Michelangelo's Pietà restored
The intervention restores the beauty of one of Michelangelo's most intense and tormented masterpieces to the world now freed from the superficial deposits that altered the legibility of its exceptional plasticity and colour.
The restoration of Michelangelo's Opera del Duomo Pietà known as “Pietà Bandini” preserved in the Opera del Duomo Museum of Florence is completed. The restoration begun in November 2019 and was interrupted several times during the Covid 19 pandemic. It resulted a unique opportunity to understand the complex history of this artwork, the various stages of processing and the sculptural technique used. The intervention restores the beauty of one of Michelangelo's most intense and tormented masterpieces to the world now freed from the superficial deposits that altered the legibility of its exceptional plasticity and colour. The aim of the restoration was to achieve a uniform and balanced legibility of the work, re-proposing the image of the Pietà, carved in a single block, as probably originally thought by Michelangelo. Thanks to the decision to create an "open" restoration site, the visitors of the Opera del Duomo Museum were able to see the restoration during all the process. Exceptionally, for the next months, from September 25 2021 to January 31 2022, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore has decided to organize guided tours to see up close and in a unique and unrepeatable way the restored Pietà by leaving the restauration worksite open to the public.
The restoration was commissioned and directed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore thanks to the support of the American non-profit organisation “Friends of Florence” under the supervision of the Soprintendenza ABAP per la Città Metropolitana di Firenze e le Province di Pistoia e Prato. The restoration was entrusted to the restorer Paola Rosa, who has gained thirty years of experience on artworks by important artists of the past including Michelangelo. Paola Rosa worked in collaboration with the restorer Emanuela Peiretti and counted with the support of internal and external professionals at the Opera.
The set of the four figures that composed the work, including the elderly Nicodemus, to whom the artist gave his face, are carved in a block of marble of 2 meters and 25 centimetres high, weighing about 2,700 kg. The diagnostic investigations led to the discovery that it is a marble from the Seravezza (LU) quarries and not from Carrara, as believed to date. A significant discovery because the Seravezza quarries were owned by the Medici and Giovanni de 'Medici, future Pope Leo X, had ordered Michelangelo to use the marbles for the facade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence and to open a road to transport them to the sea. Why this huge block of marble was in the availability of Michelangelo in Rome, when he sculpted the Pietà between 1547 and 1555, however, remains a mystery. We also know that Michelangelo was not satisfied with the quality of these marbles because they presented unexpected veins and micro-cracks difficult to identify from the outside. Thanks to the restoration, it was possible to confirm, for the first time, that the marble used for the Pietà was actually defective, as Vasari also recounts in the "Lives" describing it as hard, full of impurities and that it "fired" with every blow chisel. In fact, have emerged in the marble many small inclusions of pyrite that once hit by the chisel would certainly have caused sparks. But, above all, the presence of numerous micro fractures, in particular one on the base that appears both in front and behind, that Michelangelo encountered it while sculpted the left arm of Christ and that of the Virgin, suggests he have been forced to abandon the work due to the impossibility of continuing it. It is a credible hypothesis that the old Michelangelo, dissatisfied with the result, in a moment of despair tried to destroy the hammered sculpture, even if the restoration has not identified any trace of them, unless Tiberio Calcagni has not erased the signs.
We can consider this just ended restoration the first of the history of the Florentine Pietà because the sources do not report particular interventions that took place in the past, except that one shortly carried out after its realization by Tiberio Calcagni, a Florentine sculptor close to Michelangelo, within the 1565. Over the span of over 470 years of life, during the numerous changes of ownership and traumatic historical events, the Pietà suffered various maintenance interventions, which, however, are not documented, because in the past were considered simple routine operations.
The restoration preceded by an extensive diagnostic campaign provided fundamental information for the knowledge of this artwork and for the subsequent intervention. There were no historical patinas on Michelangelo's Pietà, with the exception of some traces found on the base of the sculpture. On the other hand, there are many surface deposits, starting with the presence of high amounts of plaster, residues of the cast made in 1882, which had left a conspicuous whiteness and excessive dryness on the surfaces. To remedy this unpleasant effect, waxes had been applied over the gypsum residues repeatedly and over time. The natural aging process of the waxes, mixed with dust deposits, especially on the folds of the garments and on the reliefs of the modelling, in evident contrast with the undercuts that remained lighter, made the surface amber and chromatically unbalanced.
Based on these results, it was decided to start with cleaning tests, in order to identify the most suitable method, and then to proceed the intervention from the back, where the presence of deposits was greater, using cotton swabs soaked in deionized water, slightly heated. Hence, it was a non-invasive restoration with a gradual and controlled method. In the more complex cases water cleaning with the use of scalpel was applied as for the waxes on the surface of the sculptural group, both in a widespread and point-like manner - drops due to the dripping of the candles placed on the main altar of the Cathedral of Florence, on the back of which the work was deposited for 220 years.
The Pietà of the Opera del Duomo of Florence –full of experience and suffering– is one of the three created by the great artist. Unlike the other two - the youth Vatican and the Rondanini –, here the body of Christ is supported by Mary, Mary Magdalene and the elderly Nicodemus, to whom Michelangelo gave his face. Detail also confirmed by the artist's two biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, thanks to whom we also know that the sculpture was intended for an altar in a Roman church, at whose feet the artist would have liked to be buried.
Michelangelo sculpted the Opera del Duomo Pietà known as Pietà Bandini between 1547 and 1555, when he was about seventy-five years old. Michelangelo does not finish the sculpture and gives it to his servant Antonio da Casteldurante who, after having it restored by Tiberio Calcagni, sells it to the banker Francesco Bandini for 200 scudi, who places it in the garden of his Roman villa in Montecavallo. In 1649, the Bandini heirs sold it to Cardinal Luigi Capponi who would take it to his palace in Montecitorio in Rome and four years later to Palazzo Rusticucci Accoramboni. On 25 July 1671, the great-grandson of Cardinal Capponi, Piero, sold it to Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, on the mediation of Paolo Falconieri, a gentleman at the Florentine court. After three years of further stay in Rome, due to the difficulties encountered in transporting it, in 1674 the Pietà was embarked in Civitavecchia, reached Livorno, and from there, along the Arno, it arrived in Florence, where it was placed in the basement of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It remained there until 1722, when Cosimo III had it placed on the back of the main altar of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. In 1933, the sculptural group was moved to the Chapel of Sant’Andrea to make it more easily visible. From 1942 to 1945, to protect it from the war, the Pietà was sheltered in the Cathedral. In 1949, the work returned to the Chapel of Sant’Andrea in the Cathedral, where it remained until 1981, when was moved to the Opera del Duomo Museum. The decision to transfer it to the Museum is motivated by the need not to disturb the cult due to the large influx of tourists and for security reasons (in 1972 the Vatican Pietà was vandalized). Since the end of 2015, the Pietà has been placed in the centre of a room entitled “Tribuna di Michelangelo", on a base that recalls the altar for which it was intended, in the Opera del Duomo Museum.
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Florence, September 24, 2021
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