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Restoring Michelangelo's masterpieces

Restoring Michelangelo's masterpieces (CNN Exclusive)

The Sistine Chapel is getting a check-up, for a whole month each year from 5:30 to midnight

When all the tourists are gone, a team from the Vatican comes in to clean it, check for damage and report on the health of the world's most treasured art.

It's a painstaking process. Scaffolding must be erected and taken down each night and cannot be attached to the walls to avoid damaging the paintings. One of the biggest problems of the Sistine Chapel is humidity. 25,000 visitors a day pose a risk for the paintings

"You know, our bodies are made of water, so when we visit the Sistine Chapel," says Francesca Persegati, Chief Restorer, Vatican Museums, " we bring in humidity and bring heat, everybody heats the environment like a bulb you say, 80 watt bulb."

Humidity causes condensation and a veil of salt forms on the famous frescoes, painted in he 1400s and 1500s, which damages the color and the plaster it's painted on.

A laborious technique- brushing distill water onto thin Japanese paper removes the salt layer. To combat humidity there are 30 hidden sensors, measuring temperature, air circulation and numbers of visitors in the chapel. Dr. Vittoria Cimino, the vatican's conservationist, monitors the air quality in the chapel.

"The temperature must be between 22-to-24 degrees celsius. Humidity must be medium high. They are very precise markers and we have to verify that the system respects them." said Cimino.

The world was shocked after a cleaning and restoration in the '90s to discover that Michelangelo actually used vivid greens, purples and reds because for centuries it was assumed that he painted in dark subdued tones, but that was only the accumulation of dirt and grime. The next time you are in the Sistine Chapel, look out for this, little black marks, squares and triangles on some of the paintings. They are called witnesses, deliberately left as evidence for future restorers to give an idea of just how dark the paintings were before. To make sure the colors stay vibrant, a color team measures any changes to tone by taking pictures of the frescoes with a multiwave length camera which is then analyzed by a computer. Dr Fabio Morresi is in charge of color analysis.

"We can see the color of every single pixel and compare it throughout the years." said Morresi, "It's important, because we can detect any changes before they are even visible to the human eye."

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