The Florentine Pieta was not commissioned. Instead, Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb. He worked on the sculpture in his spare time, late into the night with a candle fixed to his hat for light.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Dwight Longenecker as he considers Michelangelo’s final sculpture, a pietà as sublime and as senescent as the artist’s reflections in his last days. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is an unmissable new sight in a visit to Florence. Designed by American art historian and priest, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, the museum houses an array of sculpture, vestments, reliquaries and other treasures from the cathedral.
On a recent visit, Monsignor Verdon conducted our group on a tour, explaining the brilliant layout of the museum as well as the genius behind the works by Donatello, Michelangelo, and countless craftsmen, architects, and artists who created the treasures of Florentine art. We learned how the West front of the Romanesque cathedral had never been more than half completed, and how it had been dismantled—the old sculptures put in storage, while the authorities decided on a new facade. Thankfully, they never built any of the Baroque proposals, and the West front was not to be completed until the nineteenth century, by a neo-Gothic solution with the ancient figures remaining on display in an older museum.
The new museum showcases the old works brilliantly, showing both the history of the cathedral and its treasures as well as displaying each piece like a jewel in a magnificent setting. The Museum is up for an international award. Monsignor Verdon deserves first prize.
A highlight of the tour is Michelangelo’s final Pieta. Sometimes called the Bandini Pieta, The Deposition, or the Florentine Pieta, the unfinished sculpture is composed of four figures. The dead Christ is central. Drooping vertically, he is held by a hooded figure reckoned to portray Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. On either side, he is supported by Mary Magdalene and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Michelangelo carved the sculpture when he was in his seventies. Contrasting his more famous Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which was carved when he was just twenty-three. The pieta by the young man is famous for its supreme confidence, serene beauty, and calm repose. The last Pieta shows the agony of an old man. The figures are not quite proportionate. When you circle the statue you see Christ’s left leg is missing. Like his famous unfinished slaves, who seem to cry in mute agony imprisoned in stone, the fact that Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta is uncompleted communicates a special kind of agony and ecstasy.
It is the agony and ecstasy of old age. Agony when one looks back with regret at the foolish or disastrous choices one has made, the waste of time, the disregard for others, and the squandering of gifts that should have been developed for the good of others and the love of God. Ecstasy because one might also look back and begin to trace the hand of a special Providence that has directed and protected despite our worst disasters. For the soul of faith there may also be a calm ecstasy in old age in looking forward to the end of the battle, the final release and one’s embarkation on the eternal adventure.
Monsignor Verdon explained that the Florentine Pieta was not commissioned. Instead, Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb. He worked on the sculpture in his spare time, late into the night with a candle fixed to his hat for light. Hindered by the flawed marble and his failing powers, his assistant said Michelangelo smashed the carving in a fit of frustrated rage and abandoned the work. What adds poignancy to the tale is that most commentators believe the old man in the cowl tenderly cradling the Christ is a self-portrait of the artist.
To complete the experience, as you view the sculpture, on the wall behind you Monsignor Verdon has placed Michelangelo’s sonnet on old age. The Italian is on one side of the doorway. An English translation stands opposite. Realizing that his time on earth is coming to an end, Michelangelo muses over his fate, on lost loves and misplaced passions. In doing so the depth of his melancholy genius and genuine faith is revealed.
The course of my long life hath reached at last,
In fragile bark o’er a tempestuous sea,
The common harbor, where must rendered be
Account of all the actions of the past.
The impassioned phantasy, that, vague and vast,
Made art an idol and a king to me,
Was an illusion, and but vanity
Were the desires that lured me and harassed.
The dreams of love, that were so sweet of yore,
What are they now, when two deaths may be mine, –
One sure, and one forecasting its alarms?
Painting and sculpture satisfy no more
The soul now turning to the Love Divine,
That oped, to embrace us, on the cross its arms.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in September 2017.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is the Pietà Bandini, by Michelangelo (1475-1564), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.