Monday, May 12, 2008

Michelangelo's Secret Room

Cave Painting, my short story based on this place On Sunday morning, I woke up early and rode my bike down to our local market to pick up flowers and coffee (yuppie version) for my wife. Our daughter woke up a couple hours later and drove to the local market to pick up flowers and coffee for my wife. She didn’t realize that I’d already done it. This sort of thing naturally makes my wife very happy albeit a bit more caffeinated than usual.

I also spent much of the weekend surfing the internet for information about a secret room at the Basilica Di San Lorenzo. My only visit to Italy took place in 1980. I had met the wrong woman on a train in Southern France and we’d agreed to travel together into Italy as friends anyway. We wound up in Florence with yet another guy we met on the train. While I liked all that Renaissance art, several hours a day of it might have been a bit much. Anyway, we wound up amongst all these tombs of various dead Medici, about whom I kept making Borgia poisoning jokes (I had the two confused in my head). There was an English art student sketching one of the statutes. Actually there were two. On one side, an attractive young woman was doing a pen and ink of two opposed figures (something like light and darkness) on one of the tombs at the Basilica di San Lorenzo. Her sketches were tidy, precise, and accomplished. My friend, guy from the train, complimented her drawing. She thanked him politely, talked for a minute, mentioned the Royal Academy of Art, then went back to what she was doing. I look back and realize that was one of many moments in my life when I had to face the fact that I just had no idea how to approach attractive young women. Anyway, that’s why I watch the Bachelor.

On the other side of room, a guy in a t-shirt with unruly hair, was sketching the same tomb. He had more of a working class British accent that made him sound like one of the Beatles. His drawings were loose, primitive, and covered with signs of dozens of do overs. After asking to peek at his work, we didn’t exactly know what to say but this guy kept chatting anyway. We didn’t ask if he’d made a run at his compatriot on the other side of the room. He then went into a monologue about homo-eroticism in Michelangelo’s art, though he used less socially acceptable terms. He then pointed us towards a doorway and told us to knock to see something really interesting.

Now, this was exciting! I was going to see something that wasn’t part of the standard Florence tourist menu. We then found ourselves in a small windowless room whose walls were covered with “doodles”. There were bits of the Sistine Chapel, a drawing of a resurrected Christ, and several male forms and various body parts. Friend from the train who happened to be an avid photographer tried to take pictures, but they stopped him from using his flash in there. The charcoal drawings were really delicate. I didn’t see any writing on the walls, but they were in the tradition of all good graffiti. It was all basically a varation of “Michelangelo was here!”

Somewhere mid-awestruck, it occurred to us that this was an interior room with no windows. How the heck did the guy see well enough to draw on the walls? Second, what was Michelangelo who was a famous enough artist at the time doing shut away in this room in the first place? If it were a sanctuary, it seemed like he’d pick a spot more conducive to his art. We tried to ask, but the person who let us into room spoke limited English and I was the sort of person who confused the Borgias with the Medicis anyway.
Nonetheless, it was maybe the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen in a museum setting. It was literally like being inside Michelangelo’s head.

It’s been argued that Michelangelo anticipated modern art in many ways. The effect of this room was almost disturbingly modern. With all the stray body parts decontextualized on the wall, the image of the Christ, and then bits of the Sistine Chapel, it was kind of a Renaissance version of Picasso’s Guernica. Hieronymous Bosch was a near contemporary of Michelangelo and his Garden of Earthly Delights in some ways can be seen as a darker take on themes from the Sistine Chapel. I doubt that the two artists knew much of anything about one another, but I suppose one could argue that Bosch had already managed to paint “outside his time”. I had just never thought of Michelangelo as ever having done the same. Fwiw at the time, I thought these were pre-sketches for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, he’d finished the Sistine Chapel twenty years earlier. The doodles are even more fascinating given that perspective.

Anyway, friend from the train and I came out of there really excited. We’d seen something amazing and wanted to tell other people to check it out yet the drawings were so delicate it struck me that it never could be a standard exhibit seen by thousands of people from behind a set of velvet ropes. I eventually lost touch with friend from the train though I did use him as the photographer for my first wedding a few years later. I never again spoke to wrong woman after she left Florence a day earlier than I did. Still for several years when I heard someone else was going to Florence I’d try to tell them about this secret Michelangelo room, but I’m not sure that anyone else found it or thought it was anything about which they’d care to remark.

Generally once you stop talking about something, you forget it. I didn’t know exactly what the place was called. Over time, it became this sort of indistinct memory of having seen the lightning moment of creation from hundreds of years ago (something Michelangelo depicted in Rome) of a great artist. I have no idea what to make of the modern feel of that room. He obviously never formalized what he did there and who knows if he ever thought of it as anything more than random doodles while he stuck in some dank room.

For some reason, the memory of that room came up for me once again a few days ago. I think I was involved in some online discussion of whether or not unfinished works by writers should be published posthumously. There’s a thing now with Nabokov’s son having been told to destroy his father’s draft of “Laura” and now a full generation after the man’s death the son is publishing it anyway. I went “Damn, I remember this thing with Michelangelo” and tried to google the secret room. Ultimately, this is pretty much all I found, but it does explain why no one else ever came back from Florence raving about secret drawings in some sort of dungeon.

Oddly, I can still remember the smell of the mold and wonder if it was the same mold that Michelangelo might have sniffed in his six weeks in that room.

My story based on the secret room



At 5/13/2008 01:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Fred Plotkin. I am an author and Italy specialist (Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, Opera 101, five Italian food books) lectures and seminars on endless Italian topics. I am now writing a book, In the Footsteps of Michelangelo: A Traveler's Biography. I visited this room and want to clarify. It is in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, near the Sagrestia Nuovo (Medici Chapel). Michelangelo hid here in 1527 at a time when Florence was attacked and Rome sacked. When he could escape, he fled to Ferrara and found protection. He tried to leave Italy altogether, but was caught and turned back. He ultimately came back to Florence and moved to Rome for good in 1534. While in hiding, he drew on the walls to pass the time. Creativity oozed from his every pore and, when he finally ran out of paper, he drew on the walls. Indeed, the talk drawings are too fragile to allow for many visitors. When I went, in 2005, I was closed in alone for an hour of study. Look for my book in 2010

At 5/13/2008 09:02:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for dropping by and for providing more background on Michelangelo's room next to the Medici Chapel.
My understanding was that Michelangelo stayed there in 1530 while more or less waiting for a pardon from the Pope who also happened to be a Medici. He was there for 5-6 weeks and I assume it must have been in the fall of that year. Is that correct?

I'm also curious about how the room might have been lit in an unventilated space. Michelangelo was 55 at the time and I would assume that the more light he had in there the more he was creating toxic fumes for himself.

I'm looking forward to picking up a copy of your book in 2010. The Gourmet Trip Through Italy (I'm sure I have the title wrong) sounds pretty interesting too..

At 5/15/2008 04:53:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Fascinating story Chancelucky and it's nice to have Fred's update as well. Now I have a reason to go back. Like I needed a reason.

At 5/15/2008 05:11:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale,
I hadn't thought about finding that room for some time. One of the great things about the internet and blogging is that you can pin down memories like this and then you have actual experts somehow come across your blog.

At 5/17/2008 06:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a Borges story with peculiar intersections across time.

Mr. Plotkin could be a figment of Time's imagination. But then, I suppose we all are that.

At 5/17/2008 08:04:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think Fred Plotkin might be surprised to learn that about himself though. I'm still thinking from time to time about this Gourmet Traveler thing.

At 5/17/2008 11:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pope in that era was Clement VII (1478-1534). He was born Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, the son of the brother of the great Lorenzo de' Medici. Because his own father was assassinated in 1478 (and is buried in the Medici chapel), Giulio was raised by Lorenzo. Michelangelo (1475-1564) arrived at the Medici palace around 1488 and became a fixture there by 1490, seated at the same table as the Medicis. So Michelangelo knew Giulio from their boyhoods. Part of why Michelangelo was in Florence during Giulio's papacy (1523-1534) was to complete Medici projects, including this chapel. MIchelangelo had become, by 1500, a Florentine Republican, preferring independence to either Papal or Medici control. That said, he knew who his patrons were and did not necessarily antagonize them. He was not the easiest person, but he knew his value and so did the Medicis and the popes. And here was a Medici who WAS a pope. Based on my research, he hid in this room when Florence was sacked and under siege. Michelangelo had constructed the bastions on the southern flank of the city...these helped slow down the attack, enabling him to hide. He felt threatened not by the pope's troops, which were not really around, but by the chaos that afflicted Florence. It has been said that the pope was upset that MIchelangelo tried to flee Italy, but not upset enough to warrant a pardon. And Chancelucky asks about how he breathed in there. You might recall that along one wall were three windows with metal grates above them. These were a street level and air could seep in. The friendly priest or sacristan in the chapel provided MIchelangelo with food, wine, water and art materials and emptied his chamber pot. For the wine lovers among your visitors, you might wish to look at this article from May 14 in the NY Times about Soave:

At 5/20/2008 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for the further explanation. I had gotten the impression from the Guardian article that I'd linked that Michelangelo had been in the room after the siege rather than during it...One would place him there in the fall of 1530, the other would have him there more in the spring/summer.

I don't actually remember the windows. I mostly remember that all the light in the room seemed to be artificial. The other interesting thing is that the guy was 55 years old at the time.

I am amazed that the room itself didn't get rediscovered until 1976. It suggests that no one looked at the drawings for 400 years.

At 3/29/2009 12:12:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I've been lucky enough to visit the room twice, and to me it is like a religious experience. I literally cried the first time, as I descended through the trap door and stood surrounded by the master's graffiti. A friend who had lived in Italy for 18 years told me about it, and how to ask to get in. When I returned a couple of years later with my teenage children and asked for tickets, they said to come back tomorrow, but I pleaded in Italian that it was our only day, and they let us in right away. No one else was down there either time. I'm heading back to Florence this week, and am hoping it's open--does anyone know?

At 3/30/2010 06:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just went Nov 2009 and they wouldn't let us go in the trap door!!! How do we get them to let us in?

At 3/31/2010 04:58:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Could not get in last spring--they said they were "refurbishing" it and it would be closed for a long while.

At 1/29/2011 08:15:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'd love to hear from anyone else who's been there.

At 8/12/2011 10:10:00 AM, Blogger cxoakes said...

Hello, I have just returned from taking a month long art restoration class in Florence. My teacher aided in the original restoration and therefore had some connections in relation to access. We had to go before the museum was open as to not confuse any other visitors. This was one of the most fantastic experiences of my trip. He told our class(just 7 people), that not even Secretary of State Colin Powell was allowed to view the room! There are two windows with metal grates that I walked past every day on my way to class with the knowledge that something spectacular was behind them.

At 7/22/2012 01:44:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Wow! It's great to hear that you had the chance to see it. It's an extraordinary thing to see Michelangelo's "rough drafts" or whatever they were and having them on the walls makes it feel like you're literally inside his head.

At 7/29/2012 08:22:00 PM, Blogger Andrewfm said...

In March of 1989 me and a few classmates got into this room, with the aid of our Roman born teacher, and maybe 10,000 lira passed to the guard. He told us that the room was sort of a break room for Michelangelo, and the drawings on the wall were drawn by him to explain to the workers up stairs how he wanted things done. He also said that the room was covered after the chapel was complete and not rediscovered till the 70's,though I do remember the windows, so I don't know how true that would be.

Being an Architect now, I know that explaining things with a pencil sketch is quick and easily understood by contractors, so I tend to think the sketches relate to the construction of the chapel.

I took a few photos, but without a flash they are for the most part black.

At 8/08/2012 06:22:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

There's a link to my short story based on the secret room in my post. The editor at Lacuna Journal found some links to the sketches in the room and they run alongside the story.
There definitely were a couple drawings from the Sistine Chapel thrown in there.

At 2/21/2013 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Meredith said...

I went to Florence in 1999 as part of a college art history class and we got to see these drawings. I remember going down some old worn steps into this room, and I got the same feeling--it was exciting to see these 'doodles' only recently discovered and not well known. I took a bunch of photos, which I will now find and scan, and probably post somewhere online for posterity. Anyway, if you type 'San Lorenzo Florence Michelangelo's Drawings' into Google the first hit is your blog post. I'm planning a trip back there this year and hopefully will get to see this again!


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