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Vatican sheds new light on Sistine Chapel’s masterpieces

The Sistine Chapel just got a makeover. Vatican officials unveiled new state-of-the-art energy-efficient lighting and air purification systems to protect Michelangelo’s more than 500-year old frescoes. The three-year-long installation cost roughly $3.8 million.

The masterpieces have seen their fair share of deterioration over the years from the throngs of tourists who visit. The Vatican is now capping the chapel’s visitors to 6 million each year, its current level. The preservation efforts are designed to help shield the chapel from the dust and carbon dioxide those crowds leave behind.

The high-tech illumination — installed by the German firm Osram — is comprised of some 7,000 LED lights that will better highlight Michelangelo’s work as well as the chapel’s lesser-known frescoes by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

“It’s an emotional experience,” said Osram’s project leader, Mourad Boulouednine. “It’s difficult to talk in words but if you see it, many details in the frescoes, nice and wonderful colors, the plasticity and the three dimensional effect that Michelangelo has used in his figures is really outstanding.”

The head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, told Reuters, “I got to see the Sistine Chapel like I had never seen it before. This light allows you to see every little detail of the paintings and at the same time it allows you to grasp and experience the Sistine Chapel as a whole, in its entirety.”

As an added benefit, the modernized lighting is also expected to cut the Vatican’s energy bills by more than 80 percent.

As for the new air-conditioning system, it will direct airflow slowly through the hallowed room to avoid damaging the frescoes. The air temperature and humidity levels can also be adjusted based on data from 70 sensors in the Sistine Chapel’s walls as well as cameras monitoring visitors.

“This chapel is a unique structure so we spent a great deal of time understanding how air flows here in order to map the technology,” said John Mandyck, the chief sustainability officer for United Technologies unit Carrier which developed the air purification system. “Air flows differently here than it does, say in an office building or even another church.”

The previous air-conditioning system was installed 20 years ago, back when the chapel received only 1.5 million visitors each year.

If a trip to Vatican City isn’t in your future, you can also take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel from the comfort of your home by visiting the Vatican’s website.

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