Let there be light
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
When the Vatican's Sistine Chapel needed a new lighting system, the project required an artist's precision. The team had to illuminate irreplaceable paintings without damaging the fragile frescoes—or disrupting the flow of tourists who flock to see them.
The project, led by Munich, Germany-based lighting manufacturer OSRAM, required careful planning and continent-wide collaboration to protect the 500-year-old masterpieces. With a budget of US$2 million, about half of which came from European Union subsidies, the initiative installed 7,000 LED (light-emitting diode) lights throughout the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF OSRAM
Choosing an LED system for the Chapel was no leap of faith, as OSRAM had installed a similar LED system at the Lenbachhaus art museum in Munich, completed in 2013. The Lenbachhaus opted for LEDs because they emit no ultraviolet or infrared radiation, which is known to be one of the main causes of damage to pigments. The success of that project, the world's first LED lighting system for an art museum, convinced the Chapel's project team that LEDs were the right way to go.
“There was no hesitation in the decision to use LEDs to illuminate the Chapel's frescoes,” says project manager Mourad Boulouednine, Munich, Germany. “Following our work at the Lenbachhaus, we determined from the start that the Chapel should receive the same extremely high lighting specifications to ensure that these works of art can be viewed to the greatest effect without causing harm.”
The project, which ran from mid-2011 to late 2014, closed on time and on budget—and made it possible for some of the art world's greatest treasures to be appreciated by the public for centuries to come.
The Chapel's previous lighting system relied on halogen spotlights and flood-lights, which emit heat that could damage the artwork. These bulbs also need to be replaced more often than LEDs, which last up to 25 times longer. Changing the halogen lights required someone to climb onto scaffolding or a lift, which put workers dangerously close to the priceless paintings.
“Maintenance was a pain, so the focus of the project was on reducing that difficulty, reducing the risk of damage to the frescoes and making the Chapel brighter,” Mr. Boulouednine says.
Put to the Test
There was no room for error once installation began, so the project team planned ahead for an extra phase of testing.
“One of our biggest challenges was establishing trust in the technology,” Mr. Boulouednine says.
To establish that trust, a Vatican Museums laboratory exposed 16 representative pigment samples to high-intensity light inside a climate chamber for one year. In parallel, the University of Pannonia, a project partner based in Veszprém, Hungary, performed similar testing to make sure LEDs wouldn't make colors fade or change.
“All of these experiments proved scientifically that the new LED illumination would not cause any harm,” Mr. Boulouednine says.
The Night Shift
From the start, the Vatican made it clear that keeping one of the world's most visited religious sites open to the public during installation was a project requirement.
“Imagine you've booked a trip to Rome months ago, and when you arrive, someone tells you the Chapel is closed for maintenance,” Mr. Boulouednine says.
To accommodate the Chapel's steady stream of 6 million visitors each year, Mr. Boulouednine's team installed the LED system only in the evening, when the Chapel was closed. However, crews only worked from 6 to 11 p.m.—rather than the entire night—because many of the supporting team members, such as security guards and scaffold builders, also had day jobs, Mr. Boulouednine says.
“It's crucial that the primary contact can speak the native language of the customer. So we appointed someone from OSRAM Italy who would be able to understand all of the clients subtleties and emotions.”
—Mourad Boulouednine, OSRAM, Munich, Germany
A Clear Message
The 40-member project team was spread out over four countries: Spain, Germany, Hungary and Italy, which was a requirement of the EU's funding contract. The project team met in person in various locations and held regular conference calls, but the team selected a single spokesperson to handle direct communication with the customer.
“It's crucial that the primary contact can speak the native language of the customer,” Mr. Boulouednine says. “So we appointed someone from OSRAM Italy who would be able to understand all of the client's subtleties and emotions. I was afraid my message would get diluted, so I was happy to give that responsibility away.” PM
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