Are 'Secret Room' drawings by Michelangelo? Now, visitors can judge for themselves.

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Are 'Secret Room' drawings by Michelangelo? Now, visitors can judge for themselves.
Details from some of the drawings on the walls of the stanza segreta, or secret room, in the Medici Chapels Museum in Florence, Italy, on Oct. 23, 2023. Despite their age and years covered up, the drawings are “in remarkably good state,” says one expert. (Clara Vannucci/The New York Times)

by Jason Horowitz

NEW YORK, NY.- The narrow, arched room below the Medici Chapels Museum in Florence has some suspiciously virtuosic doodles on the walls.

“The hand is very fast, showing great confidence, it makes you think,” Francesca De Luca, the museum’s director, said as she contemplated a muscular nude by the entrance. She pointed out the legs in another sketch and their resemblance to the powerful gams of a Michelangelo sculpture on a tomb upstairs.

“These have never been seen by the public,” she said.

Until now. Next month, the museum’s so-called stanza segreta, or secret room, where Michelangelo possibly hid and drew on the walls nearly 500 years ago, will open to the public.

The sketches were discovered in 1975 by Paolo Dal Poggetto, then the director of the Medici Chapels, who was hoping to create a new exit for tourists. He and his colleagues discovered a trapdoor hidden beneath a wardrobe off to the side of the New Sacristy, where the tombs Michelangelo created for members of the powerful Medici family line the walls. The door revealed stone steps that led to a room filled with coal.

In 1527, Florentines, including Michelangelo, supported a Republic and the overthrow of the Medicis. But the Medicis stormed back in 1530. Michelangelo went into hiding and slipped off the grid for a few months. Dal Poggetto had a hunch about the newly discovered room. He had the plaster walls removed, revealing charcoal and chalk drawings unseen for centuries. He believed he had found Michelangelo’s hiding place and de facto atelier.

Others doubt that Michelangelo, already in his 50s and an acclaimed artist with powerful patrons, would have spent time in such a dingy hideout. But many scholars believe the sketches show his hand. The general public, except for a brief period in the 1990s, has been kept in the dark, out of fear that the narrow room at the bottom of a flight of steep stairs posed a safety risk for visitors, and that museum-goers would pose a threat to the drawings.

So for decades only accredited scholars, the occasional journalist and big cheeses got to see inside. King Charles III got a peek in 2018. Leonardo Di Caprio was smuggled inside. “We were very good because no one spotted him,” said Paola D’Agostino, the director of the Bargello Museums, to which the Medici Chapels belong.

In September, after years of planning slowed down by the pandemic, D’Agostino inaugurated a new grand exit, which she said opened the door for the secret room to open. The museum installed LED lights in elegant low rails that were safer for the drawings and also acted as a de facto barrier to keep visitors from getting too close.

To protect the drawings, D’Agostino said, visits will be kept to groups of four and limited to 15 minutes, with 45 minute lights-out periods in between to protect the drawings. Tickets, each connected to a specific person whose ID will be checked to prevent tour operators from gobbling them up, will cost 32 euros (about $34), and include access to the Medici tombs. Depending on how things go, the museum could increase visitor numbers next year.

D’Agostino noted that the drawings, despite their age and years covered up, were “in remarkably good state.” She added that advancements in technology over the last half century have led to “a certain stage in which I think most scholars agree that certainly there is the hand of Michelangelo in some of these drawings.”

While herself not a Michelangelo scholar, she said she was convinced that at least two of the quick and confident sketches belonged to the master, who left Florence after working in the chapel, never to return.

One is an imposing nude near the entrance, which has the sketch of a face in profile and looking forward. Experts say it evokes Michelangelo’s “Resurrection of Christ.” The other is the sketch of the legs. Other scholars have suggested that Michelangelo could have drawn sketches of a falling man that resemble the central figure of his “The Fall of Phaeton.” Some even think a flexed and disembodied arm on the wall evokes his David statue.

What is certain, D’Agostino said, is that “nothing of this kind exists in the world of 16th century drawings.”

“The moment you enter that room you simply are speechless,” she added. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, “you start seeing all the different drawings and all the different layers.”

On a recent morning, a careful descent down the stairs led to a direct confrontation with the drawings, and their apparent mastery. Each minute examining the walls yields new discoveries — a muscular torso sketched from half circles, sloping lines and s-shapes. Shading transforms into sinew, a horse’s head looks down from the ceiling.

At one point, De Luca swung open a wooden shutter to show that the room is actually above ground. Light from the Florence morning streamed in, illuminating the nook and the sketch of a face bearing a Michelangelo-like beard.

“Someone said that could be a self-portrait,” she said. “Maybe that’s a little much.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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