The Florentine Pietà: Michelangelo’s Masterpiece Restored


A detail of Michelangelo’s Pietà in Florence’s Cathedral Museum (Opera del Duomo museum)

Michelangelo’s newly restored Florentine Pietà, also known as the Bandini Pietà or Deposition, was recently unveiled in the Cathedral, or Opera del Duomo, museum.

At 73, Michelangelo Buonarroti was thinking of his death surely not far off when he began working on the sculpture The Deposition, better known as the Bandini Pietà.  He attempted a feat that few 16th century artists would endeavor—that of carving more than one figure from a single block of marble.  His mission, to create a piece with four figures, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the pharisee Nicodemus bearing the lifeless body of Christ, to be used above his own tomb.

The Bandini Pietà is one of three versions of the subject carved by the sculptor.  St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican holds the most famous with the iconic figure of Mary cradling her son viewed by millions of visitors. The Rondanini Pietà, another work left unfinished with the artist’s death, is located at the Sforza Castle in Milan.

After 10 years of work on the sculpture, the artist abandoned the project and his student Tiberio Calcagni attempted to finish the piece, but to no avail, as he died shortly thereafter.  It was previously rumored that Michelangelo got so frustrated with the piece that he took a hammer to it attempting to destroy it.  In his “Lives of the Artists,” Giorgio Vasari wrote of visiting Michelangelo in his studio while working on the group stating the marble “was so hard the chisel struck sparks from it.”

Work on the Florentine Pietà took place in the Opera del Duomo museum in an open restoration area so the public could view the progress.  The first restoration in the piece’s 470-year history, revealed the marble was flawed with many small cracks, leading experts to believe that could be the reason Michelangelo abandoned the work.  In fact, the restorers discovered numerous inclusions of pyrite in the stone which would certainly have caused sparks to fly when hit with a chisel.  The restorers found no evidence of hammer blows.

The restoration, funded by the American non-profit Friends of Florence, was carried out after thorough diagnostics.  Restorer Paola Rosa and her team carefully cleaned the sculpture with cotton pads soaked in warm de-ionized water, revealing the surface concealed under discolored layers of dirt and grime.  After a plaster cast made of the statue in 1882, the piece was not thoroughly cleaned, leaving traces of plaster on the figures.  In addition, wax build up from candle drippings in the cathedral’s high altar required a scalpel to remove.

Another secret the restoration revealed is that the origin of the block of marble came not from Carrara as previously believed, but from the quarries of nearby Seravezza.  The Seravezza quarries were owned by the Medici, and Giovanni de’Medici, soon to be Pope Leo X, directed Michelangelo to use its marble.  As the Seravezza marble is inferior in quality to Carrara marble, the ageing Michelangelo’s frustration with the project becomes apparent.

How the enormous block of marble got to Rome where the sculptor carved the Florentine Pietà is still a mystery.

The work could be called Michelangelo’s tormented masterpiece with the artist constantly thinking about his own death.  His mother Mary and Mary Magdalene gently support Christ’s sagging corpse and the hooded Nicodemus’ face is in fact a self-portrait of the artist, indicating his desire to be one with God in his later years.

Timothy Verdon, director of the Opera del Duomo Museum acknowledged, “This is Michelangelo’s most personal work, not only because it includes his own self-portrait and was destined for his tomb, but because it expresses the tormented relationship he had with marble.”

Michelangelo’s wish to have the sculpture as part of his tomb was never granted.  In 1560 the banker Francesco Bandini acquired the piece and placed it in his vineyard in Montecavallo near Rome.  Later in 1671 the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, purchased it and finally three years later the Bandini Pieta reached Florence.  The work, 2.25 meters (7.4 feet) and 2,700 kilograms (5952 lbs.), made an arduous journey from Civitavecchia’s port near Rome to Livorno, where it was placed on a barge for transport up the Arno River.  The sculpture arrived in Florence exactly 100 years after Michelangelo’s death but was placed in the crypt of the church of San Lorenzo, the Medici family church.  Later Cosimo III placed it behind the high altar in the Duomo and in 1981 it was moved to its current location in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.  The altar above Michelangelo’s tomb in Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce is graced with a sculpture by Vasari.

Visitors wishing to view the Florentine Pietà can see it in its restoration workshop through March 2022.  For hours and tickets, visit the website:

NOTE:  All visitors to the museum must show a Green Pass or equivalent certificate of full vaccination for COVID-19.  (rita kungel)