Guest Post: Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà (c. 1550)

Guest Blogger: Lauren Fliegelman, fourth year Art History/Journalism major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Spent a semester studying the Italian Renaissance masters in Rome, 2009. Current area of research: Manet and Japanese Influences.

Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà ca. 1550, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence.

The Forgotten Pietà

Michelangelo’s Roman Pietà is eternally breathtaking and ever famous. Period. Basic art historical texts, Roman travel guides, and the images themselves all hail its true magnificence as a fixture in any tourists venture to St. Peter’s Basilica. However, on a recent trip to Florence, I came across its lesser known, yet in my opinion utterly stunning cousin, Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà . Rarely can it be said that a Renaissance piece from Florence has been outdone by its Roman counterpart. I hope to impart some belief that this artistic trope stands correct. The Florentine Pietà is a thing of beauty.

During the later period of his life, Michelangelo’s work seems to be influenced by his close personal friendship with the well-respected and overtly pious Vittoria Colonna. A fusion of the simpler Pietà scene with the traditional Lamentation and Deposition groups, the vertically towering piece depicts the Dead Christ, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus all mourning this momentous loss.

Of greater interest to me, and in fact many art historians, is the face of Nicodemus. Looming over the entire group, the powerful hooded figure supports the weight of the dead Christ’s body. Both Vasari and Condivi claimed shortly after the death of the artist that this was in fact the face of Michelangelo. Seldom placed on the face of the central figure in a composition, an artist normally chose a lesser character for his self-portrait. Possible explanations arise in that this piece was likely meant for the tomb of the artist himself.

While I tend to work through my frustration over art history papers with a pink squishy stress ball, Michelangelo appears to prefer the hammer. In 1555, in a bought of dissatisfaction, he smashed the left leg, as well as forearms, off the already battered Christ, forever deeming this work inferior to his earlier Roman Pietà (as well as his Rodanini Pietà which I have failed to mention up to this point). Proving in a true artistic fashion that one man’s trash is another’s treasure, his servant and/or pupil [Calcagni*] saved the piece and continued work on it, only to sell it for a profit. Reasons for the attempt at destruction are also widely debated adding to my aforementioned piqued interest regarding this piece.

Go and see it. It is truly stunning to see both the psyche and the hand of such a fascinating artist at work through this discarded and regrettable piece.

Best, Lauren (Lydia’s peculiar yet equally devoted friend and art lover)

For further reading on the subject see: Michelangelo and Nicodemism: The Florentine Pietà by Valerie Shrimplin-Evangelidis, From The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 58-66

*essay slightly edited by LMJ from original for Italian accents and names when known

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