The majesty and detail of the Sistine Chapel is captured in a painstakingly produced triptych of books
It may be home to the most famous ceiling in the world, but the Sistine Chapel is not top of Nicholas Callaway’s list of places to visit.
‘Almost everyone says what an unsatisfying experience being there in person it is,’ the publisher tells Spear’s over Zoom from his home in upstate New York. ‘You’re making a pilgrimage to one of the world’s greatest [and most] sacred places of art. The fact of being in the presence of that resonates and you feel it. But you can’t see it.’
He has a point. Not only is the ceiling 44ft up, but it measures 134ft by 46ft, and the floor below is routinely filled by hundreds of tourists.
Navigating to a desirable viewing spot is, therefore, often far from easy. The throng also obstructs the frescoes on the surrounding walls. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, for instance, is behind the chapel altar and is usually obscured by the sort of crowd that would make anyone queasy – even without the thought of a lingering pandemic.
Thankfully, Callaway, who celebrates four decades in the industry this year, has devised a way to do these works justice. In collaboration with the Vatican Museums and Italian art publisher Scripta Maneant, his publishing house has released a three-volume, 24x 17in book set that presents each fresco in 1:1 scale.
The 822-page publication is the result of an extraordinary period of 67 nights over which a team of photographers captured each fresco in gigapixel resolution, as part of an ongoing conservation programme of the Vatican Museums.
A total of 270,000 frames were used in post-production, before being printed and matched against the colour of the original works. The colours represented in the final product are said to be 99.4 per cent accurate.
‘Part of the astonishment of the experience is that when you are seeing this book, which is two feet high, you are experiencing it at the same distance and scale as when Michelangelo and the other Renaissance masters painted it,’ Callaway explains. ‘It becomes something more than a book.’
At £16,500 a copy (with a bespoke cabinet and lectern sold separately), one would certainly hope so.
Several days after our conversation, a colossal parcel arrives at my house. After donning a pair of white cotton gloves and hoisting a volume on to the dining table (with some assistance), I have the chance to test Callaway’s thesis for myself.
After opening the first volume, it doesn’t take me long to see what he means. The combination of the book’s scale and fine detail – you can make out individual, 510-year-old brushstrokes – is totally absorbing.
Of the three volumes in the set, two are dedicated to Michelangelo’s works and the other to the frescoes on the western, southern, and eastern walls of the chapel, which feature the likes of Van den Broeck, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.
In some ways it might feel clichéd, or as if one were missing the point, to lavish praise on a reproduction of works already universally recognised as masterpieces.
But when you study God’s face or the anguish of Christ up close, the genius of Michelangelo is vivid. It is unlike anything you’ve seen before. (If you want to see for yourself, head to Philip Mould & Company in Mayfair, where copies of the books are available to view and buy.)
The scale of the volumes also captures the chaos and harmony of the works in a particularly intimate way. Rather than seeing them in the context of the chapel itself, where you would be swallowed by the theatre and grandiosity of your surroundings, you instead approach the artists at the level of their brushstroke.
To experience the art this way is to ask: how on earth did a human paint this? The curation is impeccable too. As well as a series of essays that open each volume, the work is presented in myriad different ways, from fold-out depictions of individual scenes within the frescoes to limbs caught in motion.
It’s no surprise, either, that each volume is beautifully bound and printed on paper of suitably hefty stock.
In both his introduction to the volumes and during our conversation, Callaway mentions André Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’, the French writer’s seminal notion of making art more accessible to the public.
‘We can bring the Sistine Chapel to the world, instead of the world having to go to the Sistine Chapel,’ he says, noting that he had two types of reader in mind with the publication: the contemplative one who is ‘enchanted by each page’, and students who can study the work at its granular level (the publishers are undertaking an initiative with institutions and libraries to make the book accessible to students).
‘The mission,’ Callaway says, ‘is how can we convey the beauty, the mystery, the magic, the ineffable experience of art to the widest audience possible.’ With these tremendous volumes, that lofty ambition might just have been achieved.