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Is Balich's worldwide show going to reveal the secrets of the Sistine Chapel?

18th Mar 2018

Lights, Camera… Fresco: A New Blockbuster Experience of the Sistine Chapel

For centuries, the Renaissance grandeur of the Sistine Chapel has been considered spectacle enough, drawing millions of visitors a year to marvel in (mandated but poorly enforced) silence at the sublime majesty of Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling within one of Catholicism’s holiest spaces. From this month, however, visitors will have an opportunity to encounter it on a whole new level of extravaganza: in a new multimedia production, which brings together producers of Olympic Opening Ceremonies, set designers from Super Bowl Halftime Shows, and a soundtrack by Sting.

The 60-minute show — blending lasers, art-historical projections and Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats — is the brainchild of Marco Balich, executive producer of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a well-known figure who has worked with Pink Floyd, U2, Peter Gabriel and now… Michelangelo. In collaboration with the Vatican Museums, Balich has created an experience that he hopes will introduce the Sistine Chapel to a younger audience that he believes remains too obsessed with screens and digital media to appreciate one of Art History’s greatest achievements without added spectacle.

The director was inspired to reimagine the Sistine Chapel after an underwhelming encounter: too crowded, too crazy, too brief. It is a shame, Balich claims, that in the case of one of Italy’s greatest pieces of cultural heritage “millions of people visit it badly, in haste.” His show, titled Giudizio Universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, aims to provide a more sustained encounter with the Renaissance masterpiece, narrating the story of its creation and drawing the viewer’s attention to its many fascinating details. It is an experience that will hopefully marry art-historical rigour with show-biz extravagance.

The star of the show is the Chapel itself, projected onto a custom-built screen the same form and dimensions as the actual structure using ultra-high-resolution photographs. Also featured is the actor Pierfranceso Favino, an A-list celebrity in Italy known to English-speaking audiences from roles in Angels & Demons and Night at the Museum, in the role of Michelangelo himself. Together artwork and artist explore the chapel’s history, with the emotions of Michelangelo’s frescoes supported and enhanced by rock-star Sting’s original music. 

This experience, brought together by the same people who do Rolling Stones arena shows and the Olympics, promises to be big, and, as The Telegraph notes, there are already, before it has even debuted, plans to take the show internationally. Some may find it surprising that the Vatican now shares a stage-designer with Lady Gaga (although someone may have misunderstood when they heard that members of the production team had worked with Madonna). Nevertheless, there is a certain aesthetic connection between these blockbuster productions and the spectacles of Baroque Rome and the pomp and ceremony of the pre-Vatican II papacy.

It still seems questionable, however, whether the production will prove successful, or even necessary. The Times has called Balich’s Giudizio Universale a “new lease on life” for the Sistine Chapel, but with visitor numbers at record highs and continued enthusiasm for Michelangelo’s frescoes the Renaissance masterpiece is not exactly in danger of obscurity. Moreover, with tickets starting at €20, the 60-minute multimedia experience costs more than a full day at the Vatican Museums, where you can also see multiple media: sculpture, painting and architecture. Some will find the new production a useful accompaniment to a visit to the Sistine Chapel itself, but it can never be a replacement.

There is still something special about the Sistine Chapel that cannot be reproduced; the union of color and space, the ritual of visiting, and its unique context within the Vatican itself. Early press releases for Balich’s spectacle have emphasized the original music by Sting, but one should remember that the Sistine Chapel already has a soundtrack. During the reign of Pope Urban VIII, the great Italian composer Gregorio Allegri composed choral music specifically for space. If you want really need a multimedia experience, all you need to do is download it beforehand, pop in your headphones and look up at the face of God.

Get an insightful experience of Michelangelo's frescoes (lasers and acrobats not included) we suggest you our Sistine Chapel tour with one of our passionate guides. For a truly special encounter with Michelangelo’s masterpiece and the other wonders of the Vatican Museums join us for the Vatican at Night Tour.