Michelangelo Pietà Restoration Now Open to the Public

Michelangelo’s Pietà restoration, Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, photo Claudio Giovannini/CGE

Work has resumed on the restoration of a piece of art, an immense sculpture by Michelangelo in Florence’s Opera del Duomo Cathedral Museum, which began in November 2020 and was interrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown and health emergency.  The project is being financed by Friends of Florence. Work is being conducted behind glass panels so that visitors to the museum will be able to see all the stages of the restoration as they are happening.  Reservations for small groups to see the restoration in progress, which includes entrance and a quick tour of the museum, have resumed as of September 21, see here for information on how to do so.

Friends of Florence is a non-profit which originated in the United States and has donated millions to conservation projects in Florence and around Tuscany. The donors of Friends of Florence have always been very dedicated to Michelangelo in preserving the great artist’s work.  An initial cleaning has just been completed on the back of the sculpture group.  So far, the current restoration has uncovered previously invisibile details covered by an layer of dust and wax which have accumulated over the past 470, including the use of different chisel and tools used in sculpture.  Something else that has also come to light are traces of plaster, resulted from a cast being made of the entire sculpture in the 19th century.  Wax was also found, which dripped onto the work for 220 years thanks to its original placement behind the high altar of the Florence Cathedral (Duomo). Restorers are using swabs dipped into deionized water to remove the dirt; in the case of the hardened wax, a combination of water and removed with a scalpel is the method utilized.

As previously reported by Magenta Florence, the sculpture is called Pietà or sometimes called Pietà Bandini and sometimes “The Deposition of Christ” to distinguish it from Michelangelo’s first Pietà, which resides in Rome at the Vatican Museum. The sculpture is a marble portrayal of Jesus’s body removed from the cross and held by Nicodemus as well as the Madonna and Mary Magdalene. It was originally intended for Michelangelo’s own tomb in Santa Croce, though it did not end up there. Created in 1547, it is one of Michelangelo’s last masterpieces. Its home, the Opera del Duomo museum is dedicated to documenting the history of the Duomo and contains artwork that was previously displayed inside the Cathedral.

Pietà was created during a dark time in Michelangelo’s life, after the death of his close friend Vittoria Colonna and a faithful servant of his named Urbino. After these tragedies, the Renaissance genius began preparing for his own death and working on his tomb. During this time Michelangelo was already celebrated as the most famous and accomplished living artist, but he lived as if he were poor in a small house, devoting all of his time sculpting. This work depicts one of the most dramatic scenes of the Gospel, where each person must envision their own death. This work is very personal to the artist, Michelangelo included his self portrait in the sculpture, his face is shown in that of Nicodemus, the man who is helping to hold up Christ’s body.

Michelangelo never completed the statue group and actually tried to break it to pieces. A servant stopped him from destroying it and then gave the fragments to Tiberio Calcagni, one of Michelangelo’s collaborators. Calcagni reassembled the it, finished the body of Mary Magdalene and polished the now completed work. It was then sold to a Roman aristocrat, Francesco Bandini.

Michelangelo had decided to leave the Pietà unfinished and attempted to destroy his work because of his perfectionism. Vasari wrote about Michelangelo in his Lives of the Artists and regarding the Pietà explained his critical mindset; Michelangelo judged all of his projects and was never happy with what he did. Though Michelangelo did not feel that the piece was perfect and even tried to erase his painstaking efforts, his sculpture survived; the Pietà, a piece so closely linked to death, lives on. (alexandra reilly/additional reporting by rosanna cirigliano)