Michelangelo’s Secret Room opens to the public

Forty-eight years after it was first discovered, the room where Michelangelo was said to have hidden from his political enemies for three months in 1530 is officially opening to the public. Whether Michelangelo actually secreted himself in the room under the New Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo until the coast was clear is unknown, but his masterful drawing is seen all over the walls.

The space is cramped, to say the least, at just 23 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and eight feet high at the highest point of the vault. The walls are decorated with figural studies, most of them larger-than-life-size, many of them overlapping, drawn in sticks of carbonized wood and red chalk. Subjects include the head of Laocoön from the ancient masterpiece of sculpture that Michelangelo had seen unearthed in 1506. Other figures reference sculptures and artworks by Michelangelo himself, like the legs of Giuliano de’ Medici from the marble idealized portrait Michelangelo sculpted for the tomb of Giuliano in the Medici chapel just above the secret room.

Michelangelo worked on the Medici mortuary chapel in the New Sacristy off and on from 1519 until his permanent move to Rome in 1534. Things only got hairy in 1527, when political upheaval after the Sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spurred Florence to revolt against Medici rule and install a Republic. Michelangelo was closely involved in the Florentine Republic, appointed by the government as one of the Nine of the Militias, in charge of the fortifications of a city that was soon to be besieged by the combined forces of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and their new ally Clement VII.

The siege was protracted, lasting a grueling 10 months until Florence finally surrendered on August 10th, 1530. Michelangelo was in the cross-hairs of Clement and the Medici, now restored to power. So he hid somewhere and he was so adept at it that even his contemporary biographers could only guess at his location. He emerged in November when the Pope announced that Michelangelo would be pardoned if he went back to work on the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy. Little did Clement know Michelangelo had been steps away from it the whole time.

The room, never publicly known or documented, was put to practical uses. The walls with their glorious sketches were plastered over (twice) and it was a charcoal dump until the middle of the 20th century when the trap door leading to it was covered with furniture. It was rediscovered in November of 1975 when restorers were cleaning a corridor under the New Sacristy on the hunt for a new possible exit for the Museum of the Medici Chapels.

The director of the Museum of the Medici Chapels at that time, Paolo Dal Poggetto, decided not to open the room to the public out of concern that the charcoal drawings would be damaged by exposure to crowds. Every once in a while someone pulled some strings and got a tour, but the general public has never been allowed to lay eyes on the walls before. The closest they’ve gotten is high-resolution images and video of the drawings displayed in several of Florence’s museums.

The completion of a new exit (the same one they were looking to build in 1975 when they found the room) and modern technology has made it possible to make the Secret Room accessible to the public in a controlled way. A maximum of four people at a time will be allowed into the room for reserved time slots for only 15 minutes with a maximum of 100 people per week. Conservation conditions will be scrupulously monitored and the new LED lighting, installed in 2018, will only be on for brief periods, alternating with long hours of darkness.

The room will open on November 15th for an experimental run lasting until March 30th, 2024. Tickets will cost a total of 38 euros and can be booked online here.

17th c. Nymphaeum of the Rain on the Palatine restored

The Nymphaeum of the Rain, a frescoed semi-subterranean leisure room in the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine in Rome, has been restored and reopened to the public after decades of closure. Now visitors will be able to enjoy the cultural context of Baroque Rome on the Palatine even as they enjoy the its ancient culture with the reopening of the Domus Tiberiana.

Built in the second half of the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the Farnese Gardens were the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Nymphaeum of the Rain was built on the northern slope of the Palatine in the 1600s. was commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese as a “summer triclinium,” a refuge from the heat of summer in Rome to sup and contemplate surrounded by a fine collection of ancient sculptures.

It was his heir, also named Odoardo, who transformed it into a far grander space. The terraces and staircases topped by the twin aviaries, the remains of which are all that remains of the much larger Farnese Gardens, were built at Odoardo’s request by the family architect Girolamo Rainaldi. The cardinal’s old “triclinium” was turned into a sumptuous nymphaeum, inspired by the nymphaea of ancient Rome and Greece, natural or artificial grottoes used as sanctuaries to the water nymphs and as refreshing assembly rooms for recreation.

In the summer heat, he would welcome guests for parties and concerts into the cool, shady freshness of the nymphaeum. Its fountain, artfully designed to look like a stalactite formation employed a complex series of pipes to move water from the main fountain of the garden through limestone rocks, faux stalactites and seven metal trays from which numerous jets sprang, recreating the sights and sounds of natural rainfall inside the nymphaeum. Baroque artist Giovan Battista Magni, known as il Modanino (1591/92-1674), decorated the walls and ceilings with climbing vines and created the illusion of an opening at the top of the ceiling where birds, grape vines and musicians adorn an arched balustrade looking down at the assembled visitors below.

The garden fell into neglect and disrepair in the 18th century and when it was acquired by the newly-unified Italy in 1870, much of what remains was demolished to excavate the ancient palace underneath it. The very top of the terraced garden, including the nymphaeum, survived, but in parlous condition. The frescoes were lost, faded or plastered over, and only rediscovered at the end of the 1950s. For decades it has been too unstable, suffering greatly from moisture penetration, to allow tourists to get a glimpse of its frescoed plaster walls and ceiling framing the elaborate Fountain of the Rain.

The Archaeological Park of the Colosseum embarked on a major conservation project to restore the Nymphaeum in 2020. It took three years to repair the water infiltration problem and restore the damaged structure. The Fountain of the Rain has been restored to its original design, with its hydraulic system of seven different metal trays of different size that replicated the sound of rain and its fake stalactites. The restoration of the full frescoes with its climbing vines and musicians looking down on the room from the ceiling sheds new light on the original function of the space, a faux garden pergola where music, poetry and the arts were enjoyed in an environment of simulated nature and ancient influence.

Rare 16th c. globe restored and on display

A rare 16th century globe has been restored and put on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.

The terrestrial globe was made by Antwerp cartographer Cornelis De Jode in 1594. Most of his surviving oeuvre is a world atlas, the Speculum Orbis Terrae, he published in 1593. It sold terribly at the time, so today there are only a dozen or so copies known. Dedicated to Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg from 1587 until he was deposed, imprisoned and succeeded by his nephew in 1612, this globe is the only surviving globe by De Jode. It was previously known only from a series of cartographical sections now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Italy’s Ministry of Culture acquired the globe last November for €385,568 ($407,000) on behalf of the Regional Direction of Museums for Tuscany. It had been appeared on the market in 2016 but Italy placed an export ban on it due to its great rarity and historical significance.

It was in dire condition at the time of the sale. The printed paper surface of the globe was badly deteriorated, darked and with several gaps. Its condition was analyzed and assessed for its urgent conservation needs. The non-profit Friends of Florence foundation financed a delicate and complex intervention of cleaning and restoration by the Officina del Restauro in Florence.

The restored globe is now on permanent loan in the Museo Galileo where it will be on display alongside the museum’s important selection of terrestrial and celestial globes.

Historian of Elizabeth I’s reign self-censorship revealed

Draft manuscript of William Camden's Annals with copious cross-outs and overwriting. Photo courtesy the British Library.Numerous passages in a manuscript of William Camden’s contemporary account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have been rediscovered 400 years after the historian censored them to avoid angering his patron, Elizabeth’s successor King James. Camden’s Annals of the Reign of Elizabeth I has been considered a largely accurate official record, but the new information that has come to light shows the final published version was significantly more favorable to James than the original draft.

Camden was first commissioned to write the Annals in 1597 by the Queen’s chief adviser William Cecil. Cecil died in 1598; Elizabeth died in 1603. The first three books of the Annals were published in 1615, and after James VI of Scotland ascended the British throne as James I, Camden overwrote or covered up dozens of passages. He glued pieces of paper over potentially sensitive passages and wrote new passages on top. Those paper cover-ups were glued so tightly that they could not be lifted without destroying the page, so even centuries after James’ death, Camden’s original writing was still effectively censored. The end-result was a 10-volume draft manuscript in which hundreds of pages had unreadable paragraphs.

These manuscripts, now at the British Library, have been re-examined using non-invasive transmitted light imagining. The state-of-the-art technology has revealed the long-obscured texts which include some alterations to the accounts of Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570 (original text says Pius was motivated by “spiritual warfare,” whereas the published version accused him of creating “secret plots”) and the 1598 death of King Philip II of Spain. The biggest revelations put James himself in the crosshairs.

Did James plot to assassinate Elizabeth? In 1598, a man named Valentine Thomas confessed to having been sent by King James to murder Queen Elizabeth. Newly studied passages reveal that Camden initially intended to keep this shocking information in the Annals, but he subsequently amended and softened the confession to say that Thomas ‘had accused the King of Scots with ill affection towards the Queen’. James had never plotted against Elizabeth, but he was highly sensitive to any slander against him, having sent other writers to prison for offending him.

Did Elizabeth I name James as her successor? Camden’s Annals ends with Elizabeth I’s obituary, in which she is said to have named James VI of Scotland as her successor on her deathbed. Elizabeth never married and died childless in 1603, to be succeeded on the English throne by Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland. Analysis of the manuscript drafts shows that the deathbed scene was a fabricated addition that Camden did not intend to put into his history. He presumably included it to appease James so that his succession looked more predetermined than it had actually been. Elizabeth was too ill to speak in her final hours, and no other historical evidence points to this deathbed scene being true.

The newly-visible passages in the manuscript volumes are still being examined and translated from the original Latin into English.

Alarming cracks repaired in Siena Duomo’s Cornice of the Popes

A section of the cornice overlooking the Presbytery of the Cathedral of Siena that is decorated with the busts of 171 popes was subject to an urgent intervention when cracks were discovered in two of the travertine slabs. A number of cracks, large and small, were spotted in June by a crew from the Acrobatic Monuments Construction company, specialists who use a double safety rope climbing technique to inspect and repair monuments. The cracks required immediate attention from the expert stone restorers of the Metropolitan Works of Siena, the municipal organization which oversees the cathedral.

Scaffolding was erected in two days, taking measures to protect the extraordinarily ornate marble inlay floor, which is usually covered for its own protection but happened to be in one of only two brief periods a year when it is exposed in all its glory to the visiting public. The urgency of the intervention and its own potential dangers were underscored when a 3.8 magnitude earthquake struck on the first day conservators were at work on the scaffolding 60 feet above the floor. All personnel were forced to dismount and wait for the all-clear. The next day work resumed on repairing the fractures and consolidating the damaged stone elements. The team was able to complete the work in four weeks. The scaffolding was dismantled in time for the last days of the floor’s uncovering.

The Cornice of the Popes lines the central nave and choir of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, aka the Duomo of Siena. They were made by unknown artists between 1497 and 1502. The papal busts begin with Peter on the right of a bust of Christ. It runs clockwise chronologically with every successive pontiff concluding with Lucius III, pope between 1181 and 1185.

The final pope was originally supposed to be the one before Lucius, Alexander III (1159-1181), because he was a native of Siena and consecrated the cathedral in 1179. Lucius was added after the bust of Pope John VIII (872-882) was removed because he was confused for one of the church’s mythical medieval scandals: the female Pope Joan, who, legend has it, reigned under the pontifical name John VIII from 855 to 857, only to be exposed when she gave birth on the streets of Rome after being thrown from her horse. The myth of Pope Joan had long been refuted when the cornice was made, but the legend persisted and the actual John VIII paid the iconographic price.