ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.