I had an epiphany during the recent lockdown. It arrived like tablets of stone, crated, requiring two men to lift, and least half an hour to remove from its intricate packaging. The images that then shone back at me from the dining table have since changed my view of what the printed page can achieve.
I have always maintained that the reproduction of a work of original art, not least a printed one, is a tardy substitute for the real thing. Reasons range from the aesthetic to the spiritual – something to do with the need to be closer to the artist’s tangible presence. But this illustrative magnum opus has brushed aside almost all my misgivings.
If one is permitted to talk about miracles of publishing, this is one brought about by the combination of the latest technology and privileged nocturnal access. The five-year project involved months of negotiation between the Vatican Museums, Italian art publisher Scripta Maneant, and the New York and LA-based publishers, Callaway.
Over the course of 65 consecutive nights, while the Sistine Chapel slept, and using technology that was not available five years ago, a team of photographers with a 33-foot-high scaffold and rig were able to capture every inch of the chapel using ultra-high-resolution digital photography – the more colloquial term is gigapixel – followed by three-dimensional digital reconstruction.
I kid you not, the resultant images are such that only the Renaissance creators of the works themselves, or art conservators who have subsequently worked on them, could have had the feast we too can now enjoy.
Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is one of the most recognisable frescos in art history. I had seen it in the flesh by cricking my neck as Vatican guards speared us along the line of route in the Chapel itself. In short, and because of this production, I now feel I know it better than any other Italian fresco.
Positioned 68 feet away from its viewer, this seminal masterpiece painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is nestled within a nebula of holy men and women, billowing drapery, and anatomy. The visual experience for the visitor looking upwards is tantamount to a glimpse of heaven from the inferior position of earth, and within a mosaic of competing scenes. But now no longer.
Take the most famous hand of art history – that of Adam reaching out to God. Life-size to the original painting, the tonal fidelity is unsurpassable. You can now comprehend – in all its artistic courage and glory – not only the gentle degradations of time that have cracked and aged the paint, but the astounding illusion achieved by Michelangelo’s dark outlines and shadowed recession.
Another aspect of Michelangelo’s alleged divine power is thus made manifest: his ineffable capacity to create a timelessly affecting gesture that artistically coalesces from afar.
These are also volumes for the sensualist – and they certainly worked on me. I found myself immersed in an intimate bath of colour and forms comprising one of the greatest artistic interiors of western art.
The great commissioning programme, with scenes from the Old and New Testament, was begun in 1481 with Pope Sixtus IV and concluded by Pope Paul III by 1541. It is a roll call of some of the greatest painters of the period who could excel in the hazardously quick-drying medium of fresco: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Biagio d’Antonio, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino, Mateo Perez de Alesio and Hendrick van den Broek.
The quality of the production is astonishing, and part of the hallmark of the American publisher Nicholas Callaway, an ex-art dealer himself. The set costs £16,500. Each book is printed on the finest Italian handmade paper and handbound in a three-piece Bodoniana sewn binding in silk. The spines are white calf leather from matched hides from the same herd, debossed in silver, gold and platinum foil stamping.
So where did all this take me in lockdown? I am an art dealer; I aspire to sell the real works by the greatest artists I can afford. But I have now reversed the business model of a lifetime. Knowing that only 600 sets in English are available, I asked to be a part of this art historical innovation. I am now its UK agent. The lockdown conversion is complete.
To enquire about The Sistine Chapel Trilogy (priced £16,500), visit philipmould.com
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