15 Things You Should Know About Michelangelo's Pietà

Stanislav Traykov, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Since its creation in 1499, Michelangelo's Pietà has inspired emotion, faith, and imitation through its elegant depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Yet few know the secrets that are still being uncovered about this centuries-old statue.

1. A French cardinal commissioned it for his own funeral. 

French cardinal Jean de Billheres, who served the church in Rome, wanted to be remembered long after he'd died. To achieve this goal, he hired Michelangelo to make a memorial for his tomb that would capture a scene that was popular in Northern European art at the time: the tragic moment of the Virgin Mary taking Jesus down from the cross. 

Actually, that undersells de Billheres’s request. Michelangelo's exact job description for the project was to create "the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better." While other sculptors might have balked at such an intense demand, Michelangelo was confident he could complete such a task. The Pietà is considered by many to be his greatest work, besting even David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

2. After more than 200 years, the Pietà was moved to St. Peter's Basilica. 

The Late Renaissance church houses the religious monument within the first chapel to the right of its entrance. There, countless Vatican City tourists have viewed it. You can visit it virtually here

3. Michelangelo carved it from a single slab of marble. 

Specifically, he used Carrara marble, a white and blue stone named for the Italian region where it is mined. It's been a favorite medium of sculptors since the days of Ancient Rome. 

4. Pietà is the only work Michelangelo every signed.

If you look closely, the sculptor’s signature can be found across Mary's chest. Sixteenth century art historian Giorgi Vasari told the tale of how Michelangelo made his mark: 

One day Michelagnolo [sic], 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 labors 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. 

Michelangelo later regretted the vanity of this act, and resolved never to sign another piece of his work. 

5. The piece made Michelangelo famous when he was only 24. 

Thanks in part to putting his name in plain sight on the Pietà, Michelangelo's reputation grew as the public's love of the statue did. The artist lived to the age of 88, enjoying decades of acclaim and appreciation for his works. 

6. The sculpture has been criticized for Michelangelo's depiction of Mary. 

Some church observers sneered that the artist made her look too youthful to have a son who was 33 years old, as Jesus was believed to be at his death. Michelangelo defended this choice to his biographer Ascanio Condivi

Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body? 

7. It’s a mash-up of sculpting styles.

Michelangelo has long been praised for marrying Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with poses that favored naturalism. Another nod to Renaissance influence is a structure that ultimately resembles a pyramid, formed by Mary's head, flowing down her arms and to the bottoms of her robes. 

8. Mary's robes hide a creative compromise. 

If you look closely, you can see that Mary's head is a bit too small for her very large body. When designing Mary's measurements, Michelangelo could not impose realistic proportions and have her cradle her adult son as he envisioned. So, he had to make her—the statue's support—oversized. To play down this poetic license on her form, Michelangelo carved out sheets of gentle draping garments, camouflaging Mary's true fullness.  

9. The Pietà was brutally attacked. 

Michelangelo had a habit of shouting at his sculptures and even occasionally lashing out at them with his tools. But it was an unemployed geologist from Hungary who won infamy on Pentecost Sunday of 1972 by leaping over the railings at St. Peter's Basilica to attack the Pietà with a hammer. With 12 blows, Laszlo Toth knocked off Mary's left arm, snapped off the tip of her nose, and damaged her cheek and left eye. 

10. Its destruction was not deemed a criminal offense. 

The authorities chose not to criminally prosecute Toth for his destruction of the priceless work of art. However, a Rome court deemed him "a socially dangerous person," and committed the man to a mental hospital for two years. After he was released, Toth was deported.

11. Its restoration was a matter of debate

When a work of art is damaged in this way, its exhibitors are forced to debate what's best—leaving it as it is (like Cleveland's The Thinker that was mangled in a bombing) or altering the original to restore it. The Vatican heard three arguments on this matter. 

The first declared that the Pietà's damage was now a part of its meaning, speaking to the violence of our modern age. Others proposed that the sculpture be repaired, but with visible seams as a reminder of this grave assault. Ultimately, a seamless restoration was chosen, with the goal of making it impossible for observers to know that Toth had even touched Michelangelo's masterpiece. 

12. THE RESTORATION TOOK 10 MONTHS. 

Master craftsmen picked through the 100 bits of marble broken off of the Pietà and puzzled them back together. In a makeshift lab built around the statue, these workers spent five months identifying pieces as small as fingernails. Next, they used an invisible glue and marble powder to affix the pieces back onto the Pietà and filled any gaps with replacement pieces. And once the integral restoration was completed, the final step was securing the restored work behind bulletproof glass. 

13. This was not the first time it was behind bulletproof glass

In 1964, the Vatican loaned the Pietà to the United States, where it was displayed as part of the 1964 New York World's Fair. To ensure the safety of this statue, organizers erected a barrier of seven massive sheets of plexiglass that collectively weighed more than 4900 pounds. Then, to make sure crowds would safely pass by the sculpture, conveyor belt-style mobile walkways were installed. 

14. The Pietà's attack had an unexpected silver lining. 

During its diligent restoration, workers discovered a secret signature on the piece. Hidden in the folds of Mary's left hand was a subtle "M" believed to stand for Michelangelo.  

15. Michelangelo’s Model for The Pietà may have been discovered.

In November 2010, American art historian Roy Doliner claimed that a restored 12-inch statue from the late 15th century is a long-misidentified Michelangelo piece that served as the test run for his Pietà. The small sculpture of Mary and Jesus was previously attributed to celebrated 15th century sculptor Andrea Bregno. But Doliner believes this piece was a sort of proof of concept given to cardinal de Billheres to secure the commission.

Art

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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