Did Michelangelo Sketch These Drawings in a Secret Room Below a Florence Chapel?

For the first time, visitors will get to see the intricate sketches that some scholars attribute to the artist

Secret Room drawings
The charcoal drawings in a secret room under the Medici Chapels Museum in Florence Roberto Serra / Iguana Press / Getty Images

In 1975, Paolo Dal Poggetto, director of Florence’s Medici Chapels Museum, was hoping to create a new exit for visitors to the site when he happened upon a trapdoor. Hidden under a wardrobe, it led down into a forgotten room once used to store coal until it was sealed in 1955.

Dal Poggetto had a hunch it was something more, writes Luigi Navarro of the Associated Press (AP).

He had the plaster walls of the room stripped away, revealing a stunning sight: The room was covered in dozens of charcoal and chalk drawings. Dal Poggetto was convinced Michelangelo was the artist behind the works, sketching them as he hid from a death sentence in 1530. However, since the museum director’s discovery almost 50 years ago, scholars have continued to debate which drawings, if any, the master created.

Now, members of the public will have their first-ever opportunity to see the drawings and decide for themselves. Starting November 15, the Medici Chapels will allow small groups to view the room, which measures roughly 33 feet by 10 feet. Four visitors at a time will be able to descend the narrow stairway to the LED-lit room and spend 15 minutes inside, with a weekly cap of 100 visitors, reports Reuters. In between visits, the room will be kept dark to protect the drawings from light exposure.

“The moment you enter that room, you simply are speechless,” says Paola D’Agostino, the director of the Bargello Museums, a group of five museums that includes the Medici Chapels, to the New York Times’ Jason Horowitz. 

As your eyes adjust to the room’s dim lighting, she adds, “You start seeing all the different drawings and all the different layers.”

Among the drawings are nudes, faces and studies of various body parts. One nude near the room’s entrance shows a face in profile and looking forward, which some experts say evokes Michelangelo’s Resurrection of Christ, reports the Times. Another sketch of legs seems to resemble a sculpture by the artist on a tomb in the chapel. Experts have also suggested that other drawings show similarities to a figure in The Fall of Phaeton—or even the arm of Michelangelo’s famous David statue.

If the sketches are Michelangelo’s, the artist would have created them when he went into hiding for a two-month period in 1530 after the Medici family, his former patrons, returned to Florence, writes the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida. Three years prior, Michelangelo had joined a popular revolt that led to the family’s exile and the republican government that temporarily replaced them. When the Medicis returned, Pope Clement VII, a member of the family, ordered the artist’s death. The family eventually lifted the order so Michelangelo could continue working on the Sistine Chapel and the Medici family tomb.

Some scholars are skeptical that the artist, who had already achieved great acclaim, would have taken refuge in “such a dingy hide out,” writes the Times

Still, many suspect that at least some of the sketches are Michelangelo’s. “The hand is very fast, showing great confidence,” Francesca De Luca, the current director of the Medici Chapels Museum, tells the Times.

William Wallace, a Michelangelo scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks less than half a dozen of the sketches are the artist’s work, as he told NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli in 2018. Still, he says the drawings are a valuable addition to Renaissance scholarship, regardless of the artist’s identity.

“It's a glimpse into something of the culture of the time,” he said. “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.”

D’Agostino hopes that the intricate art will spark in visitors the same sense of wonder she feels when she enters the space.

“Even though I have been in the room so many times, I am still amazed by this mesmerizing set of drawings,” she tells the Guardian.

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