* Number of visitors grown by 300 pct since 1980
* Dust, sweat and dirt from tourists threaten masterpieces
* Ceiling frescoes are nearly 502 years old
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY, June 11 Dust, sweat and carbon
dioxide brought into the Sistine Chapel by a swelling number of
tourists risk damaging priceless Michelangelo frescoes, the
Vatican said on Wednesday, hoping a new air conditioning and
lighting system will protect them.
Some six million people a year visit the chapel, home to
Michelangelo's famous ceiling frescoes - one of the wonders of
Western civilisation that are over 500 years old.
The number of visitors to the chapel - where popes are
elected in secret conclaves - can reach 20,000 a day in summer.
Their numbers have grown by 300 percent from around 1.5 million
a year in 1980, said Antonio Paolucci, the head of the Vatican
"Today, the Sistine Chapel risks being a victim of its own
success," Paolucci, writing in the Vatican newspaper
L'Osservatore Romano, said.
"Six million visitors is an impressive number but
objectively dangerous for the proper conservation of the
frescoes," he said. "It produces a mix of dust brought in from
outside, body sweat and carbon dioxide, which all end up on the
surface of the frescoes and can in time harm them."
Work began on the new air conditioning and lighting system
on Wednesday and should be in place by October.
Michelangelo's frescoes, inaugurated in October 1512 by Pope
Julius II, underwent a major 14-year restoration that ended in
1994. They include one of the most famous scenes in the history
of art - the arm of a gentle bearded God reaching out to give
life to Adam.
They also include the famous "Last Judgement" on the wall
behind the altar, which the artist painted separately in 1535
Paolucci said the current system of air conditioning,
de-humidification, dust removal, filtering and micro-climate
controls was designed to handle far fewer visitors.
The Vatican did not say how much the new high-tech air
conditioning system, devised by museum experts and the Carrier
air conditioning company, or a new lighting system using the
energy saving and heat-reducing LED (light-emitting diode)
system, would cost but said they were being donated by the
In recent years there have been calls for limits on the
number of tourists allowed to enter the chapel. Paolucci has
said that this might become necessary but he did not repeat that
Under the current system, there is no cap on the number of
visitors each day although there is a queuing system.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)