Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà
Historic Note - Mons. Timothy Verdon, Director of Opera del Duomo Museum
The most important late sculpture by Michelangelo is the unfinished Pietà today in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. This group carved in Rome was probably begun in 1547, when Pope Paul III called the sculptor to direct the ongoing construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was not a papal commission, however: rather, Michelangelo, in his seventies, intended the Pietà for his own funerary monument and gave the elderly man who supports Christ his own features.
The unusually long period Michelangelo worked on the Pietà is due to his engagement on the St. Peter’s project, which left him little free time. He carved at night, and Giorgio Vasari, who visited the artist’s studio late at night in 1553 found Michelangelo working on the Pietà by lamplight. Vasari mentions Michelangelo’s effort to conceal a correction to a leg of Christ, but it is not clear if this reference regards Christ’s missing left leg or his right leg. Vasari also speaks of the particular hardness of the marble used for the Pietà, saying that Michelangelo’s chisel blows produced sparks.
Whether for flaws in the marble or for dissatisfaction with what he had achieved, in 1555 Michelangelo lost patience and mutilated the still unfinished Pietà. The marble group was laboriously pieced back together by a collaborator, Tiberio Calcagni, who finished the Mary Magdalene figure, and then sold to a Roman collector, Francesco Bandini. In 1671 it was acquired by Cosimo III de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who in 1674 had it transferred to Florence, to the church of San Lorenzo, and then, in 1722, to the Cathedral. In 1981 the Pietà was moved to the Museum, and 2015 was transferred to its present position, a dedicated hall in the renewed and enlarged Museo dell’Opera, and placed on a high base that evokes the altar for which Michelangelo intended the work.
No known document attests to a restoration of the work prior to 2019, when the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore initiated the present intervention with the support of the Friends of Florence.
Msgr. Timothy Verdon
Director, Opera del Duomo Museum