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Rare Michelangelo Drawings Arrive In Phoenix After Arduous Journey

Published: Friday, January 15, 2016 - 5:08pm
Updated: Friday, January 15, 2016 - 5:33pm
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(Photo Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum)
Michelangelo, Study for the Head of Leda in Leda and the Swan, ca. 1529-1530. Red pencil. Florence, Casa Buonarroti.

Drawings by one of the world’s greatest artists made their way to Phoenix last week. 

All 26 of them were escorted by a personal courier from Florence, Italy, packaged in crates, shipped in specialized trucks and handled with gloves.

They are rare figure studies and architectural drawings by Renaissance master Michelangelo for an exhibition opening at the Phoenix Art Museum on Sunday called Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane.

The exhibition was set up in the Lila and Joel Harnett Gallery Friday.

The scene inside the gallery looked more like a hospital room than a museum. A padded table was set up with spotlights shining on it and a box of rubber gloves sat out near a blue crate, waiting to be unpacked. 

“After we unpack it, we put it here on the table where we’ve got light to put on it so we can check every square inch of the piece to make sure that there’s no condition changes from when it was seen the last time before it was packed and shipped,” Laura Wenzel, the museum’s registrar, said. She’s in charge of the exhibit’s installation and care.

On the gallery walls, some of the framed drawings already hung were covered with paper, to be uncovered when the museum staff has tested the light levels shining on them.

“We record the light levels in a unit of measurement called a foot candle or lux,” Wenzel said. “We’re trying to maintain five foot candles or lower, which is pretty dark, but that’s because any kind of light – light damage is actually cumulative for the objects and so the more exposure, the more chance for damage and discoloration and deterioration over time.” 

These drawings are five centuries old and particularly rare. There are only about 600 of Michelangelo’s drawings left in the world, according to Marcella Marongiu, who travelled to Phoenix with these drawings from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. 

Marongiu is charged with making sure the drawings are safe throughout their journey. She flew with them on a plane from Italy and then travelled with a specialized fine arts trucking service from where they were exhibited in Nashville, Tennessee.

“With fine art shipments, you have an exclusive use truck so there’s nothing else on the truck,” Wenzel explained. “You have two drivers, so if someone has to make a stop then there’s always someone to remain with the truck.”

“In this case, Marcella travelled with them, each step of the way, on the truck, on the plane,” Wenzel said.

 Throughout the journey, Marongiu checks room temperatures and humidity levels to make sure they’re consistent, she said, and she keeps a book to note any changes in the works’ condition each time they are packed and shipped and then unpacked again.

These drawings were done on paper, which is a living, breathing thing, Marongiu said. So, after they are displayed for several months, they need to rest.

To keep them intact, she’ll take the drawings back to the museum in Florence, where they’ll sit for at least a year in a dark room, Marongiu said, so the paper can breathe. 

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