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Figure1Aerobiological monitoring of the “Sistine Chapel”: airborne bacteria and microfungi trends

Three sampling campaigns were carried out in the Chapel on the following dates: November 1997 and 27 February 1998.

During each sampling operation the following IGRIST psychrometer (Model IGN/B). The air speed was recorded with the Terman anemometer without flow direction connector. The carbon dioxide concentration in the air was measured with the BABUK/M multisampler and the BSO 103 probe. The actual air samplings were carried out with Surface Air System (SAS) samplers using “surface plate”, Model MTM-3 Plus (Multitime Monitoring System-3 Plus), which have a capacity of 180 litres of air per minute (active system) and make it possible to take three samples at once; samples were taken at intervals of 15 minutes over a period of one hour, i.e. a total of five samples for each culture media. The results were expressed as CFU/m3 of air intake. Gravimetric samplers based on an original support were also used (Figure 1). The idea to develop this new support was linked to this particular type of investigation which seeks to understand not only how many and which type of microorganisms are deposited by gravity before, during and after the arrival of visitors, but also how many actually deposit on the walls and ceiling vaults of the Sistine Chapel. While passive methods most commonly used today allow collection only of microorganisms deposited by gravity, this sampler makes it possible to collect even those particles moving about according to air currents. The sampler is built to allow placement of “surfair plate” which contain the selected culture media, in a manner to cover all directions in the form of a sphere. Each sampler contains eight plates and the use of three samplers is necessary to allow each of the three selected cultura media to face all directions.

Two sampling locations were used for gravimetric sampling: one close to the active sampling apparatus, at a height of 3.5 m above ground, with three samplers, and the other above the altar, at a height of about 1.4 m, i.e. immediately below the wall of Universal Judgment, once again with three samplers. The data obtained were converted as numbers of microorganisms deposited on 1 m2 of surface after one hour of exposure. Also this systems supported “Surfair plates” (International PBI) that have a surface area of 24 cm2.

Tryptone Soy Agar(total bacterial count), Mannitol Salt Agar (Staphylococcus count) and Czapek Agar (total microfungi count) were the media used for microorganisms detection. The identification methods employed were VITEK SYSTEMS jr. (Bio Mérieux) for Staphylococcus spp.and microscopic observation for microfungi.



As far as the microclimatic parameters are concerned s (Table 1), in each of the periods examined, even at the times when the flow of visitors was at its height,the values remained within acceptable limits for both the conservation of the art work and the comfort and well being of the visiting public. The same applies to the recorded CO2 values, since it is well known that this value must be kept below 1 ppm if the air is not to be perceived as vitiated (Bellante De Martiis et al.,1993). Table 2 shows the data (expressed as CFU) obtained by means of the two sampling methods in the three sampling periods relating to the total microbial load and, separately, to Staphylococcus and microfungi. The SAS samples showed a lower microbial load (expressed per m3) than the passive samples(expressed per m2), both for bacteria and for fungi. In the case of both samplers the results brought out a positive correlation between the airborne microorganisms and the number of visitors. These data demon-

strate that the capture of particles obtained with the new type of support, developed spacifically for this work, was very effective. We therefore believe that an investigation of particles deposited on all surfaces, not only horizontal ones, and which seeks to identify which particles are present and moving about in the air at a particular time, can use both sampling methods together for better understanding of the phenomena. The air changes were nevertheless found to be efficacious: indeed, the microbial loads were found to return to the initial values in the samples taken two hours after the departure of the visitors, with the sole exception of the sample taken on May 21 (and then only as regards the total microbial load). It should also be noted that the number of isolates obtained by means of both methods was smaller in the winter sampling. This result confirms those obtained by other authors (De-Wei Li and Kendrick 1995;Ebner et al. 1989; Lacey 1981; Rosas et al. 1992; Simeray et al. 1993) indicating a consistently lower microbial loads in winter months, for both bacteria and fungi. Therefore airborne spores from the public visitors to this type of closed, air-conditioned and air- filtered environment are generally less present than in uncontrolled spaces. The epidemiological meaning


of the differently collected data varies: in fact, the increase in the human Staphylococcus isolates during visiting hours is more marked than the increase in the total airborne bacterial load (Tables 2, most frequently detected genera of microfungi were  Cladosporium and Penicillium (Table 4).The data obtained suggest to develop a system like a passageway for entrance of the public with a counter air flow to “wash” visitors. Monitoring the effect of the special passageway would allow a full evaluation of the level of controls in this precious environment.


The results of the analyses highlight the efficiency of the air conditioning system, but bring out the need for exercising greater control over the flow of visitors, who are the principal vehicle for the introduction of microbial and fungal spores. The passive detection method devised for these analyses proved to be efficacious and enabled the isolation of microorganisms present not only due to the effects of gravity,but also those carried by turbulent air movements.


The Authors wish to thank Sara Ceccangeli, Fabrizio Ceccarelli, Massimo Fabiani, Francesca Floccia and Ercole De Simoni, for their kind help. Nicholas Nelson is thanked for giving help with English translation.



Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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