When visiting Italy, it always feels like there's something new to explore. From the newly accessible Roman remains of the Acra Sacra di Largo Argentina to the recent reopening of Cinque Terre’s Via dell’Amore, not to mention the ongoing discoveries in Pompeii, the list of attractions is constantly evolving. Just when you think you've seen it all, there's always a reason to return.

Among the latest incentives to visit are two historic sites in Florence and Rome that have just become accessible to the public.

In Florence it's a recently unveiled long-kept secret – a "hidden" room that is said to house works by the renowned Italian Renaissance master, Michelangelo. This underground space, discovered almost 50 years ago beneath the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Basilica, is believed to have served as Michelangelo's refuge for two months in 1530. Within this intimate chamber he allegedly left his mark, adorning the walls with dozens of sketches. On November 15, the room was finally made accessible to the public.

A general view of charcoal drawings inside "Michelangelo's Secret Room" at the Medici Chapel Museum
The secret room, a 10m x 3m (33ft x 10ft) space containing charcoal drawings attributed by some experts to Michelangelo, was discovered in 1975, when officials were searching for a new exit from the Medici Chapel to accommodate increasing visitors © Roberto Serra/ Iguana Press / Getty Images

Fleeing from the wrath of Pope Clement VII due to his strained relationship with the ruling Medici family, it is believed that Michelangelo sought safety here during the pope's (who himself was a member of the Medici family) siege on Florence in 1530. 

The hidden room was discovered in 1975 by Paolo Dal Poggetto, a former director of the Medici Chapels. Initially mistaken for a mere storage area for coal, it was only upon finding charcoal and chalk drawings on the walls that Dal Poggetto felt there was more to this room than meets the eye. After weeks of meticulous work, the plaster was carefully removed and Dal Poggetto was proved correct when the walls revealed artwork reminiscent of Michelangelo's renowned masterpieces. Some scholars speculate that these walls served as a canvas for sketching out ideas for future projects, as well as preserving sketches of his previous works.

The drawings found in the room, including references to works like the head of the Laocoön, the statue of David and frescoes similar to those that adorn the roof of the Sistine Chapel, as well as other sculptures and paintings, are still being examined by art critics before they can be fully attributed to Michelangelo. Regardless, it's still an impressive collection of Renaissance artwork. 

A sketch of what appears to be Michelangelo's David
Is this a sketch of Michelangelo's David by the Renaissance master himself? © Claudio Giovannini / AFP / Getty Images

"The moment you enter that room, you simply are speechless," Paola D’Agostino, the director of the Bargello Museums, a group that oversees the Medici Chapels, told the New York Times.

"As your eyes adjust to the room’s dim lighting, you start seeing all the different drawings and all the different layers," she added.

The room had remained off-limits to visitors for a decades due to concerns about the tight space and access down a narrow flight of stairs, which posed safety risks and potential damage to the drawings. However, now the room is open on a trial basis until the end of March next year. Visitors must book in advance and access is limited to 15 minutes per group. It costs €20 per person, in addition to the €10 charged for entry to the main museum and €3 booking fee (€33 in total).

Aerial and up-close shots of marbled burial sites under St Peter's Basilica
The tombs of Via Triumphalis, many with marble details, are incredibly well preserved © Vatican Museums

Meanwhile in Rome, the Vatican made an ancient Roman burial ground more accessible, granting visitor access to an important piece of history below the ground of the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo.

Known as the Via Triumphalis Necropolis, the "city for the dead" is a burial ground for a significant portion of Rome's population from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE. The burial sites belong to people from various social classes, including the poor, middle, and upper classes. Over 200 individual burials and 40 sepulchral buildings can be found in the area, many adorned with frescoes and stuccoes that serve as poignant tributes to the departed.

Terracotta urns and other Ancient Roman pagan burial offerings are seen in the necropolis under St Peter's Basilica
Via Triumphalis Necropolis provides rich insight into the pagan burial practices of ancient Rome © Vatican Museums

The Vatican describes this site as exceptionally well-preserved, providing valuable insights into ancient Roman pagan funerary practices. These traditions were often associated with superstition, the fear of the afterlife, and the bonds of human affection and family unity, rather than being tied to any official religious sphere. "In many cases inscribed funerary stelae (monuments) have been found, clarifying the identity of the deceased and their individual stories," the Vatican Museums said.

Previously, access to the necropolis was limited to approved groups of academics, students and specialists. However, a gate overlooking Risorgimento Square has now been opened, granting general public access to the site.

The entrance to an Ancient Roman burial tomb adorned with frescoes
The frescoed Necropolis of St Rosa along the Via Triumphalis © Vatican Museums

This expansion coincides with the Vatican's new exhibition, Life and Death in the Rome of the Caesars, which opened on November 17. Visits to the necropolis cost €8.50 per person and are currently available on Fridays and Sundays. Tickets can be booked online through the official Vatican Museums website.

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ROME, ITALY - 2024/01/11: Carved marble blocks from the Ancient Rome are lined up during the opening of the Archaeological Park of Celio and 'Forma Urbis Museum'. (Photo by Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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