An Italian Sculptural Pilgrimage - part XIII

The Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarotti (LEO Design)

Join me on my summer holiday as I travel (mostly) through Italy—as always, in search of beautiful sites, sculpture and all things sculpture-ish. 

At the age of 23, Michelangelo Buonarotti was hired to carve a funerary sculpture for the eventual tomb of French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères. What the young artist created—between 1498 and 1499—is amongst the most beautiful of all sculptures ever carved. In the 1700's, it was moved from the Cardinal's tomb and given pride-of-place in the first side chapel on the right as one enters Saint Peter's Basilica. 

Pietà means "The Pity," and this arrangement—of Jesus in his mother's lap—was previously unknown in Italian sculpture. The idealized yet naturalistic composition conveys the sensation of weight and substance. It was carved in Carrara marble and originally left unsigned. When Michelangelo overheard a viewer admiringly attributing it to a different, competing sculptor, he returned with his chisel and carved into Mary's chest sash (in Latin): "Michelangelo Buonarotti, Florentine, Made This." Later, regretting that he had been so prideful, he vowed to never sign another work. Thus, the Pietà is the only work of Michelangelo's which he ever signed.

New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman requested (and was granted) by Pope John XXIII a loan of the sculpture for the New York World's Fair (1964-65). Michelangelo's masterpiece traveled to New York and visitors stood in line for hours outside the Vatican Pavilion to see it. Once inside the Pavilion, viewers were carried past the work on an ever-moving conveyer belt.

On Pentecost Sunday 1972, a deranged man, claiming to be the resurrected Christ, attacked the artwork with a hammer, scattering chunks of the priceless sculpture. Some pieces were found, others were taken by selfish souvenir hunters. After painstaking restoration (including rebuilding Mary's nose from a block taken out of her back), the Pietà is back in place—though now behind a piece of bulletproof plexiglass.

We'll continue our summer holiday tomorrow. 


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