A few days before opening its advance sales on November 1, a PR officer at Callaway Arts and Entertainment sent Stefano Vaccara, our founder and editor-in-chief, a flyer about its forthcoming publication, The Sistine Chapel. The date is significant; it’s All’s Saints’ Day and the day the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was exhibited to the public for the first time in 1512.
This unicum, masterpiece, work-of-art, magnum opus, legacy, collector’s dream, is divided like the Sistine Chapel itself in three separate sections and presented in chronological order: Volume 1: “The Frescoes of the 15th Century” by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli, and other Renaissance masters. Volume 2: “The Ceiling” depicting the story of mankind from the Creation to the Coming of Christ in frescoes commissioned by Pope Julius II (r.1503-1513) and painted by Michelangelo from (1508-1512). And Volume 3: the frescoes commissioned by Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1545), again painted by Michelangelo, of the “Last Judgment” and the Second Coming of Christ (from 1534-1541). All the texts, essays and captions, are by Antonio Paolucci, the former Director of The Vatican Museums (2007-2016), previously in sequence the Director General of Cultural Heritage from 1980-2006 of Venice, Verona, Mantua and finally Florence, with an interval as Italy’s Minister of Culture from 1995-96.
Callaway’s website www.callaway.com bullet lists many special features of the trilogy:
“-English translations of Paolucci’s essays by Renaissance art historian Frank Dabell, translator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer
-The trim size of each volume is 24 x 17 inches vertical
-The weight of each is approximately 20 lbs. or 60 lbs. total
-822 total pages
-Printed in six-color offset lithography, including 220 24 x 51-inch gatefolds
-The Bodoniana bindings handmade in silk with metallic ink and white calf leather spines stamped in silver, gold and platinum foil
-Typographic design by Jerry Kelly
-Debossed handmade endpapers based on the Cosmati mosaic tile floor pattern of the Sistine Chapel
-Custom handmade box
-Retail Price $22,000 for the set, with shipping and handling
-Available for purchase December 1, 2020.”
Not included in this list, since it’s not a Callaway undertaking, are the volumes’ breathtaking photographs (copyrighted by the Vatican Museums). Nonetheless, Callaway’s website explains that a team of Vatican photographers took more than 270,000 images over the course of 65 consecutive nights, when the Sistine Chapel is closed.
They used a 33-foot tall scaffold and rig to capture every inch of the Chapel’s frescoes with advanced optics and digital photography. “The team was able to utilize three-dimensional reconstruction software to stitch together seamlessly all 270,000 individual frames to reproduce the Chapel to an unprecedented level of color [(99.4% accurate)] and detail [(1:1 scale)]. The result is the first opportunity in history for viewers to see the frescoes …with images so detailed and sharp and immersive that you feel you are there next to the artist, seeing in extreme close-up the precise colors, textures, even the artists’ individual brush strokes.”
A bibliophile myself, I was enthusiastic about La Voce’s request for an insider’s account of this remarkable collaboration between the Vatican Museums, the distinguished Bolognese publisher Scripta Maneant, and New York-based Callaway. To accomplish my enviable task, I exchanged several e-mails with Manuela Roosevelt, the editorial director of Callaway since 2014. I also met in person here in Rome, with Frank Dabell. Callaway hired him because of his numerous translations for the Met during and since his two-year Fellowship there in the mid-1980s. Besides the Met, Dabell has translated catalogs from French and Italian for the Frick Collection, the National Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
From Roosevelt I learned that Callaway had been inspired to approach the Vatican Museums about participating in this project because of a two-volume set Sistine Chapel published in 1991 by Knopf. Callaway’s The Sistine Chapel was five years in the making. Thus, the arrangements were signed and sealed while Paolucci was the Museums’ director.
During the project’s first two years Scripta Maneant published three other simpler versions, one in Italian which cost 1,000 euros and sold out immediately, one in Polish and one in Russian. The photographs are the same in all four editions, as are Paolucci’s writings. “The Vatican Museums limited the total number of all editions to 1,999 never to be reprinted in this format again,” Roosevelt wrote me. “We determined that we could comfortably sell 600 sets of the English edition.”
“The differences between editions,” Roosevelt continued, “…are in the typographic treatment and in the finishing and binding choices for each edition. The covers of the Italian edition, for instance, are paper-over-board with a composite leather spine.”
“Our seemingly exorbitant price tag,” she explained, “is the result of the higher costs of the materials used in our edition and, of course, the higher manufacturing costs with everything being handmade. Although we don’t disclose the names of our customers, I can confirm many are international and that sales are already robust.”
Until December 1 the volumes could only be ordered from Callaway’s website and were shipped worldwide from Scripta Maneant. Now the set can also be ordered from Neiman Marcus, Gumps in San Francisco, and Barnes & Noble bookstores. “Once museums re-open,” continued Roosevelt, “we hope that some will sell our edition. Although the Vatican Museums own the copyright to the art, Callaway sets aren’t sold there or elsewhere in Rome. Scripta Maneant recently told us that not even Pope Francis has a set, neither the Italian nor our English edition. We should certainly remedy that! Yet a percentage from every sale of every edition goes to the support of the ongoing conservation efforts of the Vatican Museums and of the Sistine Chapel. We also match financially, donations to public institutions and libraries, college art departments, churches, and dioceses.”
The Sistine Chapel is Callaway’s first project with the Vatican, but Roosevelt confirmed that together with Scripta Maneant they’re considering several others.
Dabell, on the other hand, isn’t a newcomer to Rome; he grew up here because his British father was a hydraulic engineer at the FAO. Nor is he a newcomer to Vatican projects. For example, in 2016, he co-curated with Paolucci, the exhibition in Forlì, Piero della Francesca: Indagine su un mito.
Regarding The Sistine Chapel, Dabell told me, “Callaway sent me the text, which consisted of both Paolucci’s essays and his captions. And here we come to one of the immediate problems with these kinds of texts. An essay has to flow, but so do captions because they too can be a mini-paragraph.”
“The introductory essays to each volume,” continued Dabell, “weren’t over-academic; they were very much: “This is Paolucci speaking”. They were as if I was participating in a one-to-one guided tour with Paolucci beside me or to a lecture with a slide show or a power-point performance by him. When I translate, I want to capture the tone of the author, in this case an expert, who is also very devout, so, as his translator, I wanted that to come across.
In the opening introduction Paolucci points out that the Sistine Chapel is an artwork of faith, even if it’s possible to look at the art without considering its context. But, if you have faith, a visit to the Sistine Chapel or reading this book will be a much richer experience.”
“My job,” explained Dabell, “was to match the images with the appropriate words because we only have words to describe music, to describe painting, to describe all art forms. It’s a huge challenge to find the appropriate words particularly for colors because they change during the day and in different seasons. For example, orange or brown are too generic so I opted for nuances like apricot and chestnut. I also deliberately translated the volumes in their chronological order because I read The Sistine Chapel as an organic piece with a consistent style.”
“Another challenge of translation is not the length, but the density of the text,” Dabell continued. “Italian can be long-winded to put it rudely. Unlike Italian, in English we don’t have one very long sentence or paragraph filling a page; we have three.”
After studying art history at Merton College, Oxford, and the Courtauld Institute, followed by his Fellowship at the Metropolitan, Dabell remained in New York writing catalogs for the Piero Corsini Gallery and lecturing at the Met. In 2001 he returned to Rome, “because it was my comfort zone…For example, I find myself at ease in the Sistine Chapel. I’ve been hundreds of times but each time I see something new. I still can’t claim to know every inch of it; I will when I see Callaway’s set…I can’t wait! For now, if I’m lying in bed with my eyes closed, I can take myself through the scenes on the ceiling even in detail. So, writing this translation was to translate those images into my own words via Paolucci’s. It forced me to look even more closely at something that I thought I already knew.”
In addition to the Sistine Chapel, Dabell is at home with Piero della Francesca. “Certainly, my greatest experience of the last four years was being the only non-Italian on the supervisory committee for the recent conservation of Piero’s Resurrection in San Sepolcro. It was like being in the middle of an orchestra while it’s playing your favorite piece of music.”
Besides translating and curating, Dabell has been a professor at Temple University in Rome since 2003 and on the art history faculty of the University (Tor Vergata) since 2018. In addition, he’s taught at Dartmouth College’s Foreign Study Program and at the Università per gli Stranieri in Perugia. He’s a frequent guest lecturer for museum journeys in Europe and the Mediterranean (most recently in Thessaloniki and Athens: The Legacy of Alexander the Great for the Met, in 2019) as well as Russia and North Africa.
Dabell’s Vatican next project is one of several lectures by distinguished art historians to be viewed on the internet exclusively for the Patrons of the Art in the Vatican Museums. His lecture’s title is: “Fra Angelico, Pinturicchio, and the Dream Team of Florentine Art. The Quattrocento Painters in the Papal Chapels and Apartments.”