Wednesday, March 13, 2013

White if By Land, Black if By Sea?


I pity all of those reporters at the Vatican, having to wait in the rain with nothing to report for interminable periods of time.  The newspeople connected to stations here in Boston have resorted to describing in magnificent detail the color of the smoke rising from the temporary chimney, the smoke designed to signal whether a new pope has been elected (white) or not (black). 
In 2012's Weathermakers to the World, we describe another environmental phenomenon associated with the Sistine Chapel, one put in place almost exactly 20 years ago.  It was a good reminder as I researched the book that, while “air conditioning” is almost always discussed in terms of human comfort, the modern art of “conditioning air” plays a critical role in historic preservation.  

The modern restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes began in 1979 and involved the painstaking removal of wax, soot, and the paint of prior restorations.  By 1984 enough had been completed that another kind of destruction was beginning—that of 17,000 visitors a day bringing the dust and humidity of Rome into the Chapel and tarnishing Michelangelo’s now exposed original masterpiece.
Pope John Paul II, accustomed to dealing in miracles, asked the engineers of Carrier Corporation to devise a system of conditioned air that would “brush” the surface of the frescoes and protect them from pollutants.  There were a few minor constraints:  Not only did the system need to solve for temperature and humidity, adjusting automatically to changes in the environment, but it should be invisible to guests, exceptionally quiet, and phenomenally reliable.  Of course, it went without saying—don’t mess with the architecture.
It took five years, the creation of special computer simulations, and maybe a little prayer now and then.
On June 4, 1993 the system was officially presented to His Holiness John Paul II by Carrier at a special Vatican ceremony, followed in July 1994 by the completion and unveiling of the restored frescoes.  One newspaper referred to the combined masterpieces of Michelangelo and modern air conditioning as the “Pristine Chapel.”
Not only did the Chapel remain open to visitors, but the system--whose primary purpose was historic preservation—made everyone who visited feel more comfortable. 
The consequence now, of course, might be cardinals who are more comfortable.  Meaning more patience.  More debate.  More votes.  Though I understand, by Vatican rules, if there is no decision after five days then meals for the Cardinals are reduced to bread and water.  Seriously.
Modern air conditioning can do a lot of things, but it cannot fix that.  Hopefully, it won’t need to.
The 1993 presentation of the Sistine Chapel's newest masterpiece to Pope John Paul II.