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Sr. Contributor

Michelangelo's big debut in Rome.

If you've ever wondered what got Michelangelo on the road to artistic god-hood, you're looking at it. The commission was offered by Cardinal Jean de Bilheres, a powerbroker between the king of France and the pope. As death came for the cardinal, he desired a bodacious monument for the chapel of St. Petronila in the Vatican, where he planned to be buried. Specifically, Bilheres wanted "the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better." Most artists shied away from that daunting task, but not Michelangelo. The work was universally praised on completion. The Vatican moved it from St. Petronila in 1749 to it's current spot in St. Peter's.

Universal acclaim doesn't mean there aren't bound to be some haters. Mary's youth has always bothered some critics, even in Michelangelo's time, and they have a point. Mary looks like a teenager when Jesus is traditionally held to be 33-years old at his execution. It wasn't an error, or anything. Michelangelo and some of his contemporaries believed that virginity kept a woman looking youthful. So whenever he was called out for the apparent discrepancy, he'd respond something like, "Yeah, duh, idiot. She's a virgin. Of course she'd age slower."

The Pieta is the only work Michelangelo signed. The inscription is across Mary's heart, and breaks up Michelangelo's name to hit hard at his being named after the archangel. Vasari relates that the urge to self-promote was due to Michelangelo overhearing a couple of mouth-breathers claim some Milanese nobody as the sculptor of the masterpiece. The signature written, Michelangelo looked at his pride writ across the Virgin Mary's chest and figured he was being a bit of a dick. He concluded to never sign a work again. Academia believes Vasari's full of it on this story, looking out for his BFF Michelangelo by over explaining this unique example of hubris. While no one knows exactly what happened (yet), the way the signature's laid out makes it highly unlikely that Michelangelo did it in the heat of the moment.

A mentally ill Australian geologist damaged the Pieta with a hammer on Pentecost Sunday in 1972. The Australian, named Laszlo Toth, struck the statue a dozen times, knocking the tip of her nose and her left arm clear off, and damaging her cheek and eye. The whole while, the errant geologist screamed, "I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead." Toth was committed to a mental health facility in Italy and deported on his release without criminal charges. The Vatican had three options afterward: Leave the damage unrestored; fix it with the restoration efforts left visible; and a seamless restoration. The Vatican chose the last option, and decided to put the statue behind bulletproof glass to deter future acts of nonsense. Restoration took ten months with a makeshift crime lab-cum-laboratory set up around the attack area to find and put back together all the pieces Toth knocked off.

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The following is an excerpt from "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects, Vol. IX" by Giorgio Vasari, originally published in 1550:

These things awakened in Cardinal di San Dionigi, called Cardinal de Rohan, a Frenchman, a desire to leave in a city so famous some worthy memorial of himself by the hand of so rare a craftsman; and he caused him to make a Pietà of marble in the round, which, when finished, was placed in the Chapel of the Vergine Maria della Febbre in S. Pietro, where the Temple of Mars used to be. To this work let no sculptor, however rare a craftsman, ever think to be able to approach in design or in grace, or ever to be able with all the pains in the world to attain to such delicacy and smoothness or to perforate the marble with such art as Michelagnolo did therein, for in it may be seen all the power and worth of art. Among the lovely things to be seen in the work, to say nothing of the divinely beautiful draperies, is the body of Christ; nor let anyone think to see greater beauty of members or more mastery of art in any body, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves over the framework of the bones, nor yet a corpse more similar than this to a real corpse. Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable; and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo's love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name—a thing that he never did again in any other work—written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, "Our Gobbo from Milan." Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labours should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it. 

From this work he acquired very great fame, and although certain persons, rather fools than otherwise, say that he has made Our Lady too young, are these so ignorant as not to know that unspotted virgins maintain and preserve their freshness of countenance a long time without any mark, and that persons afflicted as Christ was do the contrary? That circumstance, therefore, won an even greater increase of glory and fame for his genius than all his previous works.



  1. Vasari, Giorgio. "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects, Vol. IX" (London: PHILIP LEE WARNER, PUBLISHER TO THE MEDICI SOCIETY, LIMITED, 1915)14-15.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Pietà (Michelangelo)

The Pietà (Italian: [pjeˈta]; English: "the Pity"; 1498–1499) is a work of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. It is the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, who was the French ambassador in Rome. The sculpture, in Carrara marble, was made for the cardinal's funeral monument, but was moved to its current location, the first chapel on the north side after the entrance of the basilica, in the 18th century. It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed. It is also the only known sculpture created by a prominent name from the Renaissance era to be installed in St. Peter's Basilica that was accepted by the Chapter of St. Peter.

This famous work of art depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The theme is of Northern origin. Michelangelo's interpretation of the Pietà is unprecedented in Italian sculpture. It is an important work as it balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism.

In 2019, a small terracotta figure identified as a model for the final sculpture was displayed in Paris.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Pietà (Michelangelo).

Comments (2)

Zhengyu Zhou

This is Michelangelo's first large round sculpture. He used a carving knife to sign his name on the shoulder strap on the breast of the Virgin, the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed.

Madison Skye

This piece is moving. The natural form creates a realistic sculpture. I love the draping of the garments. The shapes of stones and marble in the background remind me of a chapel.