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How to dust a 100 ft high priceless Vatican antique

Cleaning Bernini's masterpiece demands the utmost care and attention, plus a good head for heights.

  • Carol Glatz
  • Vatican City
  • December 21, 2012
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The sounds of a woman chanting in a side chapel blended with the less traditional hum of a hydraulic lift one recent morning in St. Peter's Basilica.

Pilgrims were pressed against a barricade pointing cameras at workmen strapped in climbing harnesses, teetering atop the baldacchino, the massive bronze canopy over the main altar.

Twice a year, typically before Christmas and Easter, a select team of Vatican workers breaks out its polyester dusters, vacuum cleaner and bronze polishing fluid to clean Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 100-foot-high, 63-ton masterpiece.

Until recently, they had to climb up the twisting columns, hoisting themselves with wooden pegs and ropes, using the decorative bronze leaves and branches wrapped around the columns as toe perches and handholds.

But recently they started borrowing an electric "spider lift" from the office governing Vatican City State, said Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella, chief of staff of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Vatican office in charge of the basilica.

Now workers ride the boom lift to the top of the canopy, where they don white hard hats, snap on rubber gloves and pull down dust masks before they knot their safety lines around the neck of a 13-foot angel or the chubby legs of the 8-foot-tall "putti" that adorn the top of the canopy.

Tradition isn't completely dead, though. During the latest cleaning Dec. 18, Emanuele Roncaccia pulled out a thick length of rope from which dangled a short narrow plank worn smooth from decades of use.

It turns out the bucket lift can't reach all the dusty niches and nooks under the baldacchino, and the centuries-old method of rappelling and circling round the capitals and columns with a duster in hand works better than the more cumbersome lift.

With a safety line clipped to Roncaccia's back, workers helped connect the thick rope to his body harness. He slid the wooden plank under his backside, then launched himself carefully off the ridge of the top of the canopy.

Four workers up top held both the rope and the safety line as he quietly called out his next move. "Don't let me down too much," he cautioned.

"At first you're really scared because it's not something you do every day," he told Catholic News Service. "But then you remember you're physically fastened to the church and what could go wrong? Then you start only thinking about what you have to do" and it gets easier.

Full Story: Elite Vatican squad scales high spots to keep basilica spic and span 

Source: Catholic News Service

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