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“Michelangelo and La Pietà: The Long Journey” by Italian Professor Alessandro Rovetta

On November 21, the Conciliar Chamber hosted a lecture on “Michelangelo and La Pietà: The Long Journey”, by the Italian professor Alessandro Rovetta. He is a professor at the Department of Museology and Art Criticism and Restoration of the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan. The lecture was held in Italian with consecutive translation into Russian.

The lecture was centered on three of Michelangelo’s masterpieces: the Vatican Pietà, the Bandini Pietà and the Rondanini Pietà. The professor wondered why, after the creation of the Vatican Pietà, about which Vasari said that “Christ in it is so perfect that no one has managed to depict a more dead dead man”, the sculptor returned to this subject twice more, and worked on the last incarnation until his death?

Having asked this question, he drew attention to one singular feature of the Vatican Pietà: the faces of Christ and Our Lady. They are two faces of amazing beauty and purity. The Virgin seems younger than the son. He linked this fact to the words from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and notes that Michelangelo was a great admirer of the great poet. “O Virgin Mother, daughter of her own Son”: these words of St. Bernardo addressed to the Virgin Mary begin the 33rd canto of Paradiso.

The Vatican Pietà was preceded by a whole tradition of artworks depicting this scene. Before Michelangelo, there were already works with a similar composition. However, as Prof. Rovetta pointed out, what is striking in the Vatican Pietà is Our Lady’s respect for the body of Christ: she does not touch the Son, contrary to tradition. With one hand, she supports Christ’s body through the shroud, and with the other, she makes a gesture that was rightly considered a gesture of sacrifice. The idea that the Virgin holds her Son and offers Him as a sacrifice to the world stuck with Michelangelo to the very end.

More than half a century would pass before Michelangelo would create his next masterpiece, the Bandini Pietà. During these years, Michelangelo repeatedly came back to this subject in his drawings, trying to make sense of it. Through them, we can trace how the sculptor’s attitude to it changed. According to Prof. Rovetta, at this stage of life in his letters and poems, Michelangelo expressed deep feelings, considering himself unworthy of the Sacrifice of Christ, and his sin disproportionate to this Sacrifice, and was convinced that he himself would never become worthy of it.

The scene of the second Pietà takes place at the foot of the cross, with the Virgin Mary taking Christ in her arms. She embraces Him and brings her face close to His face. Nicodemus supports both Christ and the Virgin Mary. Rovetta pointed out that Nicodemus, who is considered the patron saint of sculptors, has Michelangelo’s face.

In making further sense of this subject, Michelangelo tried to simplify the group. He moves from a composition with four figures to a composition with two. There are some drawings that help to grasp the course of his thoughts when creating the Rondanini Pietà. They are from 1555, when the master was already 85 years old, and yet he worked tirelessly. Michelangelo worked on the piece of marble for the third Pietà as if it were a drawing, changing the idea at least twice, if not three times.

The hand of Christ survived from the first composition. In the process of work, Michelangelo left this hand to preserve the center of gravity of the sculpture, which otherwise could not stand. In the new version, the body of Christ was carved by Michelangelo out of the body of Our Lady from the first composition; in addition, in the last version, he brings their faces closer together, turning the face of the Virgin towards the Son. If, in the first composition, the two figures were separated from each other, in the final version, they are deeply united. It is no longer the body of Christ that falls at the tomb; it is the body of Christ that rises to heaven and takes the Mother with it. Christ seems to be holding the Mother of God on his shoulders, rather than her supporting the body of the Son, as in previous compositions.

All these changes did not allow Michelangelo to complete his work, as there was no marble left for it. All the more striking is the fact that he continued to work on this sculpture even 7 days before his death, knowing that he would never be able to complete it and reach the same perfection as in the first Pietà. As Prof. Rovetta remarks that, in this way, Michelangelo experienced this mystery of the relationship between the Mother and the Son at its most dramatic moment. One could say that the last Pietà speaks of Michelangelo’s own relationship with Christ.

Audio recording and presentation of Prof. Rovetta’s lecture: