Conserving Michelangelo

Watch a video showing the conservation of a Michelangelo drawing on loan from Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, in preparation for the exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. The Met's paper conservator Marjorie Shelley takes us through the complex and delicate process of restoring this beautiful architectural drawing.

Featured Artwork:
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564 ). Designs for a monumental altar or facade, possibly for San Silvestro in Capite, Rome. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, black chalk, stylus ruling, and compass construction (recto), black chalk, some ruling in black chalk (verso). By permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford (0992; JBS 64)

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue from November 13, 2017, through February 12, 2018.


Marjorie Shelley: After looking at thousands of drawings over the course of years, this is the first Michelangelo that I've conserved. There are never two drawings that have aged the same way. Most old master drawings are treated very conservatively. Because this was in such bad condition, it was decided that it was worthwhile to undertake treatment.

It's severely creased, there are tears in it, there are also stains from mold, and it tented forward, so light would reflect off the different sides of it. It was very difficult to read this, particularly in that it is an extremely delicate drawing. It was done in light ink and pale washes, so it was disfiguring.

The reason for all the creases, and some of them are very severe, particularly in this area of the composition, is two-fold: one, because of the tear that was repaired poorly; and the other is because of the two mounts that were put on the drawing. One was applied by Michelangelo's grand-nephew, Giovanni, and the next one about a hundred years later was attached by Filippo Baldinucci. He was an important writer of artists' biographies as well as a collector himself. Both of them were done with the intention of preserving the drawing so that it could be handled, so that it could be turned over to see the drawing on the back. They're too small for the size of the paper and the paper was pushed together where it rippled, and we've ended up with very severe creases. In order to correct that, the drawing has to be removed from both mounts. Once that's done, I'll re-evaluate the tear to see what the risks are in correcting it.

There's no margin for error in a drawing. It's a thin sheet of paper, a very thin layer of media, you really have to work out the larger part of your strategy when you start out, but rethink and reconsider it every stage of the process.

One of the challenging parts of this conservation procedure is finding a means of dissolving the adhesive. I looked for a gap in the mounting. There was one small area where the adhesive had dried out, and I was using that as my point of entry, where I could scrape up some of the adhesive, and I tested it. The adhesive is about 500 years old, and it is cross-linked, meaning it's very, very difficult to separate it. I cannot use very much moisture because it will stain the paper and also will make it vulnerable to tearing.

Having tried a number of things, I decided that the best mode of treatment, it's a relatively new mode, it's treating the drawing with a gel. These are rigid, natural substances. This type of gel is made from seaweed. They don't release too much moisture, and I can put it on directly. I let it stand for just a few minutes, and I can start separating the layers, not even using a knife. I do this with my brush. This process is repeated around the entire perimeter. It took weeks and weeks to get it off because both the mount itself and the drawing have historical importance, so neither of them could be damaged.

The final stage entailed putting this into a very simple humidification chamber. The moisture vapor is so little that it will not have any bearing on the ink or the chalk in this drawing. So this is a slow process of gradually introducing moisture into the paper, fibers will gradually expand. In between each campaign of humidification, the drawing was flattened between blotters and under a great deal of weight. Paper made in the 16th century is about the best quality of all time. It's made of linen and flax. These creases have been in this paper for about 500 years, so they're not going to come out in a matter of hours. Even that procedure repeated three or four times did not flatten the sheet entirely, which is in fact what we wanted because it's desirable to keep the texture of the paper and some sense of its real life.

Following that, the remaining adhesive on the margins was removed, and the stains were reduced. It gave it a certain freshness, but there's a limit to how much you can do because many of the stains are deeply ingrained in the paper.

The final question was should this old tear be taken apart and repaired properly. Without doing so we cannot flatten the drawing entirely. We know the tear had to have existed before the drawing was mounted, so it's very likely it even occurred in Michelangelo's studio. So it's evidence of the working process, where what might have happened to the drawing. He might have folded it up. For now, out of respect for the drawing and the artist, and our attitude toward old master drawings, that they should not be made to look pristine, that they should bear the evidence of their age and their function, we've left the tear intact. It would be possible to correct it and make it less visible, but that isn't our goal. Every single part of it says something about its history.

It was a wonderful privilege to study this so closely, and bring it into shape that people can appreciate it, and will look at the drawing and not the damages.

Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies

Director Kate Farrell
Editor Sarah Cowan
Producer Melissa Bell
Camera Wayne de la Roche, Sarah Cowan, Dia Felix
Lighting Dia Felix
Production Coordinator Kaelan Burkett
Production Assistants Bryan Martin, Stephanie Wuertz
Original Music Austin Fisher

© 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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