The Medici Chapels Restored: Grime-Eating Microbes Feast on Stained Sculptures

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By Melissa Corsi

Normally, people try to remove bugs from inside places, but not the Medici Chapel in Florence, Italy.

They are actually bringing them in for some deep cleaning on 16th century sculptures by Michelangelo.

As the coronavirus raged in Italy, experts and museum directors were secretly trying to figure out how to clean the massive sarcophagus inside San Lorenzo church – created by Michelangelo as a final resting place for the Medici family in the 1520s.

Glue, oil, and phosphates – residue from years of copying the statues – proved hard to remove. But they just happen to be the ideal feast for dirt-eating microbes.

Monica Bietti, former director of Medici Chapels, came up with the idea. She says first scientists had to photograph the Carrara marble to discover its material make-up.

“Once we understood the type of material, the scientists at the National Research Council in Italy selected multiple bacteria that were compatible and could eat the stains,” she said.

The scientists tested the eight bacteria behind the altar and chose three that selectively and gradually eliminated the dirt, without touching the marble.

They even left a small square to show what it looked like before the bugs had their fill. The mission was a success – the marble once again boasting its clarity, luminosity and natural beauty.

“Bacteria did their job wonderfully. We hope that the bacteria will never have to be applied again,” said Paola D’agostino, the director of Bargello Museums.

Pope Leo X – the first Medici pope – hired Michelangelo to design the mausoleum in 1513.

During the cleaning process, it appears the grime was traced back to one improperly buried body, Alessandro Medici.

The assassinated ruler in Florence was not disemboweled before being laid to rest in 1535, leaving his remains to stain the chapel for nearly five centuries.

It took the all-female team of museum directors, art restorers, and scientists 8 years to complete the clean-up.