British Museum works to restore ‘rare and complex’ Michelangelo drawing
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British Museum works to restore ‘rare and complex’ Michelangelo drawing

Mar 30, 2023

16th-century work Epifania is one of only two existing cartoons by the Italian master

One of only two surviving Michelangelo cartoons is undergoing delicate and highly technical conservation work at the British Museum in an attempt to stabilise the fragile work for the coming decades.

Epifania, created by the Italian master artist around 1550, has degraded and been subject to repeated repairs over its almost 500-year history. Now it is laid out in the museum's state-of-the-art conservation studios as specialists consider how best to preserve the complex structure and black chalk lines.

The conservation work began in 2018, but was interrupted by the Covid pandemic. It must be completed by May 2024, when the drawing of the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and other male figures will go back on display as part of the museum's permanent collection.

"Michelangelo was one of the great draughtsmen of the 16th century. He worked into his 80s, but left only 600 drawings behind – an astonishingly small number given his long career," said Emma Turner, a senior conservator at the British Museum.

"He is known to have burned some of his drawings in his studio before his death because he didn't want to reveal his working methods. He was very clear that what he wanted to remain was the ideal."

The cartoon – a preparatory same-scale drawing for a finished work – was made for Ascanio Condivi, who was regarded as an undistinguished artist but made his name as Michelangelo's biographer.

Twenty-six sheets of paper, made from cotton, hemp and flax, were overlapped and glued together with flour paste to create a 2.32 metre by 1.65 metre expanse for Michelangelo to work on. The resulting sheet was probably placed upright, with the artist working with chalk inserted into a length of reed.

"There are beautifully executed lines, and there's also hatching, cross hatching and some shading. And although it's primarily executed in black chalk, he also makes use of charcoal," said Turner.

The cartoon was in Michelangelo's studio at the time of his death. It remained in Italy until the late 18th century, and then travelled to England, the Netherlands and back to England. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1895.

Over the centuries there have been "plenty of repairs and patching", said Turner. At some point, it seems the cartoon was lined with a textile, and since the 19th century a brown paper lining has supported the work. It was attached to a pine panel, which has now been removed.

Since 2018, conservators have been logging tears, repairs, patches, watermarks and the structure of the work. Now Turner and her colleagues are weighing up possible courses of action to stabilise Epifania – work that includes testing possible treatments on models of the work.

They have also used reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), a photographic method that reveals surface information invisible under normal examination.

"We’re critically examining the options that are available to establish what offers the best solution at this time. In future, there may be a more sympathetic or a better option," said Turner.

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"If the repairs are causing damage, there would possibly be a case for removing them. But the likelihood is that they will stay. To remove them is an enormous undertaking, and it also would fundamentally change the object as it arrived into the museum."

Before the end of the year, the work will be flipped – a complex and risky operation – to allow a detailed examination of the reverse, including some tears that run through both the cartoon and the lining paper.

Epifania will eventually be remounted on to a lightweight but rigid aluminium honeycomb panel, and reframed to allow the cartoon's recently uncovered edges to be displayed.

The work is funded by the Bank of America's art conservation project, which supports museums and institutions to protect historically or culturally significant works.

It was "incredibly exciting and quite daunting" to be working on a "rare, complex and very large object with a 500-year history", Turner said.

"We want to be as neutral as we can in our conservation interventions. So much research has already gone into it, and there's so much more we will do before enacting any treatment, that we’ll be as confident of offering the best solution we can at this date. Epifania will never be in fantastic condition, but we hope to keep it stable."

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