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

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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