Luckily, one of Michelangelo’s wax models of the Doumo Pietà has survived, so we can see a version he liked.
Michelangelo’s wax model, 7 5/8 inches high, in the Gigli Collection, Florence
There is the lost leg in place and now we understand the importance it had in the composition. It balanced off the figure of the Magdalene opposite and made the group a triangle. A circle within a triangle. It also showed how Christ’s body was supported: that left leg, the thigh, and the pelvis rest solidly on the Madonna’s knee (or a rock). Nicodemus is only dealing with the top half of the body—centering it above its rock support. Now most of the downward thrust of the one-legged version is gone. Christ is not going to fall.
There was a third job for that left leg. It gave a dynamism to the lower half of the group which it now lacks in the big marble version. Though the legs are lifeless, the way they pivot and twist shows their flexibility and makes us believe that they are about to swivel again, or could. The right knee has fallen slightly lower in this model too, which gives the impression of greater tension, especially when taken together with the other leg, which is not simply parallel but is bent at another angle. The two legs “walk” a little.
And finally, the harshness of the right angle of the only surviving leg is mitigated when it is contemplated together with the less acute angle of the other leg. The eye is now led to a point where the two legs meet—the jutting left knee; and is thus brought again into the basic circle of the design instead of downwards.
These are happy discoveries because they mean that Michelangelo’s original statue did not have, or should not have had, the faults which cry out in the one that has come down to us. The old Master was still accountable—he hadn’t lost his judgment.
But there remains the biggest eyesore of all: that paralytic leg. It doesn’t look too thin in the model. Why did Michelangelo sculpt it so thin?
Here we come to the truly sad part of the story of this Pietà: Michelangelo let himself be talked into allowing a third-rate sculptor to repair and finish it.
Vasari says a servant of Michelangelo’s persuaded him to give or sell the broken statue to a rich man named Bandini; and to let a sculptor called Tiberio Cacagni finish it according to Michelangelo’s models. “This would mean that Michelangelo’s labours would not have been thrown away, [the servant] said. Michelangelo was happy with this arrangement, and he gave the block to them as a gift. It was immediately carried off and subsequently put together by Tiberio who added God knows how many pieces.” (Vasari, Life of Michelangelo)
So Michelangelo’s own angry destruction of the statue was only the first and the lesser tragedy. The Master’s mutilation, though a heart-breaking thing, need not have meant the destruction of all beauty. Accidental—even intentional—mutilation doesn’t necessarily kill a work of art.
No. The one real destruction, real mutilation, is a finishing job by another sculptor. Every one of his chisel strokes, even his polishing, erases forever the master’s delicate touch and all the clues of how he might have gone on. Cacagni died before he could do as much evil as he proposed; but he did enough. He started by putting together the pieces Michelangelo had turned over to him; and to put them in place he needed to add some—“God knows how many”, says Vasari in a sigh that shows his disapproval of the sculptor’s doctoring. Which pieces? What was Cacagni’s “contribution” to the Pietà?
See The Pietà Michelangelo Destroyed 3 to find out.
What an interesting story! The wax model looks flawless and beautiful indeed. How could I think the great Michelangelo miscalculated anything? I cannot believe he gave it to another sculptor to finish the statue, so not like him…
I don’t think the wax model looks flawless, but it is beautiful and excellent. The scale of each figure is in better proportion. The left leg adds a strength and beauty to the figure of Christ that makes him look less like a helpless, gangly, weak corpse but I wonder if some of the flaws in the carving weren’t due to a lack of marble…marble that had been accidentally chipped away by Michelangelo or found to be unsuitable but much too late into the project to salvage.
To have him agree to let someone else finish…I don’t know. It’s so easy to use a less accomplished artist as a scape goat.
Swallows showed us a sculpture recently of the slave with a sand vein through the face that Michelangelo was willing to work around. He must have found this one insurmountable to cast it away, then hand it off.
It seems that when others herald your work as perfect and flawless, it becomes impossible to live up to your own name every day and so you might find the tumble off of such a height unbearably painful. Or maybe it’s more painful to know in your heart you were never fully on that pedestal of perfection, but to keep up the facade that you are on it, to face every person in your life with a false front, unable to be a real human being…how lonely.
Maybe you read too much into this perfection and how to live up to it, Kim. What I mean by flawless is perceived perfection. When you look at a work of art and soak it in, not going too much into detail, just seeing it as a whole. Nothing is absolutely perfect what was made with human hands. That’s why a real artist, including the ‘divine’ Michelangelo is never 100% pleased with his/her work. Still, the very best (Michelangelo for one) can create the illusion of absolute perfection. To me it’s the illusion that counts. I think if you and I ever got together, we might argue over this for a long time. lol
I don’t perceive the wax model as perfect. It’s beautiful and well designed, but not flawless. There is no illusion of perfection for me in this wax model. I guess we’re different.
Always something can be corrected. My eye is turned away from several points, but I am able to enjoy the overall beauty.
Maybe more accurately, the beauty of the piece is such that one is willing to endure the flaws in order to keep looking at the beauty. Is this what you mean?
Perfection is the thing we artists chase, but can never catch. We hunt it passionately, but perfection eludes us without mercy and without effort.
Michelangelo is my favorite. I love his work, flaws and all.
A great story. Only after looking at the model did I notice how out of proportion the figure on the left is in the finished piece.
Right, Bill. I think the sculptor who “repaired” the figure made her smaller. See my latest post.
By the way, it’s true, I took this message and at least one other one out of the wastebasket. I don’t agree with WordPress that they were all that bad.
In this version it`s the other leg direction which makes a rappel with the arm!
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