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'Lost' Michelangelo Sketches Unveiled in Secret Room

Apr 24, 2017 12:44 PM EDT

There's a secret room in the Medici Chapels museum in Florence and it holds a treasure trove of Michelangelo sketches that is seldom seen by the public eye.

The chapel rarely opens the doors of its hidden chamber to outsiders to protect the precious artwork. National Geographic photographer Paolo Woods was recently granted entry to the hallowed space and he captured the iconic artist's work, sharing the images in an exclusive report from National Geographic.

According to the website, a team led by the former director of the Medici Chapels museum Paolo Dal Poggetto stumbled on a hidden trapdoor underneath a wardrobe by the New Sacristy, which is a chamber that's designed to contain the Medici rulers' tombs. It's a simple space filled with coal, but Dal Poggetto instantly suspected that there was something valuable lurking just beneath the surface.

Experts peeled back the plaster and dozens of faintly familiar sketches appeared. Many of the charcoal and chalk drawings in the room are reminiscent of Michelangelo's famous artworks.

As the story goes, Michelangelo locked himself up for three months in this hidden chamber in 1530, according to a report from Atlas Obscura. He hid to escape the consequences of betraying the powerful Medici family, his patron family that he defied along with other Florentines who fought for a more democratic rule.

When Medici and the Pope won the revolt, Michelangelo reemerged and was allowed to go back to work. Where he disappeared to for those three months was never disclosed during his lifetime, but now experts say he spent his time in this secret chamber drawing and doodling away.

Admittedly, the origins of any unsigned ancient artwork is almost impossible to absolutely conclude. A prominent Renaissance expert called the collection in the secret room "one of the major artistic finds of the 20th century." On the other hand, a number of critics find it too "amateurish" to be the work of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo scholar William Wallace of the Washington University in St. Louis is careful to draw conclusions. He pointed out that the artist would have been too prominent to be stuck in a lower-level room, saying it's likely he would have been housed by one of his patrons. He also believes the drawings were completed in the 1520s, rather than falling on the time of the revolt.

Some of the drawings might be Michelangelo's, but others could have easily been depictions by workers. Identifying which ones are by the famous artist is near impossible.

Still, the room evokes a certain wonder.

"Being in that room is exciting," Wallace told National Geographic. "You feel privileged. You feel closer to the working process of a master and his pupils and assistants."

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