Chapel Warming

According to CBS news last night, there now appears to be a greenhouse gas problem, inside the Sistine Chapel. Carbon dioxide from millions of sweating people visiting the chapel each year, it reported, is threatening the 500 year old ceiling artwork.

Vatican may limit visitors to the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous works of art in the world. But the piece of art is now being threatened by dust, dirt and even carbon dioxide. For the first time, the Vatican has admitted that it may have to limit visitors. …

The news that went around the world from Reuters at Vatican City, the print version of the CBS video, repeated the blame of carbon dioxide from sweating people:

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes turned 500 on Wednesday with the Vatican warning it may eventually limit visitors to protect one of the wonders of Western civilization….”

Pressure caused by humans such as dust introduced, the humidity of bodies, carbon dioxide produced by perspiration can cause unease for the visitors, and in the long run, possible damage to the paintings,” Paolucci said in an article in the Vatican newspaper. “We might limit the access, putting a cap on the number (of visitors). We will do this if tourism grows beyond the limits o reasonable tolerance and if we are not able to respond adequately to the problem,” he said….

Mainstream media doesn’t concern itself with science or accuracy. Carbon dioxide, of course, is heavier than air, making it a stretch to blame it for damaging the ceiling paintings. Methane, though, is lighter than air, but there was no report of concerns due to millions of farts.

Moreover, people don’t sweat carbon dioxide, they exhale it. Sweat is 99%  water (with the remaining percentage being sodium chloride, Vitamin C, uric acid, urea, ammonia and lactic acid).

The Vatican does, however, appear to be addressing the most important issues in the conservation of any artwork: controlling humidity and temperature, as well as dirt and light. “Control of temperature and relative humidity is critical in the preservation of library and archival collections because unacceptable levels of these contribute significantly to the breakdown of materials,” according to the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

In 1994, at the end of a 14-year restoration project, technicians installed an elaborate system of dehumidifiers, air conditioning, filters and micro-climate controls in the Sistene chapel. Paolucci told Reuters that Carrier air conditioning, a unit of United Technologies, was studying a “new, high-tech, radically innovative” project to protect the frescoes from atmospheric damage. The new equipment should be ready in a year.

4 responses to “Chapel Warming

  1. A ‘sweat’ tax would fix the problem. Al Gore could be the main consultant and organize the fleecing of the faithful.

  2. The artwork has value because humankind values it; the artwork is threatened by humankind admiring the art. No win.

  3. There may be something to it. Carbon dioxide, of course, only helps preservation, and people inside might do a good job of removing oxygen — the primary cause of damage to paintings. But it is also true that there are compounds in sweat that are both volatile and reactive, so it may not be a fair trade.

    My wife dragged me inside Peterborough Cathedral last week. My first and most lasting impression of it was the stench. I believe people had something to do with making it so obnoxious (even though there were very few of them inside at the moment).

    I guess the author of this pearl of wisdom followed this line of thought: perspiration -> bad stuff -> carbon dioxide. What can be worse?

  4. Frescoes are primarily damaged by water, as in exhalations and sweat. The phenomenon is called “rising damp.” Lightly soiled frescoes are sometimes *cleaned* by conservators using a solution of ammonia and carbon dioxide.
    The Sistine Chapel saw a lot more CO2 in its first 400 years when it was lit by candles.

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