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This Room Is Thought To Have Been Michelangelo's Secret Hideaway And Drawing Board

Jun 3, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 9:42 pm

It was an art historian's chance discovery of a lifetime. Over 40 years ago, a museum director in Florence, Italy, found a hidden room whose walls were covered in drawings believed to be the work of Michelangelo and his disciples.

Although the drawings are not signed by the master, art experts say some of the sketches in charcoal and chalk are almost certain to be Michelangelo originals. They could shed light not only on the Renaissance artist's creative process but also on a mysterious and dangerous period in his life.

The room is located in Florence's Basilica di San Lorenzo. That was the official church of the Medici family — the famous patrons of the arts who governed Florence, and later Tuscany, for centuries.

Around 1520, the Medicis commissioned Michelangelo to design a family mausoleum. It came to be known as the Medici Chapels.

Visitors to the Chapels speak in hushed tones as they admire the nude marble sculptures adorning the tombs of Lorenzo de' Medici and two other relatives. The naked forms — allegories of four parts of day — project an intense sensation of serenity and philosophical contemplation.

But historians believe Michelangelo eventually betrayed his patrons by joining a 1527 revolt that drove the Medicis out of Florence. When the family returned three years later, Michelangelo is thought to have gone into hiding for months — in the secret dwelling below the chapels.

The hidden room, 23 feet by 6 1/2 feet, was discovered in 1975 by a museum director who spotted a trapdoor below a wardrobe that led to the room. After cleaning the walls, the museum director discovered dozens of doodles and scribbles on the walls. Some of the drawings called to mind known works by the master.

For security reasons, there is no access for the public and researchers need special permission to visit the room.

"You have to go down a series of very steep steps, and you start seeing all these drawings that are breathtaking," says Paola d'Agostino, director of the Bargello Museum that oversees the Medici Chapels.

She says the drawings in the hidden room are varied. Some recall Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. One is similar to the artist's bigger-than-life David sculpture.

There's also a drawing of the Laocoon, based on a statue from antiquity depicting a mythological attack on a Trojan priest and his two sons by writhing sea snakes. Michelangelo was in Rome when the statue was unearthed in 1506.

"Michelangelo was obsessed, as were all the other sculptors of the time," says D'Agostino, "because it was the incarnation of movement and deep expression in sculpture."

There are as many as 70 different sketches on the room's walls. Art experts disagree on how many of them were drawn by the master himself.

"I think maybe less than half a dozen could possibly be by Michelangelo," says William Wallace, a Michelangelo scholar at Washington University in St. Louis who has viewed the drawings in Florence.

Even if the sketches are not all works by the master, Wallace says their discovery was an exciting addition to Renaissance scholarship.

"It's a glimpse into something of the culture of the time. These drawings are part of the day-to-day routine of what a bunch of people had to do to put together a complicated and important work like the Medici Chapel," he says.

The Medicis pardoned Michelangelo after their return to power. But following the end the republic of Florence, he left his native city for Rome in 1532 and never returned.

The mausoleum remained unfinished. Nevertheless, says D'Agostino, it became what she calls the "school of the world."

"It became the place where everybody from all over Europe — draftsmen, sculptors, painters — went to look at Michelangelo's work," she says.

D'Agostino says that after years of study and careful conservation, she expects the drawings in the secret room will be made visible to the public by 2020.

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More than 40 years ago, a museum director in Florence, Italy, discovered a hidden room with walls covered in sketches believed to be by Michelangelo and his disciples. The drawings help shed light on the artist's creative process and also on a mysterious and dangerous period of his life. Within two years, these sketches should finally be made visible to the public, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: San Lorenzo was the official church of the Medicis, patrons of the arts who governed Florence for many centuries. In 1520, they chose Michelangelo to design a family mausoleum. It came to be known as the Medici Chapels.

Visitors speak in hushed tones as they admire the marble nudes adorning the tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent and two other Medicis. The allegories day, night, dawn and dusk project an intense sensation of serenity and philosophical contemplation.

An Italian guide provides background. In 1527, says the guide, a popular revolt sent the Medicis into exile. Even though Michelangelo owed his career to one of Europe's most powerful families, the artist joined the opposition to the Medicis' autocratic rule. But three years later, the guide explains, the Medicis were back in power. Fearing for his life, Michelangelo disappeared.

Peeking behind a door that's ajar, visitors see a trap door. Down there, says the guide, Michelangelo spent three months in hiding. The secret room - 23 by 6 1/2 feet - was discovered in 1975. There's no access for the public, and even researchers need special permission.

PAOLA D'AGOSTINO: You have to go down a series of very steep steps, and you start seeing all these drawings that are breathtaking.

POGGIOLI: Museum director Paola d'Agostino oversees the Medici Chapels. Not all scholars are convinced Michelangelo spent all his time in hiding in the secret room, but they agree the sketches recall many of his works, like the Sistine Chapel frescoes and the statue of David.

There's also a sketched Laocoon, a statue from antiquity depicting a father and three sons attacked by writhing sea snakes. Michelangelo was in Rome when the extraordinary statue was unearthed in 1506.

D'AGOSTINO: Michelangelo was obsessed, as were all the other sculptors of his time, because it was the incarnation of movement and deep expression in sculpture.

POGGIOLI: There are some 60 to 70 different sketches on the secret room walls. William Wallace, a Michelangelo scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, believes less than half a dozen are by the master. But their discovery, he says, is an exciting addition to Renaissance scholarship.

WILLIAM WALLACE: So it's a glimpse into something of the culture of the time. These drawings are part of the day-to-day routine of what a bunch of people had to do to put together a complicated and important, you know, work like the Medici Chapel.

POGGIOLI: After their return to power, the Medicis pardoned Michelangelo, but he was so disappointed with the failure of the Republic of Florence that he left his native city and never returned. The mausoleum remained unfinished. Nevertheless, says D'Agostino, it became what she calls the school of the world.

D'AGOSTINO: It became the place where everybody from all over Europe - draftsmen, sculptors, painters - went to look at Michelangelo's work.

POGGIOLI: After years of study and careful conservation, D'Agostino expects the secret room sketches will be open to the public by 2020. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Florence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.