It was an art historian's chance discovery of a lifetime. Over 40 years ago, a museum director in Florence, Italy, found a hidden room whose walls were covered in drawings believed to be the work of Michelangelo and his disciples.
Although the drawings are not signed by the master, art experts say some of the sketches in charcoal and chalk are almost certain to be Michelangelo originals. They could shed light not only on the Renaissance artist's creative process but also on a mysterious and dangerous period in his life.
The room is located in Florence's Basilica di San Lorenzo. That was the official church of the Medici family — the famous patrons of the arts who governed Florence, and later Tuscany, for centuries.
Around 1520, the Medicis commissioned Michelangelo to design a family mausoleum. It came to be known as the Medici Chapels.
Visitors to the Chapels speak in hushed tones as they admire the nude marble sculptures adorning the tombs of Lorenzo de' Medici and two other relatives. The naked forms — allegories of four parts of day — project an intense sensation of serenity and philosophical contemplation.
But historians believe Michelangelo eventually betrayed his patrons by joining a 1527 revolt that drove the Medicis out of Florence. When the family returned three years later, Michelangelo is thought to have gone into hiding for months — in the secret dwelling below the chapels.
The hidden room, 23 feet by 6 1/2 feet, was discovered in 1975 by a museum director who spotted a trapdoor below a wardrobe that led to the room. After cleaning the walls, the museum director discovered dozens of doodles and scribbles on the walls. Some of the drawings called to mind known works by the master.
For security reasons, there is no access for the public and researchers need special permission to visit the room.
"You have to go down a series of very steep steps, and you start seeing all these drawings that are breathtaking," says Paola d'Agostino, director of the Bargello Museum that oversees the Medici Chapels.
She says the drawings in the hidden room are varied. Some recall Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. One is similar to the artist's bigger-than-life David sculpture.
There's also a drawing of the Laocoon, based on a statue from antiquity depicting a mythological attack on a Trojan priest and his two sons by writhing sea snakes. Michelangelo was in Rome when the statue was unearthed in 1506.
"Michelangelo was obsessed, as were all the other sculptors of the time," says D'Agostino, "because it was the incarnation of movement and deep expression in sculpture."
There are as many as 70 different sketches on the room's walls. Art experts disagree on how many of them were drawn by the master himself.
"I think maybe less than half a dozen could possibly be by Michelangelo," says William Wallace, a Michelangelo scholar at Washington University in St. Louis who has viewed the drawings in Florence.
Even if the sketches are not all works by the master, Wallace says their discovery was an exciting addition to Renaissance scholarship.
"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," he says.
The Medicis pardoned Michelangelo after their return to power. But following the end the republic of Florence, he left his native city for Rome in 1532 and never returned.
The mausoleum remained unfinished. Nevertheless, says D'Agostino, it became what she calls the "school of the world."
"It became the place where everybody from all over Europe — draftsmen, sculptors, painters — went to look at Michelangelo's work," she says.
D'Agostino says that after years of study and careful conservation, she expects the drawings in the secret room will be made visible to the public by 2020.