Sistine Chapel pollution may lead to fewer visitors

ROME (RNS) If a new air filter system can't control the levels of dust, humidity and carbon dioxide inside the Sistine Chapel, then Vatican officials would have to make the "painful decision" to limit visitors.

ROME (RNS) The head of the Vatican Museums said Thursday (Oct. 17) that pollution levels inside the storied Sistine Chapel are high enough to damage its priceless frescoes and could lead to a reduction in visitors.

last judgement

Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” inside the Sistine Chapel. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (

The Vatican is installing a series of new air purifiers and a new air conditioning system inside the chapel that’s the site of papal elections, and the new system should be online by the end of 2014.

If it works, visitor levels can stay as they are. But if the new system can’t control the levels of dust, humidity and carbon dioxide, then director Antonio Paolucci said he’d have to make the “painful decision” to limit visitors.

At stake is the health of Michelangelo’s world-famous fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling — considered by many scholars to be the world’s single greatest painting — and his masterpiece behind the main altar, “The Last Judgment.”

The chapel also houses works from Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Luca Signorelli and other masters. It was last restored in the 1990s, and recent studies show that dust and humidity from the estimated 5.5 million visitors to the chapel each year could threaten the artwork.

During high season, as many as 20,000 people a day pass through the Sistine Chapel, which was again in the headlines earlier this year when it was closed off for the conclave that selected Pope Francis.

The Sistine Chapel is part of the massive Vatican Museums, home to one of the world’s greatest art collections.