One of the joys of keeping up with the fields of art history and architectural preservation is that there are always amazing new discoveries cropping up to continue to educate and enlighten. As my regular readers know, although I did study at Sotheby’s in London following undergrad and law school, I do not at present work either in the art world or the building trades. Nevertheless, I have had a lifelong fascination with both areas of study, and I share that fascination with my readers, in the hope that it will encourage you to become more interested in our shared Western cultural history.
The other night while watching the culture program on France24 – with the lovely and always-stylish Eve Jackson – there was a report on a rather fascinating bit of technology aiding art restoration in Florence which caught my attention. To be fair, there is always some such effort going on in Florence, since the city is absolutely crammed full of important buildings and works of art. Yet this particular effort struck me not only for its significance, but also because of its admitted Indiana Jones aspect, which I suspect would appeal to my readers.
Throughout much of his working career, Michelangelo was quite in demand as what we might call a gravestone carver to the One Percent. Even if you are not familiar with art history, you may have seen the classic 1965 Charlton Heston/Rex Harrison film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, which recounts the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and the often-stormy relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. The pope had hired Michelangelo to carve a rather grandiose tomb, but pulled him off the project to decorate the ceiling of the chapel, much to the artist’s dismay.
However this was not the only prominent memorial which Michelangelo was commissioned to work on and left unfinished. In the “New Sacristy” in the Medici Chapels of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Michelangelo began work on monumental tombs for two members of the ruling Medici family, but only completed six of the sculptural elements, including the magnificent statues of the Duke of Urbino and the Duke of Nemours. Their portraits are admittedly idealized, but they display a kind of languid, muscular elegance that is very different from the often rather overly bulky male and female figures Michelangelo tended to produce in both paint and marble.
Despite the fact that the Medici had nurtured him as a young artist and were some of his most important patrons, Michelangelo held republican political sympathies. In 1527 he joined in an uprising against the Medici which temporarily drove the family out of Florence and restored the Florentine Republic; subsequently he himself was put in charge of designing greater fortifications for the city to try to keep the Medici out. When the family returned to power in 1530, the artist quite naturally found himself on their most-wanted list, with a bounty was placed on his head.
Needing a place to hide, Michelangelo concealed himself for about six weeks in, of all places, a crypt space located underneath the very Medici Chapel he had been working on. “I hid in a tiny cell,” he later recalled, “entombed like the dead Medici above, though hiding from a live one. To forget my fears, I filled the walls with drawings.” Miraculously, during restoration work on the Medici Chapels in 1975, that very cell, a little windowless room beneath the New Sacristy, was rediscovered.
Exactly as described by the artist himself, the walls of the room are covered in drawings which clearly came from the master’s hand. Among the fifty or so identifiable sketches, one can see elements from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, some working ideas for sculptures he was preparing for the tombs above, a possible self-portrait, and many other doodles. No doubt frightened, ill, and recognizing he might be captured and executed at any time, Michelangelo simply continued working as best he could. Thus this remarkable space gives us something of a glimpse into the mind of an artist suffering under great anxiety, yet still wanting to express his inner creative impulse. They hold great psychological insight in much the same way that the great Francisco de Goya’s haunting “Black Paintings”, executed on the walls of his home in Madrid as he descended into madness, would also do three centuries later.
After their discovery in the 1970’s, people were allowed to descend from the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels to see these unique drawings, but because of their location in a subterranean room with no ventilation, they soon began to deteriorate from all the moisture and other effluvia carried in by visitors. It was also realized that there were bodies buried under the floor of the room itself, which were releasing decomposition gases and thus had to be exhumed and re-buried elsewhere. Because of the poor state of preservation, the authorities of the Basilica eventually decided to seal the room at the end of last year, until a restoration plan could be approved.
Now, thanks to modern technology and new media, more visitors than ever will be able to see these unique examples of Michelangelo’s work. Although the room containing the original sketches will remain closed to the general public, visitors to San Lorenzo will be able to have a virtual “visit” to Michelangelo’s old spiderhole, and examine high-definition images of his graffiti for themselves, on kiosk stations set up for this purpose both at San Lorenzo and at the nearby Bargello Museum. This will ensure that scholars and restoration experts will continue to have access to the work as needed, while visitors will be able to examine this art for themselves, without actually destroying these priceless treasures in the process.
The juxtaposition of history, art, and mystery in this story is precisely what makes the study of great art and great buildings so exciting. And once again we are presented with an example of how new technology is making these fascinating elements of our Western cultural history even more accessible to people than ever before. While Michelangelo himself might not have wanted thee whole world to stare at his graffiti, we are very fortunate indeed to be able to have, in this one, small room, a piece of architectural, artistic, and indeed political history preserved for future generations.
One of the walls in Michelangelo’s hiding place beneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence