Michelangelo’s Pietà

‘I’m no painter’

Writing to his father on his difficulty decorating the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo complained that he was up against it because painting was ‘not my profession’. His true artistic métier, he insisted, was sculpture. As accomplished as a he was with a brush, painting simply did not exert the same magnetic pull for Michelangelo as sculpting; it was in this tangible, earthy medium that he could explore, in three dimensions, his enduring artistic obsession – the human form. At the end of the 15th century, when he was still in his early twenties, Michelangelo executed a Pietà in sculpture that made him famous. It encapsulates his astonishing ability with chisel and hammer, and his mastery of capturing in large form but with exquisite detail animate beings in inanimate marble.

For Michelangelo, his love of sculpture was literally in the blood. The Buonarotti were officially members of the upper-middle class, but when Michelangelo was born were clinging on to their social rank. Despite a lack of money, they still possessed a countryside retreat and farm at Settignano, a small town just outside Florence. Settignano’s principal industry was stonework, and most of its inhabitants were masons or involved in the industry in some way. Michelangelo’s wet-nurse (a non-blood relative, a common practice at the time) was the wife and daughter of a mason, and Michelangelo was only half-joking when he claimed that he ‘took the hammer and chisels with which I carve my figures from my wet-nurse’s milk’.[1]

Portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte, c. 1535, when the sitter was around 60. He would live for almost another 30 years. It captures the artist’s character quite well: an introspective, melancholic, figure who lived a semi-Spartan existence. He could be witty, however. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Louis le Grand]

Lodovico, Michelangelo’s father, had other ideas for his son than painter or sculptor, at this time still ignoble ‘professions’, unworthy of a respectable man’s son (a stereotype Michelangelo more than anyone did most to change). So Lodovico enrolled his son at a grammar school, where he would be taught the Latin which, it was hoped, would open doors to a career in law, diplomacy or the Church. But Michelangelo was bored by his studies and could not leave drawing alone, constantly sketching and hanging around with painters whenever he had the chance. Lodovico tried to beat this obsession out of him, but seeing no change in his stubborn son, eventually conceded defeat, and Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most famous artists in Florence.

Ghirlandaio’s reputation was such that he was inundated with commissions and ran a large workshop. By the time Michelangelo became his apprentice, aged 14, Ghirlandaio had already worked on the Sistine Chapel (as part of a team of prominent northern artists) and had many important commissions from churches in Florence and wealthy families in the city. Later, wanting to cultivate an image of innate genius, Michelangelo would distance himself from the notion he had ever learnt anything from Ghirlandaio. This is simply untrue: it was in Ghirlandaio’s workshop that he absorbed the rudiments of his craft. But the differences in their style may hold a clue to Michelangelo’s later reluctance to admit tutelage. Ghirlandaio produced superb portraits, or serene, almost forensic, scenes depicting prominent people and everyday life. This was utterly at odds with what Michelangelo was interested in – power, flux and emotion – and thus we can imagine that, even at this early age, he had no intention of copying his master, and was intent on forging his own path.

‘Portrait of an Old Man with his Grandson’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Louvre), painted around the time Michelangelo became Ghirlandaio’s apprentice. This touching image represents everything Michelangelo was uninterested in: realism, landscape and a scene from everyday life.

Quite soon, it became apparent that Michelangelo possessed a talent that surpassed not only that of his fellow apprentices but even established artists, and he eventually caught the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, in theory just the Florentine Republic’s wealthiest citizen but in reality its ruler. The charismatic Lorenzo had, as was then the fashion, a large collection of antiquities which were on display at his sculpture garden near San Marco. It was Lorenzo’s invitation to come and see this collection that ‘changed [Michelangelo’s] life, and hence the course of Western art’.[2] It also initiated a lifelong association with Medici, in Florence and in Rome. Moreover, it was an apt time to be alive for a sculptor. Interest in classical antiquity was booming. Statues that had formerly been dug up and melted down were now prized assets, and Lorenzo was as desperate as any aristocrat to get his hands on them. It is obvious, too, that Lorenzo was completely captivated by antique art, and was a diligent and dedicated collector. The burgeoning interest in classical sculpture (the Apollo Belvedere had recently been discovered), as well as Lorenzo’s encouragement, no doubt gave fuel to Michelangelo’s desire to channel his artistic energy in sculpture.   

Lorenzo, always on the lookout for talented artists, had Michelangelo move into his household, and he was set to work under the tutelage of Lorenzo’s sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. His earliest surviving work in marble was created around this time, the Madonna of the Stairs, a bas-relief depiction of a hulking great Madonna (the first of many of Michelangelo’s muscular women) holding the Christ child at the foot of some steps. Already we can see motifs that would reappear in Michelangelo’s later work: an emphasis on the human figure, a limited background stripped to the bare essentials, and twisted bodily forms. It is, in essence, a Christian theme in a classical style, which he would again fuse when working on his Pietà. Michelangelo followed this up with the Battle of the Centaurs, a magnificent, more ambitious relief of writhing bodies in an energetic, cramped landscape.

The Madonna of the Stairs, Michelangelo’s earliest surviving sculpture; even in this small and early work can be seen Michelangelo’s obsession with the majestic: the strong, muscular Madonna fills the whole space. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Bocachete]
An early sculptural work by Michelangelo, the Battle of the Centaurs, reflects an obsession with the naked body that would remain with him throughout his life. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Saliko]

What propelled Michelangelo to Rome was a confidence trick. His Sleeping Cupid, a small sculpture of the slumbering infant god that Michelangelo had deliberately aged to give it the look of a classical original, had been sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, one of the wealthiest men in Rome and an art collector, as a genuine antique. On discovering it wasn’t, Riario returned the piece and demanded a refund, yet he must have been impressed as he summoned the artist to the city. If, like Michelangelo, you were obsessed with classical art, then this was the perfect time to arrive in Rome. The recently-discovered Apollo Belvedere was in Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere’s sculpture garden at Santi Apostoli; a small but important collection of antiquities had already been placed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori by Sixtus IV, and added to by Innocent VIII, in what would become the Capitoline Museums, among them the Spinario, a Hellenistic bronze of a child drawing a thorn from his foot.      

On his arrival, Michelangelo spent the whole of his first day touring Cardinal Riario’s vast collection of antiquities. Almost immediately, Riario set Michelangelo to work, requesting a sculpture of the Roman god of wine and revelry Bacchus for the his sculpture garden. Designed to be seen in the round, the resulting work is an over-life-sized figure in contrapposto. With a satyr nibbling away at grapes behind him, the god holds his drinking vessel aloft with the far-away look of someone who’s had too much to drink. Riario had wanted something a bit more, well, classical. This was supposed to be a Roman god; Michelangelo delivered a tubby drunk. Perhaps what Riario expected was what Michelangelo had achieved with Sleeping Cupid: an imitation that could pass for an antique original. Instead, Michelangelo had created something that, despite its ancient look, by the figure’s tipsy stance and lairy features, could only be new. By sculpting in a classical style, but playfully departing with the perfection that the figure was expected to embody, Michelangelo had disappointed his patron, and the work was rejected.

The rejected Bacchus. Despite Cardinal Riaro’s objections, the Bacchus demonstrates incredible artistic ability. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Tetraktys]

This temporary setback wasn’t enough to stem Michelangelo’s granite determination. Jacopo Galli, who had brought Michelangelo to Rome on Riario’s behalf, managed to obtain for the artist an important commission from the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas for a Pietà, that is, the dead Christ on the lap of the mourning Virgin. The Pietà (‘pity’) was a relatively recent artistic composition which had come out of Spain in the 13th century. It is effectively a derivation on the Lamentation (the mourning of the Virgin, and usually John the Baptist and other figures, over the dead Christ), and was usually composed of the body of Jesus resting on the Virgin’s knees, with the focus solely on the emotional weight of the Virgin’s sorrow for her Son.

In his early twenties when he received the commission, it was by far the most significant work in Michelangelo’s fledgling career. Its location would be the Santa Petronilla chapel at St. Peter’s (the original Constantinian basilica, not the current structure Michelangelo helped create), the holiest Christian site in the world, after Jerusalem. In the late 1490s, Michelangelo travelled to Carrara in Tuscany to obtain the blue-grey marble, for which the area was renowned, to be used for the work (he would use the same Carrara marble for his David). After the Bacchus hiccup, Michelangelo needed to impress. But his confidence does not appear to have been knocked by the episode. What is fascinating about Michelangelo’s attitude was that he didn’t merely want to emulate classical sculpture, but better it. His ambition was remarkable, given that contemporary opinion decreed the art of ancient Greece and Rome the summit of artistic endeavour. As he formulated his ideas on his Pietà, how he would blend a classical style with a distinctly Christian theme must have occupied his thoughts.

A quarry in the mountains at Carrara. The famous marble quarried here has been used in such buildings as London’s Marble Arch, the Pantheon and the Rounda, University of Virginia. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Wittylama]

A pietà, by definition, is a simple but deeply emotional message. Michelangelo’s Pietà, installed in August 1499, successfully captures this message. It packs a profound solemnity without being overdramatic. The superb details are found in the body of Christ, the limbs and joints with their flawless verisimilitude, the veins running along the arm, hands and feet. Christ’s body rests in exactly the way it looks like it ought to, and Michelangelo with sublime skill captures the weightlessness of a lifeless body, emphasised by the Virgin supporting the body with just one arm. The Virgin’s drapery is also beautifully represented, alternating between deep folds and small creases, and there are some wonderful small touches in the hands, first of the Virgin’s splayed fingers (aside from two) supporting the body, and in Christ’s index and middle finger divided by the Virgin’s drapery.  

Pietà (1499) Michelangelo, St. Peter’s basilica [Image: Wikiemdia Commons, Stanislav Traykov]

A major flaw, noticed immediately, was the youthful visage of the Virgin. Bluntly, she does not look old enough to be the mother of a fully adult man. Vasari and others batted this away with the explanation that her virginity meant the Madonna retained her uncorrupted, innocent face. What it actually might represent is an engagement with classical art. As Martin Gayford puts it: ‘The goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome were not middle-aged’.[3] This reasoning chimes with another unusual feature of the Pietà which is that the Virgin, though seated, is an enormous figure compared to Christ. In ancient sculpture, though, seated gods were often depicted in the same way, such that they would be much larger than mortals if they stood up. In this classical style, then, Michelangelo chiselled the Mother of God in the manner of an Olympian deity.

In a final nod to antiquity, Michelangelo gave the Virgin a band with the words ‘MICHAEL.A.[N]GELVS.BONAROTVS.FLORENTIN[VS]FACIEBA[T]’ (‘The Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti made it’). Such a signature was described as being left by ancient artists in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History as a modest gesture, i.e. the work is incomplete, because it can never be perfected. Wittily, he also excluded the final ‘t’, so that his signature too is incomplete. By including the signed band, Michelangelo was not just emphasising his love of antiquity, but sticking his name on a work that would be seen by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. It is a signature ‘that effectively turned what was a token of modesty into its opposite, [and] marked the dawn of a new era in art, one that was more than just a renaissance of antiquity’.[4] Michelangelo’s aim of surpassing ancient art had been achieved, and he was not yet 30 years old.

Detail of the signature band, which Vasari reports was added only after Michelangelo had heard a group of Lombard artists attributing the work to somebody else. More likely it was reference to antiquity, Michelangelo linking himself to the giants of sculpture of the past. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Nux]

It is no wonder that future popes were desperate for Michelangelo’s services. Here was an artist that could evoke, and even excel, the artistic achievements of the ancients, in a city that was eagerly looking back to the splendour and imperial majesty of ancient Rome to buttress its own spiritual empire.

The Pietà today in St. Peter’s basilica. In its original location in the St. Petronilla chapel it would have been possible to see it close-up. Now it is behind bulletproof glass, after being defaced by a deranged individual in 1972. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Stanislav Traykov]


[1] Vasari 1991: 415

[2] Gayford 2013: 68

[3] Gayford 2013: 145

[4] Zöllner 2007: 67


Gayford, M. 2013. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. London.

Thoenes, C and Zöllner, F. (trans. Williams, K). 2007. Michelangelo: The Complete Paintings, Sculptures and Architecture. Cologne.

Vasari, G. (trans. Conway Bondanella, J and Bondanella, P.) 1991. The Lives of the Artists. New York.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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