Over fifty years after its discovery, Michelangelo’s Secret Room in Florence is now open to the public. From 15th November 2023 small groups will be able to access the room hidden below the Medici Chapels, where Michelangelo Buonarroti is believed to have hid during the persecution of the Medici family in 1530. What’s special about it? While Michelangelo was in hiding, he covered the walls in wondrous sketches, until now seen only by scholars and art experts.
Michelangelo’s Secret Rooms and Sketches
It sounds like the plot of an adventure novel, something conjured by the imagination of Dan Brown. But this is a true story. The ‘hidden room’ was discovered in 1975, when the then director of the Medici Chapels, Paolo dal Poggetto, uncovered a trapdoor underneath some old furniture. A stone staircase led down to a narrow room – 10 meters long, 3 meters wide, 2,50 high – whose walls were later stripped to reveal a series of charcoal and sanguine sketches.
Since then, innumerable art experts have been looking into these astonishing drawings. Many have recognised the unmistakable Michelangelo style and agreed that, at least some of the sketches originate from his ingenious hands. Others are still examining facts and debating the author’s identity.
The theory – started by Paolo del Poggetto – is that Michelangelo was trapped here, in a room lit only by a tiny window, fearing for his life, and that he kept his hand in by sketching monumental figures and striking anatomic details. It’s a dramatic image to be sure. But why would he have been hiding?
Some Historical Facts – Michelangelo and the Medici Pope
It was the year 1530. The Medici – and more precisely Giulio de’ Medici, who was now Pope Clemente VII – had just taken the power back in Florence, after the Republican government had banished them from the city three years earlier.
During these three years the Republic of Florence had valiantly fought for its freedom against the Emperor allied with the Pope, and during the siege Michelangelo had undertaken various tasks for the military defence, designing stronger fortifications for the city. But to no avail. The enemy entered the city, and Pope Clemente VII wanted revenge against the traitors.
Just to put things into context, we need to remember that Michelangelo grew up in the Medici household, and he and the Pope had known each other since they were very young. The artist had also been working for the Medici family for years, carrying out the building and decoration of the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo Church, to create a mausoleum for the Medici. So, in the end Michelangelo didn’t incur the wrath of Clemente VII – many other adversaries were killed or exiled – but he was pardoned and asked to finish his work at the Medici Chapels.
An intriguing theory – Michelangelo’s hiding place
The story goes that the prior of San Lorenzo kept him alive by hiding him in a hidden room below the Church after the enemy of the Republic stormed the city. It was the perfect place for someone fleeing from an irate pope. Here the ‘divine artist’ spent a few weeks, maybe months, his head filled with projects and memories of past artworks, ideas and beautiful visions that he sketched on the walls of his dark hideout.
Quick touches of black on the white wall, the artist using the walls like a sketch book. Silhouettes, profiles, studies and glimpses of statues to come. Some recall his David, or the convoluted poses that he gave the figures in the Sistine Chapel. Another is similar to the sitting sculpture of Giuliano Duke of Nemours in the Medici Chapel New Sacristy. The scholars who believe the drawings to be Michelangelo’s stress this similarity.
“The hand is very fast, showing great confidence, it makes you think”Francesca de Luca, director of the Medici Chapel Museum, said to the New York Times
Now that the secret room has been opened to the general public, visitors can decide for themselves what to believe. But even if the story’s details are unclear, what’s certain is that a fascinating past has been preserved underground. A Renaissance artist’s work in progress emerging intact from the depth of centuries.
Visit Michelangelo’s Secret Room
Michelangelo’s Secret Room in Florence can be visited only with advance bookings, with a limit of 4 people to a time slot, for a maximum of one hundred people per week. This is in order to protect the drawings and maintain adequate conservation conditions, essential to safeguard the precious drawings.
The opening will be experimental and reservations, at the moment, are possible until March 30th 2024. We signal that most of the dates have already been booked at the time of writing. The access is from the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels, through a very steep narrow staircase.
To book call the Firenze Musei: +39-055-294883.