Michelangelo’s Pietà is one of the most beautiful sculptures in the history of art and one of the most representative works of the Renaissance ideal.
It is one of the most important pieces the Florentine artist ever produced, possibly only matched in its significance by the statue of David, the Creation of Adam (the most famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel), by the Tondo Doni, and another Pietà, the Rondanini Pietà, which, unfinished, represents Michelangelo’s spiritual and creative testament.
The Pietà was completed when Michelangelo was very young: there are different theories regarding the exact date of its completion, but he was either 25 or 26 years old.
Michelangelo was born in 1475 in Caprese, close to Arezzo, but moved to Florence with his family at a very young age. Here, at the age of 13 he was apprenticed to the famous painter Ghirlandaio, and later attended the priory of San Marco, a sort of academy of the arts financed by Lorenzo de’ Medici. When the Medici were ousted and replaced by Girolamo Savonarola’s Republic, Michelangelo left Florence, moving to Venice and then to Bologna for a brief period. After returning to Tuscany in 1495, he set off for Rome the following year.
MICHELANGELO IN ROME
The story of how Michelangelo came to Rome and went on to sculpt the Pietà, now on display in St. Peter’s Basilica, is quite incredible.
What we know with certainty is that, while in Florence in 1495, he worked on a small statue of a sleeping Cupid. The merchant Baldassarre del Milanese sold this statue, passing it off as a piece of Greek antiquity, to the powerful cardinal Raffaele Riario, who resided in Rome, but was originally from Liguria.
It is unclear if Michelangelo was aware of this scheme. According to some accounts, it was Michelangelo’s new patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who organized this deception against the cardinal. In reality, it was more of a joke than a real scam, in the spirit of the very Florentine Burla, or prank: Lorenzo, known as the Commoner, wanted to show that no alleged art expert would have been able to distinguish that cupid from an original of the classical period. According to this version of events, Michelangelo played an active role in making the statue look antique: he wanted to prove himself worthy of the greats of ancient Greece.
News of the scam aroused a great deal of interest in the Papal City and Raffaele Riario became the laughing stock of the curia and of Roman nobility.
Irritated, the cardinal sent Jacopo Galli, a Roman banker and nobleman, to discover the identity of the sculptor of the Cupid: Michelangelo was brought to Rome, where he apologised to Raffaele Riario and went on to sculpt the Bacchus for him.
The sculptor took up residence in one of Jacopo Galli’s houses. Galli – acting perhaps as Michelangelo’s agent – found him several jobs, and it was precisely through him that Michelangelo secured the commission to carve the Vatican Pietà.
COMMISSION OF THE STATUE OF THE PIETÀ
In 1497, cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas commissioned Michelangelo to carve “a life-sized Virgin Mary, dressed, with a Dead Christ in her arms”.
Jean Bilhères was the cardinal of Santa Sabina and French governor of Rome by appointment to the French King Charles VIII of France. He commissioned the statue of the Pietà for the chapel of Saint Petronilla, in the Vatican. This church belonged to the King of France and was located on the side of the transept of the old Basilica of Saint Peter.
The celebrations for the jubilee of 1500 were approaching and many French pilgrims were expected to visit the chapel: Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà was to be presented to them as a masterpiece donated by a fellow countryman.
In the contract for the commission of the statue, Jacopo Galli specifically assured the Cardinal that this would have been “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome and that no other artist today could do it better”.
Michelangelo was incredibly demanding in his choice of raw materials and it took him 9 months to choose the exact block of marble and have it transported from the quarries of Carrara to Rome.
The official contract for the creation of the Pietà was signed in August 1498, and it stipulated that the sculpture would have been delivered in just one year’s time. From the receipts, it is not clear whether the sculptor respected the stipulated consignment date: he did receive a payment from Cardinal Bilhères’ Executrix, the Ghinucci Bank, in July 1500, which seems to be the most likely date of completion. However, there is an unusual payment, made by Michelangelo himself, to a certain “Sandro muratore” (Sandro the Brick layer), that appears only once in his records, on the 6th of August 1499: he might have been paying this person to move the statue of the Pietà to its place in the Chapel of St. Petronilla. If this is the case then Michelangelo respected all the contractual deadlines. Curiously, on that very same day, the 6th of August 1499, Jean Bilhères died.
LOCATION IN SAINT PETER’S BASILICA
Where exactly is Michelangelo’s Pietà located within Saint Peter’s Basilica? It’s very easy to find: it’s located in the first chapel to the right of the nave. However, it was only moved to its current location 250 years after its creation. As was previously mentioned, the statue was initially housed inside the Chapel of Saint Petronilla, the French church adjacent to the transept of the old Basilica. According to Vasari, in his biography of Michelangelo, it was then transferred to the church of Santa Maria della Febbre, always in Saint Peter’s. It was moved to its final location in the mid 18th century.
ANALYSIS OF THE VATICAN PIETÀ: SIZE, SHAPE AND SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
The Pietà is defined as the depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dying Christ in her arms. This was a popular scene in Northern European art of the late 15th century, and was a variation of the German wooden “Vesperbild”, that were mostly carved out of wood.
Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà is 174cm tall, 195cm wide and only 69cm deep. Its shallow depth might have been dictated by the fact that the statue was always intended to be placed in a niche.
The sculpture is pyramidal. Despite the commission to build a life-sized sculpture, upon careful observation you can see that Christ is smaller than the Virgin. This was done to allow Mary to easily hold the body of her son, but it was also interpreted as recalling Jesus’ infancy. This difference in size is camouflaged by the rich drapery of Mary’s garments.
The marble of the sculpture is so shiny it was said that Michelangelo spent as much time polishing his masterpiece as he did sculpting it. This desire to give the statue such luminosity was probably to contrast the darkness of the Chapel of Saint Petronilla.
INTERESTING FACTS: MICHELANGELO’S SIGNATURE, A YOUTHFUL MARY, THE “TOOTH OF SIN”
The Pietà is the only work Michelangelo ever signed. In his Lives of the Artists, the art historian Giorgio Vasari tells an interesting tale behind this signature, which he carved on a sash along Mary’s chest. According to his report, shortly after its installation, some visitors from Lombardy came to admire the sculpture and attempted to identify the artist behind it. After much debate, they concluded that it was the work of their fellow countryman, Cristoforo Solari (also called the “hunchback of Milan”). Michelangelo overheard this conversation and decided to hide in the church one night and carve his name on the statue.
However, it appears more likely that Michelangelo was simply following the custom of Tuscan painters of the time; a tradition he later abandoned.
Despite being immediately well-received and admired, the Pietà did receive some criticism for the particularly youthful depiction of the Virgin Mary, who resembles an adolescent. This was done intentionally by Michelangelo, as was revealed by his biographers, and there was a theological explanation behind it. The incorruptible Virgin, the immaculate conception, she is the symbol of crystallised youth that never withers; the artist also took inspiration from the verses of Dante’s Paradiso: “O Virgin mother, daughter of thy son.
The Pietà has another unusual feature, only this one is much harder to spot: Christ has an extra tooth, a fifth incisor. This was also known as “the tooth of sin” and in the works of other Renaissance artists it was a trait attributed to negative characters. The Christ of the Pietà, on the other hand, was given an extra tooth since, upon his death, he took upon himself the sins of the world.
ATTACK AND RESTORATION
On May 21, 1972, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, Laszlo Toth, eluded the Basilica’s security and repeatedly struck the Pietà with a geologist’s hammer. He broke off Mary’s left arm and damaged her face, breaking off her nose and chipping her left eyelid. The attacker was stopped before he could unleash his rage on the figure of Christ. After being declared insane by a Roman court, he was first confined to an Italian mental hospital, then immediately deported to Australia upon release.
A long debate ensued in the Vatican over how the sculpture was to be restored: one side argued to leave the Virgin Mary’s face disfigured, thus speaking to the violence of our modern age; another proposed that it be restored with visible seams where the repairs had been made; but it was the third suggestion, that of an integral restoration, that eventually prevailed.
It was concluded that even the smallest crack in the utter perfection of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà could not have been tolerated.