Michelangelo Smashed His Pietà to Pieces

When you go to see Michelangelo’s Moses your guide will point to a little furrow on its knee and tell a silly tale.  “When Michelangelo had finished the statue, it seemed so real and alive that he ordered it to speak.  And seeing that it wouldn’t, he slammed down his hammer on it—here, on the knee—in a fit of anger and frustration.”   They make a sort of Rumplestiltskin out of the Master.

Michelangelo’s Moses (1513-1515), 235 cm (92.52 in)  in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome   photo by Prasenberg under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license here

The groove on Moses’ knee looks more like ordinary vandalism: it was made with a pointed chisel, not a hammer, and with several careful, even taps with the mallet, not a tomahawk slam.  And the frustrated creator story, told of artists already in Greek and Roman times, was unbelievable even then.

And yet Michelangelo did actually slam down his hammer on the Duomo Pietà, his last great statue, in just such an access of rage.  And he didn’t stop beating away at—crushing—the beautiful statue on which he had been working off and on for months, maybe years, until he had ruined it for good.

His first blow was the most emotional and ineffective: he struck the Christ squarely in the breast, breaking off a piece that included a nipple and perhaps the lower half of the Virgin’s hand.  The second and third blows were effected with a clearer object: they knocked off Christ’s long and beautifully-modelled arm.

This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license here.

A close-up of the Duomo Pietà showing where the pieces were stuck back together by another sculptor. The X marks the place where the severed left leg would have been put back in place.

And now that such grave damage had been done, Michelangelo meant to make sure there was no going back; and without much passion he picked up the biggest pointed chisel that was lying around and cut away Christ’s unsupported left leg from where it rested on the Virgin’s knee and from the base.   That leg may have been the weakest feature of the design and he had probably never liked it much and was glad to be rid of the problem forever. His heart was no longer beating fast by the time the leg was off.  There was only the relief and emptiness that comes after revenge.   He had hated the block but now it was no longer offensive.  Months later, at the insistence of a servant of his, he gave it away to a rich man who had been begging him for a figure; and Michelangelo didn’t even object to a bad sculptor’s plan to repair and finish it.  He had stopped loving it and its future love affairs didn’t concern him anymore.

How could Michelangelo do such a thing and who put the figure back together again?
See Michelangelo’s Little Secret

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11 Responses to Michelangelo Smashed His Pietà to Pieces

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Nineteen comments for the last post and none for this. We blog readers certainly are a fickle bunch!

    My only response is that it reminds me that there seem to be two types of artists: those who voice their displeasure with their art by physically destroying it and those who take some other path. I’ve both known and read about painters who just get disgusted with their work and scrape it all off. Or others paint right over paintings that they no longer like. Of course with sculpture you can’t just scrape it off. What’s gone is gone.

    My own approach has always been more accepting of my work. I rarely tear something up or scrape all the paint off. Instead I’m just disappointed in it. Or sometimes I like it but only later am disappointed when I see all the problems. But I rarely get to the point of hatred or of desiring to destroy it. I don’t think that there’s a right or wrong way here. But I always am surprised when I see someone totally destroy what they have done.

    Still you never know. It may be a necessary step to moving on to something new and better, at least for some artists.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks. Some people have attacks of rage almost like epileptic fits, during which they destroy not just paintings and statues.
      More calmly getting rid of things you don’t like must depend a lot on whether you are painting for yourself or for others. If your interest is exclusively your own progress and evolution, then you won’t mind keeping really bad things around (until one day they strike you as just too hideous and cause depression). But your (one’s) toleration is different if you know that other people will see them; and then vanity has a say. Unless you are unusually self-confident and don’t consider that the “mistakes” or sloppiness or show of inability disqualify you as an artist. One would give a lot to see the drawings Michelangelo destroyed when he was old and to find out what he considered “failed”. He destroyed another rather far-along stone figure (judging by the bit of arm and shoulder that remains) and carved that last Rondanini Pietá out of what was left of the block. I’d have destroyed THAT one before going out for my last walk.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    You’re right Swallows. Knowing that your work will be seen by the public and not just by yourself I’m sure makes an artist much more critical.

    On the other hand there is that Whitman quote: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Though it’s not really about the same thing I personally would still tend to apply it here: “My work is large. It contains multitudes, both successes and failures. But it’s also process and I don’t mind showing that.” Now if I were a much more successful artist and had bad work constantly on public scrutiny maybe I’d change my mind. I have the “luxury” of not being a very successful artist so it’s hard to tell.

    I’ve never really looked at that last pieta very much. And your feelings on the subject may explain exactly why!!

  3. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Thanks for the education. I think if I had another life I would like to try sculpture. It is so awesome to see something in marble. Do they have schools for this? I’ve never seen one advertised.

  4. Sookie says:

    Hey! Although we won’t ever know why Michelangelo destroyed the Florentine Pieta, I don’t think he did it out of fear of what others would think or that it wasn’t good enough for the public!! It wasn’t a commission, it was for himself, and he was always his worst critic. I think it had more to do with him not being enthused with the piece, perhaps because of the quality of the material. And I love the Rondanini; it’s actually my favorite pieta. Ken, maybe the reason you didn’t like the Rondanini was because you didn’t look at it very closely, not the other way around. Suffering, grace, and death are so beautifully expressed in it. He said, “The soul gains more, the more it loses the world/And art and death do not go well together.” But if ever there was a perfect synthesis of the material and the spiritual, it is this.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Michelangelo was so inspired till he thought his own masterpiece should speak back to him,thats why he slammed down his hammer on the knee.And it made a flaw on it, it made a flaw on the image.The flaw was what made it the MASTERPIECE.Maybe it was hid from the wise and prudent and revealed to the humble.

    • Hama munashe says:

      The seventh angel messenger said, it was a type of what happerned on Mount transfiguretion. CHrist was in a perfect image of God, He was the image of the invissible God, just like Moses sculpture was the image of the invissible real moses. HE was molded to a fully stature of God till God said, Hear ye Him. For him to be heard He had to speak. God struck Him on the cross. Jesus was the masterpirce of God

  6. Pingback: SOMETIMES, I FEEL LIKE MICHELANGELO | Donna Gwinnell Weidner

  7. Anonymous says:

    He is a GENUIS. FULL STOP.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I guess what he did when he was younger doesnt count… maybe he was just an old boy who liked his wine too much by this point….who cares when a “Flawed” piece would still devastate the human condition in real life. A pure GENIUS.

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