ROME (AP) _ Loincloths painted on nudes to soothe 16th-century sensibilities will be retained to suit a 20th-century sense of history, restorers of Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' say.

Italian art critics on Wednesday welcomed the decision by Vatican restorers to keep the loincloths in Michelangelo's 16th century Sistine Chapel fresco.

''The additions document an episode of history,'' said Giulio Carlo Argan, a top art historian.

Some 16th century church officials were shocked by the nude figures in the dramatic fresco on the altar wall of the chapel. In 1564, Pope Pius IV ordered the most ''indecent'' nudes to be covered up by artist Daniele da Volterra.

Fabrizio Mancinelli, who has directed the Vatican team restoring the Michelangelo frescoes since the project's beginning in 1980, announced earlier this week that restorers would not remove da Volterra's loincloths.

But loincloths added later by other artists may be removed at some future date.

Mancinelli said visitors noted artists working on the nudes as late as the 18th century. The later additions, he said, are less in harmony with the painting and probably more easily removed.

Asked whether Pope John Paul II had expressed a preference, Mancinelli said that while the pontiff has been very interested in the project, they had never discussed the issue of the loincloths.

''I don't think he's very interested,'' Mancinelli said in a telephone interview.

The leading Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera said it polled critics and found them in agreement with the Vatican's decision to keep some loincloths.

One of them, Renato Barilli, told Corriere that even Michelangelo later expressed doubts about the character of his nudes.

Earlier stages of the restoration of the Michelangelo frescoes, covering the chapel's ceiling and altar wall, were dogged by criticism that restorers were cleaning away not just centuries of filth, but also some of Michelangelo's own retouchings.

But the Vatican team maintains it has left the original work intact, removing only dirty layers of glue added by 17th- and 18th-century restorers to liven up the grimy frescoes.

Mancinelli said the cleaning of the ''Last Judgment,'' the last phase of the Sistine Chapel restoration, should be finished by the spring of 1994.