In the summer of 1530, Michelangelo went missing for three months. He had been working on the Medici Chapels of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. Some people speculated that he was staying with a friend; others thought he hid out in a church bell tower. For almost 500 years the whereabouts of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni remained a secret.
What was going on in Florence at the time? By 1527 Florentines had grown weary of the Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe. Hoping for a more democratic government, rebels organized a popular revolt and drove the ruling family out of Florence. Michelangelo joined the rebels working to help fortify the city walls against the Medici forces led by Pope Clement VII, who was himself a Medici.
Why would Michelangelo do this? He owed his very livelihood to the Pope and the Medici family, who commissioned his art including the very project he was working on. After 10 months of struggle, the Pope and his family won, and the rebels were swiftly punished. Michelangelo would have been punished too had he not found a hiding place. By November 1530, the Pope let it be known that Michelangelo could return to work—unpunished—to complete the Chapel. Only then did he emerge from his hiding place.
Fast forward 445 years to 1975. Paolo Dal Poggetto, the director of the Medici Chapels museum at that time, was searching for a new way for tourists to exit the museum. He and his colleagues discovered a trapdoor hidden beneath a wardrobe near the New Sacristy, a chamber designed to house the ornate tombs of Medici rulers. Below the trapdoor, stone steps led to a room that appeared at first to simply store coal. As one might suspect throughout Florence and all of Italy, Dal Poggetto wondered if something interesting might be underneath the plaster walls. Experts spent weeks meticulously removing the plaster with scalpels.
What emerged were dozens of charcoal drawings believed to be the work of Michelangelo when he was holed up there. Some sketches are similar to his most famous works, including the statue of David, paintings in the Sistine Chapel, and a statue adorning a Medici tomb in the Sacristy above. He apparently filled his solitude with reflections on old works, as well as sketches of those he wanted to do once he survived those dramatic months.
Apart from logistical questions of how he survived in this space, there are some doubts about the provenance of these drawings. As with any unsigned artwork, it is impossible to confirm the origins of the drawings with absolute certainty. Some art critics believe that some of the doodles are too amateurish to be Michelangelo’s. Others are convinced that in this 7 by 2 meter secret room is the major artistic find of the 20thcentury. Supposedly Michelangelo recalled his time there: “I hid in a tiny cell, entombed like the dead Medici above, though hiding from a live one. To forget my fears, I filled the walls with drawings.”
Since the discovery of these drawings in 1976, the room has been open mostly for scholars. However, in 2013, touch screen computers have made the treasures visible to a wider audience. While access to the room is difficult and the stairs down through the trap door cannot be widened, the room will be open to the public in 2020.