It’s 1975 in Florence, Italy, and Medici Chapel Museum director Paolo Dal Poggetto has a problem. According to The Washington Post, the institution sees over 500,000 visitors each year. But the only exit and entrance are close together in a cramped corridor. So, the director is hunting for an alternative way out. He moves an old piece of furniture in his hunt for extra space. Unexpectedly, this reveals a trapdoor set in the floor. And opening it reveals a hidden cache that will astound the world.
Dal Poggetto had been in a small room – a vestry – just off the main chapel when he made his discovery. He’d been moving various pieces of furniture just to see whether there was any possibility of creating an exit from this diminutive chamber. But it was when the expert pushed aside an old wardrobe that he spotted the wooden trapdoor.
The museum director pushed one old wardrobe in the vestry aside, and that’s when he spotted the mysterious trap door. It seems this small entrance set in the floor had been entirely forgotten about over the years. Pulling it open, Dal Poggetto saw a steep staircase leading down into the gloom. And as far as he could see, the space was filled with junk.
It seems that this forgotten chamber hadn’t been used for some two decades. Previously, it had served as a store for charcoal which fueled the primitive heating system of braziers. Then in November 1966 the River Arno which flows through Florence flooded with devastating consequences. The deadly waters reached heights of up to 20 feet and claimed the lives of 101 of the city’s people, according to the website Into Florence.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo is a church of the Medici family. It also includes Michelangelo’s New Sacristy and that mysterious chamber under the trap door. Sadly, the church is one of the places that was deluged by the flood. The building and the Sacristy were later cleaned up, but the small room had simply been shut up beneath its trapdoor. This entrance was then apparently concealed by the wardrobe in the vestry.
But Dal Poggetto’s curiosity was piqued. He decided that this puzzling room beneath the museum was worth further investigation. So, the director set about clearing it out and he also began to strip back the whitewash that covered the walls. And what emerged after hours of painstaking cleaning was truly astonishing. It turned out that this hidden chamber had a direct relevance to the splendid tombs of the Medicis that lay above.
But who were these Medicis – this family with the wealth to create these splendid tombs executed by one of the leading artists of the day? Well, the House of Medici first came to prominence in the city state of Florence in the 13th century thanks to its banking and business operations. But it was in the 15th century that the Medici family rose as a leading power – and financier – behind the Renaissance.
The Renaissance – which can be translated as the rebirth – was a period when art and culture blossomed in Europe. Great artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were able to flourish during this period with the patronage of wealthy backers including the Medicis. In 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici rose to power in the city state of Florence. And he was the man who helped make Florence the key location for the creation of the Renaissance.
The Medicis went on to produce four popes and remained a power to be reckoned with up until 1737. That year the last of the Medici potentates sadly died without having produced a male inheritor. That meant the House of Medici’s dominance had come to an end. But let’s wind the clock back a bit to the time when Michelangelo was commissioned to create the New Sacristy in the Basilica di San Lorenzo.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo was built in the 15th century and was basically the Medici’s church located in the center of Florence. It was actually built atop the site of an earlier one from over a thousand years earlier. In 1520 Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici – later Pope Clement VII – commissioned Michelangelo to build a mausoleum for important Medici family members. And this would come to be known as the New Sacristy.
Michelangelo and his team finished building the New Sacristy – where our mysterious chamber was found beneath the trapdoor – in 1524. But that was far from the end of the project. The great artist now set about creating the gorgeous marbles sculptures of the mausoleum’s residents, which would take another nine years of Michelangelo’s life.
Though it wasn’t just these beautiful statues of the Medicis that people still flock to see today. Michelangelo and others under his supervision also carved representations of the Madonna and Child and Saints Cosma and Damian – guardians of the Medicis. There was also an allegorical series representing day, night, dawn and dusk plus sarcophagi – the intricately carved marble coffins for the remains of the senior Medicis.
So, the Medicis – in particular Cardinal Giulio – were important patrons for Michelangelo. But working for powerful men can have its complications – especially when those characters have political power. And soon, events in Rome took a turn for the unexpected when a popular revolt brought down the Medicis.
In 1527 Rome was overrun by the hostile forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the Eternal City was sacked amid much death and destruction. Pope Clement VII – who you’ll remember was merely Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici when he commissioned Michelangelo to build the New Sacristy in Florence – was forced to flee. The anarchy spilled over into Florence, too.
Apparently taking their cue from events in Rome, the people of Florence rose up against the House of Medici. In what he must have later regarded as an unwise move, Michelangelo threw in his lot with the rebels, who had founded a republic. He even went as far as to help them to strengthen the fortifications of Florence.
But the hostility between Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V did not last and by 1529, the two were reconciled. Though that was not good news for the republicans of Florence or for Michelangelo. The pope and the emperor now combined forces and laid siege to Florence, where Michelangelo had been working to improve the city’s defenses.
Clement and Charles were determined to restore the Medicis’ power over Florence. It took a ten-month siege to achieve this, but they eventually succeeded. This meant danger for Michelangelo since he had betrayed his former Medici patrons. So, there was only one thing for it: he had to go into hiding.
As his bolt hole, Michelangelo apparently chose that chamber beneath the trapdoor set in the floor of the New Sacristy which he had himself designed. And that is what Dal Poggetto had stumbled upon in 1975. Once he prized open the hinged door, the expert was looking down into the very room where Michelangelo had hidden for two months.
At any rate, that’s what Dal Poggetto came to believe. His belief was massively reinforced by what he found on the walls of the simple chamber, which measures around 23 feet long and a bit less than 7 feet across, according to NPR. Not exactly a spacious bolt hole to spend months cloistered in, is it?
But it was what Michelangelo got up to during his self-imposed imprisonment that intrigued Dal Poggetto. The latter and his conservators spent many hours painstakingly removing two layers of grimy whitewash from the walls of the chamber with scalpels. And what emerged was astonishing.
Once that covering had been removed, The Washington Post reports that a huge collection of some 180 drawings inscribed directly onto the walls emerged. Also, Dal Poggetto believed that at least some of them were from the hand of Michelangelo himself. For any museum director this was the find of a lifetime – previously unseen works by one of the masters of the Renaissance.
Dal Poggetto reckoned that 97 of these wall drawings were actually executed by Michelangelo, according to a 1979 article in the newspaper. The others, meanwhile, were probably sketched by the artist’s students or assistants. These drawings by Michelangelo were especially valuable because of their scale. Unusually, many of these works were life-size or even larger.
The size of these drawings on the chamber walls made them uniquely curious. During his working life it seems that Michelangelo had habitually destroyed most of his working sketches. Those that have survived are relatively small and etched on leaves of paper that are only around 20 inches in size, according to The Washington Post.
And what the drawings represented made them all the more fascinating. Apparently, they had been executed in sienna red crayon and charcoal. The pieces also appeared to be preliminary sketches for works that Michelangelo was in the process of creating. One especially intriguing drawing looked like an early draft of work the great artists would later execute on the Sistine Chapel walls at the Vatican City in Rome. Yep, these were the preparatory drawings of a genius!
Some sketches looked very much like plans for the Laurentian Library, which Michelangelo designed and decorated in another part of Florence’s Basilica di San Lorenzo. Other drawings were apparently preliminary work on paintings and statues that Michelangelo would create later in his career. For instance, one dramatic 7-feet-tall piece of work showed a risen Christ.
One drawing in particular was outstanding in its interest. It simply showed a pair of legs. But these were not just any old limbs. Dal Poggetto believed they were a preliminary sketch for the statue of Giuliano De’ Medici – the man who became Pope Clement VII – which would grace his tomb in the New Sacristy. That, of course, was just above Michelangelo’s hiding place.
For her part, Paola d’Agostino described Michelangelo’s bolt hole in a 2018 interview with NPR. She’s the director of Florence’s Bargello Museum – the ultimate guardian of the New Sacristy. She told the radio station, “You have to go down a series of very steep steps, and you start seeing all these drawings that are breathtaking.”
Some of the drawings on the walls of the chamber had particularly grabbed D’Agostino’s interest. She said that one was reminiscent of Michelangelo’s statue of David – perhaps the single most famous work by the Renaissance artist. If you ever visit Florence, don’t miss it! The magnificent larger-than-life work can be viewed at the city’s Galleria dell’Accademia.
D’Agostino went on to describe an especially fascinating sketch of a statue from ancient times called the Laocoon. The statue was discovered in Rome in 1506 – a year that Michelangelo was in the city. It portrays an attack by sea serpents on a Trojan priest and his sons, which is a scene from classical mythology. D’Agostino explained, “Michelangelo was obsessed – as were all the other sculptors of the time – because it was the incarnation of movement and deep expression in sculpture.”
Dal Poggetto moved on from his directorship of the Medici Chapel Museum in 1979 and sadly died aged 83 four decades later. In 2017 his former post was held by Monica Bietti. She backed up Dal Poggetto’s story of a fearful Michelangelo who was forced into hiding by the return of the Medicis. Bietti told National Geographic in 2017, “Naturally, Michelangelo was afraid, and he decided to stay in the room.”
And, talking of his time in the secret room, Bietti added, “[Michelangelo] was a genius. What can he do there? Just draw.” So, we have an excellent story. The artist made a mistake by supporting the Florentine republicans against his patrons the Medicis. It was an error because the Medicis came roaring back in 1530 – just three years after they’d been deposed. Now, anyone who had supported those opposed to Medici rule was clearly vulnerable to the family’s vengeance.
A nervous Michelangelo was forced to find a hiding place to escape the wrath of the Medicis. And since he’d been working in the New Sacristy at the Basilica di San Lorenzo, he would have been entirely familiar with the chamber hidden beneath a trapdoor. And that was the entrance that Dal Poggetto stumbled across in 1975.
Nearly 500 years before Dal Poggetto’s serendipitous find, Michelangelo had hunkered down in that secret room for a couple of months. But how did the great artist pass the time stuck in his cramped quarters? Well, he drew on the very walls of what was effectively his jail cell. In doing so, he created a fascinating series of preliminary sketches for work he would later execute.
Though not everyone buys this story. William Wallace of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has traveled to Florence to study the drawings under the New Sacristy. Speaking to NPR in 2018, he said, “I think maybe less than half a dozen could possibly be by Michelangelo.” Clearly, that’s a noticeably more conservative assessment than that originally made by Dal Poggetto.
Wallace told National Geographic in 2018 that many of the sketches might have been drawn by assistants rather than the master himself. And trying to work out what might actually be a work directly attributable to Michelangelo himself was no easy task. Wallace observed, “Separating one from the other is almost impossible.”
Wallace also doubted that a man of Michelangelo’s standing within Florence would have been forced to hide in this dingy chamber beneath the new Sacristy. After all, couldn’t the artist have turned to one of his other wealthy patrons? Wallace also has a suspicion that these sketches may have been drawn before the time that the Medicis returned to Florence in 1530. He thinks they may have been drawn earlier in the 1520s when Michelangelo and his assistants were working on the New Sacristy.
Though Wallace pointed out that whoever made these sketches, they are a fascinating and informative addition to our knowledge of Renaissance art. As he pointed out to NPR, “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 work like the Medici Chapel.”
Wallace also expanded on this theme when he spoke to National Geographic. He told the magazine, “Being in that room is exciting. You feel privileged. You feel closer to the working process of a master and his pupils and assistants.” It’s easy to see how any art historian would be excited by this find from the 16th century – whoever the artist truly was.
There seems to be little doubt that these wall drawings were created during the 1520s. And at least some of them may have come from the hand of Michelangelo himself. Whoever was the author of these fascinating works – casually drawn on the walls of this room lit by a single small window – they are an intriguing insight into the work of Renaissance artists.
But what of Michelangelo? What was his fate after the Medicis came back to Florence? Well, it seems that they eventually pardoned him for any treachery he might have committed. Perhaps his genius as an artist simply outweighed any transgressions in the minds of the Medicis.