Watch the Painstaking and Nerve-Racking Process of Restoring a Drawing by Michelangelo

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We live in a disposable culture, but certain things warrant the time and effort of mending—good shoes, hearts, Michelangelo drawings…

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s paper conservator Marjorie Shelley, above, had the nerve-wracking task of tackling the latter, in preparation for last year’s Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibition.

The work in question, a two-sided sketch featuring designs for a monumental altar or facade, thought to be San Silvestro in Capite, Rome, arrived in sad condition.


The 16th-century linen and flax paper on which the precious renderings were made was stained with mold, and badly creased due to a poorly repaired tear and two long-ago attempts to mount it for easier viewing, one by the artist’s blind nephew and another by collector and biographer Filippo Baldinucci.

Like many restoration experts, Shelley exhibits extraordinary patience and nerves of steel. Identifying the damage and its cause is just the beginning. The hands-on portion of her work involves introducing solvents and moisture, both of which have the potential to further damage the delicate drawing. Even though she chooses the least invasive of tools—a tiny brush—to loosen the 500-year-old adhesive, one slip could spell disaster. It’s not just the drawing that’s of historical import. The well-intended mountings are also part of the narrative, and must be preserved as such.

As she explains above, a bedazzling Sistine Chapel-like makeover was neither possible nor preferable.

One wonders how many of the 702,516 visitors who attended the exhibition during its 3 month run noticed Shelley’s handiwork (or even the drawing itself, given the large number of other, sexier works on display).

Related Content:

Watch an Art Conservator Bring Classic Paintings Back to Life in Intriguingly Narrated Videos

How an Art Conservator Completely Restores a Damaged Painting: A Short, Meditative Documentary

The Art of Restoring a 400-Year-Old Painting: A Five-Minute Primer

Rembrandt’s Masterpiece, The Night Watch, Will Get Restored and You Can Watch It Happen Live, Online

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this January as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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