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Michelangelo’s Epifania masterpiece to return to British Museum after six-year conservation

Paper conservator Megumi Mizumura working on the fragile drawing
Paper conservator Megumi Mizumura working on the fragile drawing - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Michelangelo’s monumental Epifania is a supreme example of his draughtsmanship and, at more than two metres high, it is also one of the largest Renaissance works on paper. Now the 1550s depiction of the Virgin Mary, Christ Child and St John the Baptist will be seen for the first time at the British Museum in a repaired and revived state after undergoing conservation so painstaking that it lasted six years.

Tears in the fragile paper have been mended, while discoloured areas have been tended, enabling details of the master’s original vision in black chalk and charcoal to be seen with new clarity.

Sarah Vowles, the British Museum’s curator of Italian and French prints and drawings, told The Telegraph: “Some of the chalk lines are so much crisper than they were before. You can get a sense of the power and the drama of the way that Michelangelo draws these lines. Details of some of the figures - the Christ Child’s toes, for example - are much more visible now than they were before. This is one of our most incredible drawings.”

The drawing was made of 26 sheets that had been glued together. It is a “cartoon”, a term derived from the Italian for a large piece of paper - “cartone” - meaning that it was drawn to the scale of a planned painting, although this one was apparently unexecuted.

The Epifania prior to conservation
The Epifania prior to conservation - The Trustees of the British Museum

While fragmentary losses have been filled, the drawing has been separated from its backing, a dark and fragile 19th-century pine panel that was cracking and beginning to discolour the original 16th-century paper.

Its removal has revealed previously concealed edges of the drawing and nail holes, showing that it would have been attached to stretchers like a painting.

Ms Vowles said: “We are now displaying it with those edges exposed, so people can get a real sense of the material history of the drawing.”

She added that an old adhesive on the back of the drawing had discoloured “very badly”: “[Conservators] carefully took that off, which really helped to give the original paper that little bit of a freshening.”

The conservation involved using fragments of rigid gels impregnated with minute volumes of water. Their moisture softened the backing, but not the drawing paper, allowing conservators to lift it with tweezers without disturbing the cartoon paper.

Michelangelo’s only complete surviving cartoon will now take pride of place in a forthcoming landmark exhibition at the British Museum, which shared details with The Telegraph on Saturday ahead of the official announcement and tickets going on sale on Monday.

Measuring more than two metres in height, the Epifania Michelangelo’s only complete surviving cartoon
Measuring more than two metres in height, the Epifania is Michelangelo’s only complete surviving cartoon - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Titled Michelangelo: the last decades, it will focus on the achievements of his late career which saw him still working shortly before his death in 1564, aged 88. It will explore his art, faith and friendships.

Ms Vowles, the show’s lead curator, said: “It’s the first time that we’re looking at the last 30 years of his life. It’s emphasising the point that his creativity remains dynamic. It’s introducing people to this less familiar period.”

She added that the popular image of Michelangelo focuses on the famous works of his youth - including the statue of David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling: “Everyone’s heard of him, but I feel that people have a very particular idea of who he is. This [will be] a celebration of late creativity. The UK hasn’t had a focussed exhibition of this kind.”

The British Museum boasts one of the world’s greatest collections of Michelangelo’s works, but it has also secured loans from the Royal Collection, the Ashmolean Museum, the Vatican and Casa Buonarroti, the artist’s home in Florence, among others.

Some of the British Museum’s own drawings will be seen for the first time in decades, Ms Vowles said: “Drawings are very delicate so, as an overall rule, we don’t show them for more than 12 months every 10 years, one year out of every decade cumulatively.”

The exhibits include preparatory drawings for his iconic masterpiece, The Last Judgment, which reflect his fascination with the human form.

Epifania was found in Michelangelo’s studio at the time of his death. In the exhibition, it will be reunited for the first time since the 16th century with a painting created from it by Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s assistant. It is being loaned by the Casa Buonarroti.

Ms Vowles said: “The intensity of Michelangelo’s faith strengthened as he aged. On show will be one of the most moving examples of his personal exploration of faith: a group of drawings of the Crucifixion, made during the last ten years of his life. They witness an elderly artist turning to the act of drawing as a means of spiritual meditation.”

The exhibition will paint a portrait of Michelangelo, the man, bringing together his poems, letters and artistic designs.

Ms Vowles said that there is an image of him as an “isolated, tormented genius, which isn’t really the case”. Instead, he will emerge as affectionate and warm - but with a prickly side.

Michelangelo: the last decades is at the British Museum from May 2 to July 28. Tickets go on sale on Monday.