One of only two surviving Michelangelo caricatures is undergoing delicate and highly technical conservation work at the British Museum in an attempt to stabilize the fragile work for decades to come.
The Epiphany, created by the Italian master artist around 1550, has fallen into disrepair and been subject to repeated repairs over its nearly 500-year history. It is now on display in the museum’s state-of-the-art conservation studios as specialists consider how best to preserve the intricate structure and black chalk lines.
Conservation work began in 2018 but was interrupted by the Covid pandemic. It should be completed by May 2024, when the painting of the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and other male figures will be put back on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“Michelangelo is one of the great draftsmen of the 16th century. He worked into his 80s but left behind only 600 drawings – an astonishingly small number given 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. He was very clear that what he wanted to remain was the ideal.
The caricature – a preparatory drawing on the same scale for a finished work – was made for Ascanio Condivi, who was considered an unremarkable artist but had made a name for himself as a biographer of Michelangelo.
Twenty-six sheets of paper made from cotton, hemp, and linen were stacked and glued together with flour paste to create a 2.32 by 1.65 meter space for Michelangelo to work on. The resulting sheet was probably placed upright, the artist working with chalk set in a piece of reed.
“There are beautifully executed lines and also hatching, cross-hatching and some shading. And although it’s mostly made with black chalk, it also uses charcoal,” Turner said.
The caricature 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, Holland and back to England. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1895.
Over the centuries, there have been “lots of repairs and patching up,” Turner said. At some point the caricature appears to have been lined with textile, and from the 19th century a brown paper lining supports the work. It was attached to a pine board which has now been removed.
As of 2018, conservators are recording tears, repairs, patches, watermarks, and the structure of the work. Turner and her colleagues are now weighing possible courses of action to stabilize Epiphany, work that includes testing possible treatments on models of the work.
They also used reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), a photographic method that reveals surface information invisible under normal examination.
“We critically review the available options to determine what offers the best solution at the moment. There may be a more sympathetic or better version in the future,” Turner said.
“If the repairs are causing damage, there will likely be a case for them to be removed. But chances are they will stay. Removing them is a huge undertaking and would also fundamentally change the object when it arrives at the museum.
Before the end of the year, the work will be reversed – a complicated and risky operation – to allow detailed examination of the reverse, including some tears that run through both the cartoon and the backing paper.
Epifania will eventually be remounted on a lightweight but stiff aluminum honeycomb panel and reformatted to allow the newly uncovered edges of the cartoon to be displayed.
The work was funded by Bank of America’s Art Preservation Project, which supports museums and institutions to protect historically or culturally significant works.
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 and there is so much more we will do before we undertake any treatment that we will be so confident that we will offer the best solution we can at this date. Epifania will never be in fantastic condition, but we hope to keep it stable.”