Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Exposure: Michelangelo's Pietà

One of the world's greatest sculptures — perhaps the greatest sculpture — was attacked in 1972 by a mentally disturbed Hungarian. With twelve blows of a hammer, the man knocked more than 100 fragments off the statue, including an arm, an eyelid, and a nose.

Should the sculpture be left in its newly marred condition? Or repaired, but with visible marks indicating the damaged pieces? In the early 1700s, four of the fingers had accidentally broken off when the statue was moved. Although restored in 1736, scholars still argue about whether the restorer placed the fingers exactly as they had been, or if he slightly tweaked their position for a more rhetorical and dramatic pose.

Neither option suited the Vatican. This masterpiece, displayed in St. Peter's Basilica for centuries, had to be restored as closely as possible to the original. It was the crowning sculptural achievement of a sculptor unsurpassed by any other: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He had described the block of Carrara marble as the most "perfect" he ever used. Of his many sculptures, Michelangelo devoted more time fine-tuning and polishing it than all the rest.

Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
Michelangelo's Pietà sits in a side chapel within St. Peter's Basilica, in the Vatican City.
The Pietà was, in fact, the only sculpture that Michelangelo ever signed.

As the oft-repeated story goes, Michelangelo had completed the sculpture and one morning was admiring it in the mausoleum where it first had been displayed. While there, Michelangelo had:

     . . . observed a number of Lombards who were praising it loudly. One of them asked another the
     name of the sculptor, and he replied, "Our hunchback of Milan." Michelangelo said nothing, but
     he resented the injustice of having his work attributed to another, and that night he shut himself
     in the chapel with a light and his chisels and carved his name on it.

               Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,
                    from Cimabue to Our Times (first published in 1550)

It is a bogus story. While Vasari was one of the first art historians, he is notable also for his fictitious and invented anecdotes. Michelangelo had sculpted the sash or band across the Virgin Mary's chest from the outset. The sash bears no relation to her clothing. Its sole purpose is to display a carved inscription stating "Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this."

Vasari, however, was correct on other points. He opines that the Pietà "displays the utmost limits of sculpture." Indeed, the folds and drapery of the clothes are unequalled. Mary's headdress is impossibly thin. The hair, musculature, even veins and arteries of the body of the dead Jesus are perfect. The composition has layers of subtle triangular structure, such as from the base to the top of Mary's head, or the triangles created by Jesus's body laying across Mary. And even in recline, Jesus's body maintains the classic contrapposto form.

One structural element which can be seen, but not unseen, is the immense size disparity between the Virgin Mary and Jesus. If the two figures were standing, Mary would tower several feet in height above Jesus. However, if the figures had been of ordinary size, Mary would have struggled to hold Jesus's body. Michelangelo worked to conceal Mary's size beneath the voluminous folds of fabric, as well as with her own reclined posture.

Injured Pietà
Injured Pietà. (Image from Vatican, reproduced by Reuters.)
To repair the magnificent Pietà, the Vatican settled on a process called "integral restoration." They wanted to avoid moving the statue, which might cause it further damage, so they built a laboratory around the statue. Studying the sculpture in situ, and with the help of photographs of the pre-damaged work, scientists and sculptors spent more than five months analyzing each of the more than 100 fragments and putting them back together. Then, with a combination of invisible glue and a powder made from the same type of Carrara marble, they painstakingly reattached the broken pieces. Ten months after the attack, the Pietà was back on display. The result was a restored sculpture with subtle lines showing the reattached pieces.

Restored Pietà, with restoration lines visible on nose and left eyelid
The reattached nose and fragment of left eyelid are subtly visible.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian attacker, Laszlo Toth, had been hospitalized for insanity. Prior to attacking the Pietà he had moved from Australia to Italy, knowing no Italian, and had repeatedly sent letters seeking to meet the current pope, Paul VI. When attacking the Pietà, Laszlo had yelled "I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!" After two years of hospitalization, he was released and immediately deported back to Australia. He then lived in a nursing home until his death in 2012.

As for the Pietà, which Vasari described as a "miracle that a once shapeless stone should assume a form that Nature with difficulty produces in flesh," it still resides within the same chapel inside St. Peter's Basilica. Now, however, it rests behind a wall of bulletproof glass, with only the front of the sculpture on display.

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