FLORENCE, Italy – Michelangelo was an old man when he started working on a sculpture he was considering for an altar for his own tomb: it was a marble Pietà, representing Jesus supported by the Virgin Mary, Saint Mary Magdalene and the Pharisee Nicodemus, whose face is a barely engraved self-portrait of the aging artist.
Michelangelo worked on the project between 1547 and 1555, when he was 70, and it was a difficult project from the start. His friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that the block of marble was defective and full of impurities and that “the chisel often made sparks fly from it”. Michelangelo became frustrated, eventually giving up the work, and Vasari wrote that Michelangelo had tried to destroy him.
But the sculpture has survived, and last week the Pietà was publicly celebrated here after its first major restoration in almost 470 years.
Mgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the Opera del Duomo museum, which has housed the statue for 40 years, said: “It is Michelangelo’s most personal work, not only because it includes his own self-portrait and is was intended for his grave, but because it expresses the tormented relationship he had with marble.
An analysis of the marble during the restoration revealed that it did not come from Carrara, Michelangelo’s favorite quarry in Tuscany, as had been speculated, but from the quarries of Seravezza, about 10 miles away.
Restorers also saw first-hand why Michelangelo could have left the job unfinished. The marble is imperfect, not of a single uniform color throughout the block, and contains traces of pyrite, a sulphide mineral that reacts with metal, which would explain why sparks flew when Michelangelo hammered. The block of marble also revealed fractures and tiny cracks that would not necessarily have been visible when Michelangelo began carving, but easily shattered when struck. Such a fracture may have surprised Michelangelo as he sculpted the left arms of Christ and the Virgin Mary; a fault so insurmountable that Michelangelo may have been forced to throw in the chisel, so to speak.
“He encountered the fracture, he may have tried to work around it, but in this case, he couldn’t do much,” Paola Rosa, the project’s chief conservator.
After deciding to abandon it, Michelangelo offered the sculpture to his servant Antonio da Casteldurante, who entrusted it to Tiberio Calcagni, one of Michelangelo’s pupils and sometimes collaborator, who reworked the statue in the semi-finished state in which it now stands.
Around 1560, the work was sold to banker Francesco Bandini, and the work became known as Bandini Pietà. She made her way from Rome to Florence, where she was installed behind the high altar of the city’s cathedral, under large candelabras whose traces of dripping wax have left their mark.
But it was a plaster cast of the statue in 1882 that altered it the most. The statue was poorly cleaned after the plaster set, leaving it white and parched. The keepers of the cathedral at the time decided to apply a layer of amber wax, which was reapplied over the decades, especially on the most exposed areas. The wax aged, the stucco and other materials – used to join some pieces that had broken – oxidized, so the sculpture became stained.
“We joked that he looked like a Dalmatian,” Rosa said.
The current restoration began in 2019 and was carried out in a restoration laboratory open at the Opera del Duomo museum, the institution that owns and, for 700 years, oversaw the maintenance of Florence Cathedral and other buildings. There, visitors could see Rosa and her team working on the sculpture (when the museum was not closed due to the coronavirus).
Removing the layers of wax and grime had made it “the original idea for Michelangelo’s sculpture,” Rosa said in an interview last week, adding that it was “painstaking work”.
Rosa restored several sculptures by Michelangelo in Florence, including the famous David from the Academy Gallery, as well as the so-called “Pitti Tondo” and a bust of Brutus, both at the city’s Bargello museum.
“The first time I got hold of Michelangelo I was 40, now I’m 62,” said Rosa, her voice broken with emotion. “It’s so moving, so special, and I still don’t feel like I know him,” she said. “With a few blows of the scalpel he is able to do amazing things,” she said.
The Duomo Opera Museum is home to one of the best collections of late medieval and Renaissance sculpture in Italy, and some 600 statues were restored during the museum’s closure and renovation, during its reopening. in 2015.
“We had basically hired all the reputable restaurateurs in central Italy for a period of two years to do this blitzkrieg on the filth of our statues,” Verdon said.
The Pietà was the only major work not to be restored at the time, as it required “expertise and time”, and would give the museum a new opportunity to present its collection later, said Verdon, director of the museum, during a press conference on Friday.
Antonio Natali, member of the board of directors of the Opera del Duomo, said in an interview that while another Michelangelo Pietà was more famous – the one created for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome when the artist was 24 years old – the newly restored work was “the most touching of all.
This Pietà was also one of Michelangelo’s most tormented works. While sculpting it, he meditated on his own death, even as he feared that marble – a material he mastered – would not conform to his chisel.
In his biography of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote that he visited the artist late one night and found him working on the sculpture, “trying to make changes” to one of the legs of the figure of Christ. When he saw Vasari watching, “Michelangelo dropped the lantern from his hand, leaving them in the dark,” to prevent Vasari from seeing her.
Michelangelo then said to Vasari: “I am so old that death often pulls me by the cape to accompany it, and one day, just like this lantern, my body will fall and the light of life will be extinguished.