Among questions debated strongly in recent years is the extent to which works of art that have deteriorated over the centuries should be restored, or even cleaned. Cleaning refers to removing grime and soot, or layers of varnish from works. Restoration involves repairing elements that have become damaged and replacing missing elements. One major example that occasioned strenuous debate was the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes painted by Michelangelo, and which had, over the centuries, become darkened with dirt. Another example is the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, which took twenty years, and involved not only cleaning, but also filling in some missing sections of the image with new paint.
Among the arguments against cleaning Michelangelo’s work was that the cleaning agents might also remove some of the original pigment, and could damage the painting irretrievably by removing the darkened colors that over many generations people had become accustomed to seeing and revealing a brighter set of hues that some considered garish. Against adding newly painted sections to Leonardo’s work were those who said the great painting would effectively no longer be Leonardo’s. Countering these arguments were those who claimed that cleaning the Sistine frescoes would restore them to how Michelangelo originally painted them. Similarly, those who favored restoring Leonardo’s “Last Supper” believe that the painting has now been restored to its former glory. Which point of view do you find more convincing, and why? What other issues do you think should be evaluated when a major art masterpiece is being considered for cleaning and/or restoration? What do you think should be done with Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, which is the most famous prime candidate for cleaning today?
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