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Scaffolds To Come Off St. Peter’s

September 17, 1999

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ After two years of polishing and patching, the last scaffolding falls Saturday from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica _ revealing newly rediscovered tints that were hidden beneath centuries of gray grime.

Pope John Paul II will inaugurate the freshly scrubbed facade on Sept. 30 _ presenting the face that St. Peter’s will show the world during the Roman Catholic Church’s Holy Year celebrations for the new millennium.

``We have rendered what was the original idea of the architect,″ said Daniele Pergolizzi, a spokesman for the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the commission in charge of the conservation of Vatican buildings.

Workers enveloped the 115-yard-wide facade in thousands of feet of metal and wood for the $4.8 million restoration.

The rigging left only the heads of Christ, John the Baptist and 11 apostles peeking out at sightseers and pilgrims below in St. Peter’s Square. Metal marred snapshots over two summers.

The scaffolding has been coming down rapidly in recent weeks. The last is due off over the weekend.

The restoration included cleaning off a decayed surface layer as well as perceived botches from previous restorations.

It uncovered subtle shades of difference in the travertine under the old hydrocarbon haze. Eight columns of the restored facade are a dim white. Much of the rest is now the color of straw.

``The shades give depth and perspective to a flat surface,″ Pergolizzi explained. ``It’s like the columns stand out from the rest of the complex.″

In the central loggia, two red pilasters stand next to a green-tinted wall _ the only colored spot in the whole facade.

The colors were not in the original project, and are believed to have been added in the 18th century, said Daniela Viglione of ENI, the state-run energy company that provided funding for the restoration.

They probably were meant to be a further ornament to the balcony that popes use to deliver their messages and blessings, but different hypotheses also are being studied.

Painstaking surveys for the restoration discovered other surprises, including a 17-inch slouch in one end of the facade.

And air analyses revealed pollution levels at St. Peter’s are among the lowest in Rome, thanks to the encircling colonnades that give St. Peter’s Square its own micro-climate.

Diesel pollutants run higher than the Rome average, however, because of the tourist buses that drive in and out of the square. Those pollutants are particularly damaging to stone.

Restorers affixed lead sheets to some spots that are out of sight to protect from the pollution.

They put protective coats on the copper and iron propping up the clocks and saints on the facade.

Finally, an electrostatic system was installed along the facade to discourage birds and what a project report delicately called ``bird pollution.″

Carlo Maderno had erected the facade for Pope Paul V, starting in 1605. The pontiff first had demolished a sagging, earlier facade on the then-1,300-year-old basilica.

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