see professors actually have a rather stereotypical and vaguely suspicious view of trustees. Professors tend to think of the trustees as, I hate to admit it, kind of at the souless titans of capital who given their druthers, would like nothing better than to subject the lofty impracticalities of the liberal arts to a healthy dose of market discipline. What then to make of a board chair who studied medieval history at Amherst, writing a thesis on political symbolism in 14th century France. All the more unusual, this seemingly obscure course of study was in Cullen's case, the closest thing to a practical training for his early career in the family business. You see, Cullen grew up in leafy suburban Connecticut, but his father, John Cullen Murphy, was not a commuting banker or broker. He was a cartoonist who penned Prince Valiant and nationally syndicated Arthurian legend.

Prof. Douglas: I hope Cullen will spare me murderous looks if I describe Prince Valiant as the Game of Thrones of its day. Not two murders. After graduating from Amherst in 1974, Cullen went on to work with his father, the father continuing to handle the drawing while Cullen assumed the responsibilities of writing Prince Valiant. After Excalibur, Cullen moved to a highly successful career in editing for 20 years. Beginning in the mid-eighties, he served as the managing editor of the Atlantic monthly and migrated to Vanity Fair, where he was editor at until just last year. And most recently he has returned to the Atlantic. As he gained the reputation of one of the nation's most foremost editors, Cullen also emerged as a prominent journalistic voice, authoring several acclaimed books, including, The Word According to Eve: Women in the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, , Are We Rome? And God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Yet these books are models of a rare craft. They are testaments to Cullen's continued fascination with ancient and medieval history but really are about our present moment. In drawing striking parallels between distinct practices and present debates, Cullen never reduces history to mere illustration. His writing erudite. It's elegant, often witty, never showy and in judgments are trenchant and fair-minded. The books are brilliantly readable. They're also available for purchase.

Prof. Douglas: Most recently, Cullen published a terrific memoir: Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe. And in describing his dad and the community of cartoonists, in which he was a part, Cullen wrote the following. This is a quote. “What any civilization mostly needs is not the world-altering legacy of a few, but the numberless people of talent who play a role and play it well sustaining their contemporaries in the brief moment we have together.“ Amherst is profoundly grateful for the sustenance that Cullen has provided us and is pleased to honor him this weekend. So please join me in welcoming him back to Amherst.

audience: [applause]

Cullen Muphy: Thank you very much, Lawrence. I would have been happy for you to continue another half hour.

audience: [laughter]

Cullen Muphy: And I, and I have to admit that the soul is titan of capitalism sometimes looks awfully good. Yes.

Cullen Muphy: So it's an honor to be here this afternoon. I'm going to be talking about a recent story of mine having to do with the Sistine Chapel. But before I do, I wanted to give a plug for the liberal arts since another 450 Amherst graduates are going to be going out into the world tomorrow. In one way, a writer or editor shifts careers every time he or she writes her edits something new. I've come to realize that the education I had here at this place, a classic liberal arts education, was the best preparation for constant shifting that you can possibly imagine. And the fact is, no matter what field any of us is in or decides to enter, the future holds far more shifting than ever before, which makes the liberal arts education far more valuable than ever before in ways that become more apparent as time goes on. Are there any parents of graduates, graduating students here today? So this is a long way of saying don't worry.

Cullen Muphy: So plug for the liberal arts is now over and onto the main topic and I'm grateful to my friend, the photographer Robert Polidori, for allowing me to use a number of his photographs. They're easily distinguishable. His are the ones that are good and mine are the others. And so let's begin. We all know this place. It's the Sistine Chapel. The building was erected in the 15th century and Michelangelo painted the ceiling in the early part of the 16th century. And then he painted the Last Judgment on the east wall about 30 years later. In the 1980s in 1990s, there was a major restoration of the chapel. I won't go into the details of it. It's something we can talk about afterward if anyone is interested. It's a little bit controversial, but the bottom line was this, over 400 plus five, almost 500 years, wax, soot, grime, pollution had accumulated on all of the surfaces.

Cullen Muphy: Also other artists had come in and attempted improvements on the surface or were trying to fix places where there had been deterioration. So for centuries of mayhem and all of this was removed and Michelangelo's frescoes shown as they hadn't in a long, long time. Looking now like this some of us remember what it used to look like. The dingy, golden brown aspect. I was there in 1965 and I saw it and it still look pretty good, but you didn't have any idea how good it could look and they've left a patch in the ceiling so that you can have an idea of what it used to be like.

Cullen Muphy: The problem is now that it's this way, how do you keep it this way? I always remember my mother after we, you know, I cleaned my bedroom. Interesting. Have keep it that way and it's, it's tough. In the case of the Sistine Chapel, you have 7 million visitors coming into that room every year. So that's 25,000 people a day in a space that's no wider than a basketball court about half again as long. And the people bring in things with them, dust, little bits of skin and hair fly off, they perspire, they exhale carbon dioxide like everybody. The presence of so many bodies just the body adds heat to the room. So taken together, all of this has a huge impact or potentially could. Unaddressed, it would leave a glaze of contamination on the surface. Not only that, but the combination of humidity and the constituents of the plaster also produce salts and salts would begin to accumulate on the surface and begin to whiten it. Now, I hadn't known anything about this and it was a chance conversation with this woman, Barbara Yada, who's the director of the Vatican museums and she's a former curator of prints at the Vatican museums. Her mother was a restore, her father was an architect, her grandmother was a painter. So she has all the right DNA for this job. She's also the first woman to head any of the world's major museums. So it's kind of ironic that it's at the Vatican.

Cullen Muphy: And I had gone to Rome to meet her, to talk to her about something else. And as we were walking down a stairway at the Vatican, and you have to imagine this is the back stairway. It's like, if you just go out here and you take the back stairs up and down in this building, you don't rubber floors, there's nothing special about it. It's not monumental. It's not marble. But there's a, there's a Luca della Robbia ceramic hanging in the stairwell. So we're walking down the stairway and coming the other direction is a man carrying this: a scale model of the Sistine Chapel. And I said to Barbara, what are all those pins? And she said, well, they mark the, the location of all the scientific instruments that are in the chapel that keep track of everything, like the humidity and the temperature and the air composition, the number of people in the room at any one time. And it was all linked to a command center in the Vatican conservator's office. I mean the idea of a command center in the Vatican conservative's office it's like, it makes you think of Doctor No or something. And then she went on and every January and February, every night for a period of weeks, the conservators come in and they checked the instruments and they check the surface for all kinds of problems and then they clean the whole, the whole surface. And so we said goodbye to the man with the model. He continued up the stairs. Marco Magii was his name. But I realized that this might be an interesting story to pursue and also a way to get another trip to Rome paid for. So I asked Barbara about this.

Cullen Muphy: She said, yes, the Vatican, granted access to Wall Street Journal agreed to underwrite the project. And I teamed up with a wonderful photographer named Robert Polidori, who specializes in art and architecture and interiors and urban environments. You should go and look at some of hiss books. He's has one on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He has one on the restoration of the palace of Versailles. He has one on the ancient city of Leptis Magna. And he has one, this is an odd one, but just captivating. He's one on Chernobyl in the zone around it. And he uses a large format camera that requires at least 15 seconds to take a picture and sometimes as long as 15 minutes. So that's why he doesn't do many people. But the walls and ceilings can stay put. So we went to Rome a few months ago to just as the annual cleaning was about to begin, and the job is supervised by the conservator's office.

Cullen Muphy: There's one, there's a part of it, which has a staff of 120 professionals and is directly underneath the museum's main floor. If you've ever walked from the entrance of the Vatican museums down that long, 50 mile corridor to the Sistine Chapel and the epistolic palace and that Raphael rooms, it's right underneath there. If you go down one of those, one of those doors when you're ever in a museum and you see a door and you wonder, I wonder where that goes. That's where it goes. And the conservators working there specialize in everything. When you think of the Vatican's collections, hair, terracotta, gems, metals, fabrics, paper, marble, wood, paint, and many other things besides, and here's the group that looks after the Sistine Chapel and it's a big job. So the Michelangelo frescoes alone take up 5,000 square feet and that's just the ceiling in the top of the walls.

Cullen Muphy: And underneath them there are fresco is by people like Botticelli. And the woman in black, is holding the purse is Victoria Chimino. She's the head of the entire conservation office and it's in her office where all the banks of computers are keeping track of everything inside the Sistine Chapel. And then the woman in the lab coat next to her is Francesca Parisagotti. She's a member of the fabled Vatican conservation family. So we'll meet Francesca again. She's the head conservator for all paintings and frescoes at the Vatican and for anything made of wood. And she's also the person who is currently overseeing the restoration of the Rafael rooms, which are four rooms, not far from the Sistine Chapel. And those rooms will be completed next year. And then one of those rooms as she was telling me and then took me up to explain, Rothfield died while working on the fourth room.

Cullen Muphy: He hadn't done very much of it. He painted a few figures, but since he died they had to get the job to someone else. Someone came in, finished the room and either painted over or incorporated Rafael's figures into his own work. And in the process of restoring it, they identified the raw figures. Anyway, that's what's Francesco's got on her plate. And one thing I love what you can't see it in this picture, but you see it in just a second, is the logo of the Vatican labs, what they wear on their, on their lab coats. It's the hands of God and Adam superimposed on the atomic symbol.

Cullen Muphy: And I really want to get one of these to cook in or something.

Cullen Muphy: So down in the conservation lab, you never know what you're going to bump into or what someone is going to warn you about bumping into. So this is a little digression, but there are nooks and crannies all over the place where works of art are being taken care of or stored or about to be shipped or something along those lines. The thing that caught my eye here, just sitting on an easel, you can see it on the right. It's, you know, it isn't even an a frame. It's a painting that, you know, of course, I was able to see the whole thing, partly because I had nearly knocked it over and it's this, it's Leonardo Da Vinci's St Jerome in the Desert and it had been taken off the walls and taken out of its frame because it was going to be shipped to the Metropolitan Museum, where in fact you'd be able to see it

Cullen Muphy: in July he could've had a better view in February, but um, so it'll be, it'll be there in July. And Francesca was, you know, very kindly let me stand there with her. She explained various things. She pointed out in the upper left, you can see the sky there. And she pointed out Leonardo's fingerprints where he had used his fingers to move paint around and it was really tempting to leave one more, but I didn't. In the conservation lab, there are other kinds of things that you've come across like this. Italy, as you may know, has had several very serious earthquakes and this is from a church in Umbria that was leveled and the crucifix was taken from the Church and the Vatican museums have accepted a number of artifacts and um, and will repair them. And so this one was just lying out there. It's like a body on a morgue slab and more pieces are being found all the time. You can see the little pieces in the front and they come to the Vatican when they're pulled out of the rubber.

Cullen Muphy: So there's a lot of expertise in the Conservator's office and some of it is focused pretty continually on the Sistine Chapel. So let's go back there. So this is the chapel minutes after it closes to the public at 6:00 PM. Now various instruments and conservation materials have been brought down from the lab and you see them all there in the corner, the white vehicle on tracks is a cherry picker known as the spider and the doors to the Sistine Chapel are actually very narrow. And in order to get equipment in, they have to be, you know, equally narrow, which means you need something that folds up and that once it gets to its destination can unfold, hence the name of the spiders. So when that white object unfolds, it becomes the...what you, what you see here.

Cullen Muphy: It's the only way you can get to every spot in the chapel, which is 70 feet high. So Robert and I spent two nights with the technicians for a total of about six hours there. And one of the things that we're doing is checking heat and humidity at various places on the walls and ceiling. So the spider would just go along the walls. And the two people that you see there in the basket would be taking readings of heat and humidity at various places, right above their heads as a Botticelli. And then above there, above the Botticelli you'll be, you'll see some lights and there's a, there's a new led lighting system that's been provided by a company in Germany and it provides about 10 times more illumination than what used to be there and none of the ultraviolet or infrared.

Cullen Muphy: So it's, you know, it's much better for the paintings. But how good is it for the paintings? Is it doing any damage at all? That's what they have to keep., they have to keep checking. So, Marco, the fellow who I met holding the scale model, you know, goes up even higher to check the paint and the areas near the iconic hand of God. And he' taking readings of the paint, which he'll hold on to check against last year's, check against the year before last. And from what they've been able to tell so far, the new lighting system is, you know, is terrific. They do some adjustments continually. The feeling is that they've got it at the point where it's about 98%, similar to what daylight would be if you took the ceiling outside and looked at it, but again, without, without an any of the damaging properties.

Cullen Muphy: And then there's all that dust in particular, things like that that have to be checked. And it's you know, each of those pins on the diagram is one of these things. And the dust, the particular, it's the skin, the hair, it's all being extracted from the chapel by an air filtration system that was installed a few years ago. The, you know, everything that's taken out is taken out in bags. The material is sampled. It's put in petri dishes to see what grows. And when you have 7 million people coming in from all over the world, virtually everything grows. And I remember Francesca saying to me as she was explaining, she had taken out this sheet of papers that was showing me these different petri dishes with different awful looking things in them.

Cullen Muphy: And I remember her saying, you do not write ebola [laughter] and there wasn't any bu there's just about everything else. The new air filtration system was a gift from Carrier Corporation which, I hope that wasn't a hard sell because I'm sure they're using it every time they go to open up some new factory or to bid on one. But it was a multimillion-dollar system that they've put in. And when they did it, the exterior of the Sistine Chapel where they had to put all this equipment, which would really look awful if you're, you know, looking out the windows with the Vatican museum and you saw all this machinery, but they've actually, they've covered it with with a brick work and mortar work and tiles that it just looks like an, you know, a regular outbuilding.

Cullen Muphy: But the compressors are constantly sending fresh air in it. This is from one of the Vatican monitors up in the conservator's office. So they got four of them blowing in air and then they have compressors taking the air out. And it's important to remember just why this has to be done so frequently. They flushed the air 60 times a day, completely, but as Francesca told me, you know, one person produces 20 liters of carbon dioxide in and hour, 40 grams of water and a hundred watts of heat. So multiply that by a thousand who are there in the room at any given moment. And you can begin to see what the issue is. You can also watch what's happening on the monitors in the Conservator's office. You can just see that the graph going up and down.

Cullen Muphy: If you're there in the morning you can watch when the doors open in, the graphs go up and when it closes, you can watch everything going down. And so far this has been enough to keep pretty much everything stable, but the buildup from condensation and chemical reactions in the past still needs to be dealt with. So here's what Francesca Parisagotti does. She's up in the spider and you see she's got a piece of paper and that's Japanese paper. It's neutral. And what she does is she puts the paper up against one of the frescos. She has distilled water and a goat hair brush, and she puts the paper up against the fresco and she paints the back of it with the water. And when it's fully sodden, she pulls the paper off and she does that two or three times, and that's enough to take salts off of the surface.

Cullen Muphy: So it seems easy. But the problem is, remember there's 5,000 square feet, so it takes a long period of time when I sat down with Francesca later, she unfurled these detailed maps of the chapel showing all of the problem areas, places where plaster was becoming detached, places where there was an efflorescence of salt places where there were dust deposits that had to be removed. She's such an enthusiast, she loved talking about how Michelangelo worked and there different ways of working in fresco and you can work only with fresh plaster or you can work after also after the plaster has dried. Michelangelo apparently only worked in wet plaster and she would just go on and on about his technique. And I remember her at one point saying he was a really good painter and she wasn't really referring to his skills, she was referring to just his, the physical technique of the way he worked.

Cullen Muphy: She's funny, she's enthusiastic. She's a lot like her father, who is this man. The man on the left, Walter Parisagotti. He was a senior official at the Vatican museums for years and years and years. He was importantly responsible for the restoration of the eighties and nineties. And you can, when you look at Walter Parisagotti, you really see Francesca too. She loves her work. The time I spent in the conservation lab, it felt not so much like time in a lab and more like time in a kitchen. And so at one point Francesca asked, would you like to go up in the spider? And well, yes, we'd like to do that. So I've put on a safety harness and buckled myself to the bucket and put on a helmet and they're starting the ascent.

Cullen Muphy: There's a gentle whrrr. It doesn't feel too scary. It's a little wobbly. Robert wouldn't go up because it's wobbly enough that his camera wouldn't, over a period of 15 seconds his camera, wouldn't actually be able to photograph anything properly. And before going up, they made me sign papers. I had been, I knew that I was going to have to do it and I've been hoping that there would be something on parchment and then it might just say, you know, [inaudible] all though it was written in legalese and I signed it. And I told them that this would actually be a good place to die. And then went up. And as you can see from the picture, there just seems to be this ray of divine light coming at me and which I guess was protection.

Cullen Muphy: And so we kept ascending, up and up and up. It's remarkable to see these paintings up so close. I'm not looking at it in this picture, but at my back is a Botticelli, and because of something going on with the machine, we were paused there for about 10 minutes. So I'm just noticing the flecks of gold on every single leaf in the trees. I can get boring very quickly. But up we went, there we are, up even further and you know to see the paintings this close, we've all seen pictures. To me what was most remarkable was how well preserved they are, how smooth they are, how fleshy the flesh is, how subtle the muscle tones are, how delicate the pinks and light greens are. It was a real revelation. Nothing that I could possibly have anticipated. So of course I wanted to touch. So the story, Robert's and my story came out in the Wall Street Journal about six weeks later. And in that picture I'm holding the one pose that I think I can hold for 15 seconds, which is the one where I'm holding onto the side of the basket. And the favorite photograph of Robert's though is one that was taken, I wasn't even aware that he was doing it, but it's this one. It's his daughter, Adelaide. And I mean, what a Christmas card

audience: [laughter]

Cullen Muphy: A $30,000 Christmas cards.

Cullen Muphy: By the way, that door to the left of the altar is known as the room of weeping. And it's where in newly elected pope is once the Conclave has voted a cardinal and that cardinal is going to become Pope, the cardinal is escorted to that room and it's called the room of weeping because of supposedly they become aware of the burdens that have now fallen on them. And so they go into that room and they put on the white garb. And so late one evening we were asked, do you want to see the room of weeping? It's not open, it's actually when you go through that door, you're in the epistolic palace. And we said, sure. So we go into the room of weeping and it's actually a suite of four or five rooms.

Cullen Muphy: And there's lots of bizarre stuff in there. One thing is there's not a bathroom, there's a commode. It's like a 19th-century commode. It looks like a writing desk until you tip it. And there was a chamber pot in there. And there are the white robes worn by the last 10 Popes are all hanging there. But the best thing of all on a shelf, there are two boxes and one of them says bianco, and one of them says narrow. And it's the material that's used to color the smoke from the conclave. And I really wanted to switch the content [laughter] but I didn't.

Cullen Muphy: So in the end, after all of this, I just wanted to say something about what struck me about having done this. It was fun. I certainly learned a lot, but there was more to it than that. There was something about the way so many different forms of knowledge and experience had all converged on one place. And when you think about it and you make a list of what was in that room, it's really pretty remarkable. Or is represented in that room. For instance, there's the literary tradition that gives rise to all of the stories that are depicted on the walls and on the ceiling. There's the painterly genius that took those stories and rendered them into images. There's the skill of the conservators and the way in which they preserve and protect everything that's in that room.

Cullen Muphy: There's the expertise of the chemists who safeguard the surface of the chapel. There's the expertise of the biologists who keep track of all the bacteria and figure out what's coming in and if there's anything to worry about. There's the ingenuity of the engineers who created that HVAC system. And also the lighting. There are the teachers of art and the takers of photographs who helped propel people to the chapel in the first place. There are the patient administrators who know how to manage human institutions, even in Italy. So for a few nights last winter, we were all of us together somehow representing all of these endeavors, all of us drawn by something larger than ourselves. Thank you very much.

audience: [applause]