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Vatican warns of dangerous Sistine pollution

VATICAN CITY – The head of the Vatican Museums warned Thursday he might be forced to limit the number of visitors to the Sistine Chapel if its new air conditioning and air purification systems don’t significantly reduce “dangerous” pollution levels.

Antonio Paolucci told a conference that he was confident the new system, which is expected to be operational at the end of 2014, would curb the dust, humidity and carbon dioxide that are dulling and discoloring Michelangelo’s frescoed masterpiece.

But he warned: “If this project doesn’t work, I’ll be forced to impose a limited number (of visitors). But that would be a painful solution.”

Some 5.5 million people are expected to visit the Vatican Museums this year. During high season some 20,000 people a day enter the intimate Sistine Chapel, which was last restored in the 1990s. The numbers, which have increased three-fold in the past 30 years, mean a significant increase in the amount of humidity and dirt that are brought into the tiny space each day.

The aim of the air conditioning system, which has been donated by Carrier, a unit of United Technologies Corp., is to stabilize the pollution levels, with the maximum set at 800 particles per million. At its worst, the Sistine Chapel sometimes sees levels of pollution more than twice that, officials said.

Paolucci said he never wanted to see another major restoration done on the Sistine Chapel since they are so “traumatic” to the artworks themselves. The last one was criticized for having left the delicate frescoes brighter than Michelangelo ever would have wanted.

“There won’t be any more restorations,” he said. “But maintenance continues.”

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