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The Making of

The PIETA

 

BY IRVING STONE

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born at Caprese, Italy, in the valley of the upper Arno on 6 March, 1475. He came from a noble Florentine family of small means.

Michelangelo completed the Pieta when he was only 24 years old. Though he lived to be almost 90, and carved sculptures of staggering force and beauty, many feel that he never again achieved such beauty or depth of compassion.

Michelangelo was employed alternately in Rome and Florence by Pope Julius and his successors, Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul III being his special patrons.

The story behind the carving of the Pieta is filled with improbabilities. It started with a forgery. The penniless young Michelangelo had one of his statues, a small Cupid, buried, then "discovered," and sold in Rome as a classical antiquity.

However, the purchaser of the marble, astute Cardinal Riario, detected the fraud, and had Michelangelo brought to Rome - not to punish but to employ him, since the statue had shown promise. Michelangelo, now 21 and on fire to put hammer and chisel to marble, was kept dangling by Cardinal Riario for a whole year because the cardinal could not make up his mind what theme he wanted his young sculptor to pursue.

Desperate, with no way to practice his craft, Michelangelo left the cardinal's palace, and was preparing to return to Florence in defeat when he met Jacopo Galli, a Roman banker whose family had been collecting ancient sculptures for generations. Galli sensed Michelangelo's talent, took him into his home and commissioned him to carve a Bacchus (god of wine in Roman mythology).

In his first life-size sculpture, Michelangelo carved with staggering boldness. The dangerously outstretched arm of the tipsy Bacchus, the soft, sensual flesh, the high polish of the skin covering the most authentic anatomical structure yet seen in Europe (he had spent months illegally dissecting corpses in a hospital), made the figure more forthrightly pagan than any of the Greek antiquities so prized in Rome. It was a brilliant pyrotechnical performance, and caused an enormous stir.

Just how the Pieta, Michelangelo's most sacred work, arose out of Bacchus, his most profane, is a mystery. But among Jacopo Galli's friends was the French ambassador to the Pope, Cardinal Groslaye, an aged, intensely spiritual Benedictine who lived a blameless life in the midst of Rome's corruption. The cardinal had secured permission from the Pope to leave behind him something of beauty in Rome. He wanted a sculpture carved for the Chapel of the Kings of France in the Basilica of St. Peter. The concept for a Pieta appears to have originated in Michelangelo's mind, but it was enthusiastically approved by the cardinal.

There was no way for the cardinal to tell by looking at the Bacchus that the young man who created the epitome of pagan dissoluteness could also turn white Carrara marble into the pure and deeply spiritual. It was Jacopo Galli who took the risk. In the contract that he drew up between the cardinal and Michelangelo, Galli defied all known laws of good business and banking by guaranteeing that: "I, Jacopo Galli, do promise that Michelangelo will complete the said work within one year, and that it shall be more beautiful than any work in marble to be seen in Rome today, and such that no master of our times shall be able to produce a better."

For his work, Michelangelo was to receive 450 gold ducats. He moved into two cold, stone rooms overlooking the Tiber, drawing feverishly for months among the Jews of Trastevere to capture an authentic Jesus, and among the young women of good Roman families for his prototype of Mary.

From the outset he broke most of the accepted rules of sculpture, and practically all concepts of the Pieta. First, he decided that he would carve not a middle-aged Mother, but a young Mary, little older than when she had borne the Christ child.

In his mind he walked away from the earlier dark, heavy, tragic Pietas, their message of love blotted out by blood. He eliminated all sense of violence, the nail holes in Christ's hands and feet barely discernible dots. The dead Jesus was to sleep peacefully on his Mother's lap.

What he hoped to convey in the Pieta was what the term really meant: pity, sorrow. This he determined to capture by a sublime beauty which would awaken sympathy not only for the dead Christ but for his Mother gazing down at her Son, and with one hand outstretched, seeming to say, "Why, dear God, why?"

The deeper he cut into the marble block, the more he isolated himself from Rome, seeing only a few friends in the Florentine quarter, and even these on increasingly rare occasions. Totally immersed in his carving, he slept only when he was exhausted, throwing himself over the bed fully clothed for three or four hours' rest before picking up hammer and chisel again.

He failed the cardinal in only one respect: the Pieta took him two years, not one. Cardinal Groslaye never saw the completed sculpture, but a short time before his death, studying the rough-blocked figures, he signified to Galli that the basic stipulation of the contract had been fulfilled: that it was more beautiful than any work in marble to be seen in Rome.

Only one aspect of this quite revolutionary Pieta troubled the cardinal. He asked Michelangelo gently: "Tell me, my son, how does the Madonna's face remain so young, younger than her Son's?"

"Your Grace," replied Michelangelo, "it seemed to me that the Virgin Mary would not age. She was pure; and so she would have kept the freshness of youth."

The answer was satisfactory to the cardinal.

The strangest part of the Pieta story is that the five-foot, nine-inch marble had to be installed in the Chapel of the Kings of France almost furtively. With Cardinal Groslaye dead. Gallie feared that the Pope might refure permission to install it in St. Peter's.

One authority on Michelangelo maintains that the sculpture was considered heretical by his contemporaries, that as late as 1549 it was described as a "Lutheran caprice."

The reasons for this reaction centered about the Virgin's youth, the life-size Christ on her lap, the exquisite human beauty of both figures, and the indisputable fact that the Pieta was different in every aspect from all those that had preceded it.

Rather than take the risk of having the statue rejected. Michelangelo and a family of stonemasons moved the Pieta into the chapel while Rome slept.

The Pieta was never formally installed or blessed. Unlike the Bacchus, it aroused no interest. As far as Rome knew, it did not exist. The Pieta was moved to its niche in St. Peter's in 1500, a jubilee year. Crowds from all over Europe visited the basilica. Yet few of the visitors bothered to enter the dark chapel.

It took a crowing indignity to show Michelangelo how badly he had failed. He was standing in the chapel when a Lombard family stood before his Pieta, arguing about it. He heard the mother say, "I tell you I recognize the work. It is by that fellow from Osteno, who makes all the tombstones."

"No, no," cried her husband, "it is one of our countrymen, Cristoforo Solari, called the Hunchback from Milan. He has done many of them."

Outraged, Michelangelo returned to St. Peter's that night with hammer and chisel, and a candle wired into a loop on his hat. Into the band across the Virgin's bosom, he cut the words, "Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this." It was the only time in his life that he carved his signature into a sculpture.

The old Basilica of St. Peter, begun in 324 by Constatine, and embracing the Chapel of the Kings of France, leaned heavily to one side, in severe danger of collapsing. In 1506, Pope Julius II decided to take down the ancient basilica, but to embrace as much of the old as possible inside a new St. Peter's. However, it was not until 1537 that the Pieta was removed to a safe niche in the Chapel of the Virgin Mary of the Fever.

It appears to have remained there until after Michelangelo's death, and after a considerable part of the new St. Peter's was completed. Pope Gregory XIII moved it again sometime between 1572 and 1585, to the choir of Sixtus IV. Here it remained for about 170 years, when it was moved for a third time, to its own Chapel of the Pieta.

Before his death, Michelangelo had the gratification of seeing the Pieta accepted and revered.


Irving Stone is author of the best-selling "The Agony and the Ecstasy," a novel about Michelangelo, it was made into a full-length feature film in 1965, directed by Carol Reed with Charlton Heston starring as Michelangelo. Irving Stone is also the editor of an edition of Michelangelo's letters.

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