A “Secret Michelangelo Room” is Opening in Florence. Can it Tell Us Anything New?

Tue, 11/14/2023 - 04:45
The secret room beneath the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo
The secret room beneath the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo / Photo: Francesco Fantani for Musei del Bargello

It was the discovery of a lifetime. In 1975, Paolo dal Poggetto, director of the Medici Chapels of San Lorenzo in Florence, was looking for a way to funnel the increasing numbers of visitors in a one-way direction to avoid a bottleneck inside the Renaissance sacristy designed by Michelangelo. One custodian, an old-timer, remembered an underground room whose trap-door access was obscured by an ancient storage cabinet. The dark space was neglected and once stored coal, but perhaps a small window leading to the Piazza San Lorenzo could be refashioned into a door to improve the flow of visitors. The staff set about clearing the room and removing whitewash from the walls.

But instead of a practical passageway to the outside, the staff made a different kind of discovery on the newly cleaned walls: some 200 sketches in charcoal and red chalk. The drawings appeared to date from the first half of the 16th century — and, according to dal Poggetto, came from the hand of Michelangelo himself. The incredible “secret room” was announced to the public. Paolo dal Poggetto published a scholarly article, and then a book in 1979, outlining his arguments for the attribution. Dal Poggetto believed Michelangelo executed the drawings in 1530, during a three-month period when the artist was hiding from Medici henchmen.

Early skepticism

Detail of figure sketches in the secret room
Detail of figure sketches in the secret room / Photo: Francesco Fantani for Musei del Bargello

From the start, scholars had their doubts about the attribution of the drawings to Michelangelo. In 1981, Renaissance specialist Caroline Elam published a journal article questioning it. Speaking with National Public Radio in 2018, William E. Wallace, one of the world’s most respected Michelangelo scholars, said that although the discovery of the drawings was exciting, he believed “less than a half a dozen could possibly be by Michelangelo.” 

The room in question lies beneath the floor of the so-called New Sacristy, located on the northwestern corner of the San Lorenzo complex. The room stands approximately ten meters long by three meters wide. Now restored, the walls are covered with some 200 individual doodles — an overlapping cacophony of profiles and legs and torsos and architecture — some small, others over life-sized. Dal Poggetto attributed 97 of these sketches to Michelangelo Buonarroti, who was hiding from persecution during a volatile political period between August and October 1530.

It’s a compelling story. Although Michelangelo had enjoyed Medici patronage in his youth, several decades later, the political tide had turned many times over. Now, Florence was steeling itself against the reinstatement of the ousted Medici, a move that would essentially turn the republic into a monarchy. Because Michelangelo had been responsible for designing the republic’s fortifications against the Medici return, he was a wanted man. The prior of San Lorenzo, Giovan Battista Figiovanni, reportedly hid Michelangelo (although we don’t know where) until the Medici pardoned the artist. Michelangelo later left Florence for Rome and never returned. 

What’s in a drawing?

Michelangelo flying figures comparison
At left, a sketch from the secret room; at right, a flying figure by Michelangelo, black chalk, ca. 1534-36, now in the British Museum / Merged images courtesy of Laura Morelli

Some of the secret-room scribbles are at least Michelangelesque, if not by the master’s hand. These include a large female nude identified as Leda, a representation of the bottom half of a seated figure that mirrors Michelangelo’s sculpture of Giuliano de Medici in the sacristy upstairs, as well as the head of a bearded man that is probably the mythical Laocoon. Some of these sketches are beautiful and evocative, others uninspired.

But overall, Renaissance art historians have found it difficult to align even the best of these doodles with the well-documented oeuvre of Michelangelo, one of history’s most accomplished master draughtsmen who, at 55 years old, would have been at the height of his artistic powers. For Michelangelo specialists, this is where the attribution falls apart. 

If we’re not looking at drawings by Michelangelo, then what do the drawings in the secret room represent? The room once had a well, the only water source for anyone visiting or working in the building; this might have meant craftspeople were coming and going in this not-so-secret room. Local and visiting artists flocked to the New Sacristy with sketchbooks in hand to study the work of the revered Michelangelo. The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari claims the New Sacristy became a “scuola delle arti” for aspiring artists who came there seeking inspiration.

What seems likely is that we are looking at a series of sketches from the first half of the 16th century, some higher quality than others. Perhaps we are looking at the work of various artists who would have been not only familiar with Michelangelo’s work but were actively copying. What remains unclear is if any of the drawings represent the hand of Michelangelo Buonarroti himself. In a 1981 scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine, Renaissance specialist Caroline Elam stated that “a consensus may never emerge.” Indeed, in 2023, we are left wondering.

Who doesn’t love a tale of hiding, political intrigue and secrets? Or a wonderful discovery of lost works made by a great master? It’s a dramatic story, and it’s no wonder the international press has given so much air time to the story of Michelangelo’s “secret room.” 

But is it true? Starting on November 15, inside a carefully managed ticketing process that will allow four people into the space for 15 minutes at a time, the public can make their own judgments about the newly restored drawings. Scholars, meanwhile, will continue with their debates — if not give definitive answers. After this extraordinary opening, however, more people may be listening to their conversation.

If you go

“Michelangelo’s Secret Room” and the Medici Chapels
Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini 6, Florence
Open for small group visits from November 15-March 30, 2024
Book online