Michelangelo’s Pietà, a masterpiece in Saint Peter’s Basilica
In the long list of places to visit during your stay in Rome, you can’t miss Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, hosting probably the most famous work by Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as the most appreciated marble statue of the Italian art: the Pieta.
During your tour in the Basilica, you can also admire other works by the Tuscany artist, such as Saint Peter’s dome and the frescos on the Sistine Chapel vault.
Michelangelo, born in 1475 in Caprese, near Arezzo, moved with his family to Florence, when he was very young.
His father, Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni, gave custody of him to Francesco da Urbino, who made him learning humanistic studies, but his drawing attitude appeared very soon, so he started attending the famous painter Ghirlandaio workshop: the latter got astonished by the thirteen Michelangelo’s capacities. His passion for sculpture made him stop Ghirlandaio’s workshop to attend the Giardino di San Marco, a “free sculpture and ancient works copying school”.
At Lorenzo de’ Medici palace, he went into his culture and made his first sculptures. He left Florence, because of some political events of the time and moved to Venice and then Bologna, to lately go back to Florence where he made the Bacchus; he lived for a while in Rome, where he made the famous Vatican Pieta.
Between 1501 and 1505, he went back to Florence, where he made many works, among which the David stands out.
During the following years, he had to move around Florence, Rome, Carrara and Pietrasanta, where he took care of the marble cave he used for his sculptures. Between 1508 and 1512, he realized the frescos for the 500 metres Sistine Chapel vault, the masterpiece always attracting visitors from all over the world.
After some time in Florence again, Michelangelo went back to Rome in 1534, where received the commission of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The works started in 1536 and finished in 1541. During his last years, he realized other works inspired by the Pieta theme, but also some architectural works such as Saint Peter’s dome.
Michelangelo died in his Roman house, in February 1564. According to Vasari, he left “his soul to God, his body to the earth and his properties to his closest relatives” in his will.
The Vatican Pieta history
Michelangelo’s Pieta, also known as the Vatican Pieta, was realized between 1497 and 1499 and it is situated in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Michelangelo made it when he was in his twenties, commissioned by his banker friend Jacopo Galli, on behalf of the French cardinal Jean de Bilhères who desired a “dressed up Virgin Mary, hanging a dead Christ among her arms, as big as a right man”.
After he got partly paid, the sculptor left, riding a Bay horse to go to Carrara, for choosing the best marble block for the work. It took 9 months to choose and bring it to Rome. The Vatican Pieta, made in one year, immediately produced admiration and curiosity and, as people didn’t know Michelangelo’s capacities yet, everybody thought it was made by the sculptor Cristoforo Solari.
According to Vasari, Michelangelo secretly heard this rumors and he decided to stop them, signing the Virgin cloak: the Vatican Pieta is the only one work he signed.
Probably, at the beginning, it was made for the memorial of the French customer in Santa Petronilla chapel. Vasari wrote it was moved to Santa Maria della Febbre church, in his Michelangelo’s biography.
It was moved in Saint Peter’s in 1517, moving from place to place there, along the years. The sculpture now is in the first chapel on the left, in the church navy, since 1749. Between 1964 and 1965, it was moved to New York, for the Universal Exhibition, to finally come back to the Vatican City.
The most important features of Michelangelo’s Pieta
The Pieta describes the “Virgin Mary hanging a dying Christ among her arms”.
It is 1,74 metres tall, 1,95 metres large and 0,69 metres thick. The reason of a so small thick is probably the need of collocating it in a recess.
The work represents a sort of a break among the works Michelangelo made until that moment. Before it, the other sculptors Pietas laid on a wooden support and the relation between the Virgin and Jesus was represented in a much more simple way.
In Michelangelo’s, the Virgin is sitting on a rock symbolizing the Calvary mountain, where Christ was crucified, lifeless described, laying down on his mother legs.
If you observe the work, you will surely notice two details: the Virgin gaze towards down and her left hand pointing up, to emphasize her pain and resignation for her son’s death.
Michelangelo did represented the Virgin as a young girl, attracting many critics on it. Some critics of art said he wanted to emphasize her spiritual beauty or she was the young mother rocking her baby Christ sleeping among her arms.
The sculpture has a pyramidal structure enlarging towards the bottom; the vertex is the Virgin head and the basis stands for the Calvary mountain. If you pay attention, you will notice Christ is smaller than Mary, absolutely in contrast with what the customer had asked, a full-sized sculpture.
The Holy Mary easily hangs her Son in the commonly known celebration of Christ childhood. The rich drapery hides the different sizes of the two characters.
Another important detail you can hardly see is the presence of a tooth in Jesus Christ mouth: it is the fifth front tooth, considered the “sin tooth”, usually represented in the Renaissance bad characters, but Michelangelo just wanted to highlight his Christ had collected on himself all the world sins.
The Vatican Pieta doesn’t want to represent Christ Passion, but a sort of abandon, as the absence of any crucifixion injuries on Christ’s body.
Resting a little bit on the sculpture, you can also notice the peculiar brightness of its marble: it is said Michelangelo dedicated one year just to polish it, as if it was in opposition to the partial darkness of Santa Petronilla church, where the statue originally was.
The Outrage to the Pietà and its restoration
On the 21st May 1972, the Hungarian-Australian geologist Laszio Toth broke the arm of the Virgin Mary, shuttered the elbow and defaced her face, taking the nose away and both the eyelids, in just a few seconds, while he hit the statue 15 times shouting “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!".
The guards, firstly eluded, finally blocked him, before he could hit also Jesus.
The geologist was declared mad and sent back to his country.
The restoration has been discussed for a long time in the Vatican: according to some people, the face of the Virgin must have been left like that to highlight the violence featuring that period, while others suggested to critical restore it, lighting the lacking or restored parts. They finally decided to completely restore it: it had to be perfect and no flaws were admitted.
The restoration took place in 1972-73 at the Vatican Museum laboratories, using the fifty original fragments and a mix of glue and marble powder, together with many molds, to perfectly restore the work.
From that moment on, the sculpture is protected by a strong glass.
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