The British Museum is working to restore a ‘rare and complex’ Michelangelo drawing | Art

One of only two surviving Michelangelo cartoons is the subject of delicate and highly technical conservation work at the British Museum in an effort to stabilize the fragile work for decades to come.

Epifania, created by the master Italian artist around 1550, has decayed and been repeatedly repaired over its nearly 500-year history. It is now housed in the museum’s state-of-the-art conservation studios, while specialists ponder how best to preserve the intricate structure and black chalk lines.

Conservation work began in 2018, but was interrupted by the Covid pandemic. It is due to be completed by May 2024, when the drawing of the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus and other male figures will once again be on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“Michelangelo was one of the great draughtsmen of the 16th century. He worked until he was 80, but left only 600 drawings behind – a surprisingly small number considering his long career,” said Emma Turner, Senior Conservator at the British Museum.

“He is known to have burned some of his drawings in his studio before his death because he did not want to reveal his working methods. It was very clear that what he wanted to stay was the ideal.

The cartoon – a preparatory drawing at the same scale for a finished work – was made for Ascanio Condivi, who was considered an undistinguished artist but made a name for himself as a biographer of Michelangelo.

Twenty-six sheets of paper, made of cotton, hemp and linen, have been layered and glued together with flour paste to create a 2.32 meter by 1.65 meter expanse for Michelangelo to work on. The resulting sheet was likely placed upright, with the artist working with chalk inserted into a length of reed.

Michelangelo's Epifania, one of only two known Michelangelo cartoons in existence.
Michelangelo’s Epifania, one of only two known Michelangelo cartoons in existence. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“There are beautifully executed lines, and there are also hatching, cross-hatching and shading. And although it’s mostly executed in black chalk, it also uses charcoal,” Turner said.

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

Over the centuries, there has been “a lot of repairing and patching,” Turner said. At one time it appears that the cardboard was lined with a textile, and since the 19th century a brown paper liner has supported the work. It was attached to a pine board, which has now been removed.

Since 2018, restorers have been recording tears, repairs, patches, watermarks and the structure of the work. Now, Turner and his colleagues are evaluating possible courses of action to stabilize Epifania — work that includes testing possible treatments on models of the artwork.

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

“We are critically reviewing the options available to determine what offers the best solution at this time. In the future, there might be a nicer or better option,” Turner said.

“If the repairs cause damage, it might be appropriate to remove them. But it is likely that they will stay. Removing them is a huge undertaking, and it would also fundamentally change the object when it arrives at the museum.

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

Epifania will eventually be remounted on a lightweight but rigid aluminum honeycomb panel, and cropped to allow the newly uncovered edges of the cartoon to be displayed.

The work is funded by the Bank of America Art Preservation Project, which helps museums and institutions protect works of historical or cultural significance.

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

“We want to be as neutral as possible in our conservation interventions. So much research has already been done on this, and we’ll do so much more before we put in place a treatment, that we’ll be sure we’re offering the best possible solution yet. Epifania will never be in fantastic condition, but we hope to keep it stable.

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