Michelangelo’s Very Last Statue

Michelangelo had trouble sleeping. He told his friends sleep gave him headaches. So he would get up in the middle of the night, put on his hat with candles, pick up his chisels, and work. He always had a block of marble in his shop and a figure going.

When he was seventy-five the figure he worked on at odd hours was the Duomo Pietà, which he meant for his own tomb. He came to hate it and broke it to pieces in frustration and anger.
The last one he began, when he was over eighty, was this Rondanini Pietà. It is in the Sforza Castle of Milan.

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Rondanini Pietà, in the  Museo d’arte antica in the Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy
(a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 photo published here)

“I watched him work all day on this figure,” his friend Daniele da Volterra wrote to a friend.
Two days later Michelangelo ran a fever. He wandered around the house in his restless fashion and finally went outdoors for a walk, though it was chilly. His fever was higher the next day and he sat in front of the fireplace, sweating and shivering. Finally he crawled into bed. He died just two days later.

Volterra doesn’t say what he thought of the figure he saw Michelangelo work on. Neither do his two biographer friends. Most critics have discreetly passed over it. Why?

It not only shows signs of the same frustration that made him ruin the Duomo Pietà; it shows signs of mental weakness and a pitiful loss of power and effectiveness.

……………...

(These are thumbnails of the unique photos taken by Ludwig Goldscheider for his book Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, Phaidon Press Ltd.)

The legs, though nearly finished, are thin, graceless, commonplace. On Christ’s right are the remains of a finished, polished arm with recognizably Michelangelo-esque robustness and power. But it has been cut away and a new arm and shoulder started. Now it is hard to imagine just what Michelangelo meant to do with the remaining marble. Everything is out of whack. He has chipped away the marble that would have been needed to give Christ a full chest and now the shoulders can never be broad enough. And what was he going to make of the Virgin that stands like a child on a box behind him?

It looks like the old Master didn’t know himself where to go with the statue and was only fumbling around, waiting for his long-lost Muse to come and rescue it and him.

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13 Responses to Michelangelo’s Very Last Statue

  1. erikatakacs says:

    He didn’t need to prove anything at that age. Maybe he just wanted to carve in marble his own feelings of leaving this earth. On the faces I can see humility, acceptance of death. I think they could have been very moving faces. The weak legs communicate helplessness. Robust arms and legs would not make that believable. What if he was working on a new style, a new direction? Do you think it’s possible at eighty?

    • Joe says:

      Yes, I agree. I am an artist and have studied Michelangelo’s life. This sight is an outrage to art and to Michelangelo as one of the masters of art. Michelangelo knew where he was headed with this last reworking of his ‘Rondanini Pietà’. On his death bed he clearly broke the mold for realist sculpture and reset the mark for art. Michelangelo left this world and his mimetic style and views of what art should be. I believe every strongly, not only was he the greatest artist of all time; painter and sculptor, Michelangelo paved the way and unknowingly was the father of abstract.

      Maybe one or Two days before Michelangelo Buonarroti passed away, he told his friend; Biographer and fellow artist, Vasari: “Now I know I was a fool to make art into an idol or a king.” he was a very God fearing man and he knew that art was beyond realism and the perfect form. Art is to purely attempt to capture the “unknown”. Thank you, Joe

  2. 100swallows says:

    No, erika, I don’t see any chance that the Pietà is a new departure. What is against that idea?
    The remains of his first statue, for one, which didn’t at all look like a sort of Munch in marble but like one of Michelangelo’s other late works (the Duomo and Palestrina Pietàs). That beautiful arm must have been connected to beautiful shoulders and a great chest.
    The legs are left-overs from the first statue, not part of a new design except as Michelangelo (and we) make use of them for it.
    (Those thin and weak legs may well have been a “new departure” because he made them that way in the two other Pietàs: he may have meant by them what you say. But these in the Rondanini stone are ugly besides.)

    Also against the idea that this is an expressionistic piece as you sometimes see in modern churches is that it is clearly unfinished—the new version of the work is only a start. It cannot be taken as a displayable statue yet. Michelangelo has started legs for the Virgin and reduced the entire top half of the Christ. There is a new direction, all right; but there isn’t enough new work done for us to see what Michelangelo had in mind.

    Michelangelo was almost eighty-nine when he died. Is that too late to begin a new direction? Yes. And SUCH a new one! Nowadays we are used to galloping subjectivity: with a little imagination we will let about anything stand for anything. A figure or a painting might as well be a Rohrschach stain or a cloud. But that wasn’t part of Michelangelo’s conception. Remember that he criticized even Titian for “never learning to draw”. It’s true that already in his time there were “Mannerists” stretching figures but there’s no evidence I ever saw that Michelangelo approved of that.

  3. rich says:

    So true what you say about nowaday’s “galloping subjectivity”. Anything goes.
    Delacroix never tires of pointing out Michelangelo’s “exaggerations” in his diary, without repudiating them. These sagging “El Greco legs” have also an exaggeration about them. Have you met anything like that in ancient Greek sculpture, 100swallows, any trace of subjectivism? Where did it start at all?
    Anyhow, looking at this very last statue AND reading your treatise about it, the monumentality of it seems to grow still more apparent.

  4. erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, I did some reading about this work, as it puzzles me still. He started working on this sculpture before the Duomo Pieta. Is that right? Then abandoned it for 10 years, picked it up around age 80. That would support the idea of changing direction, thus chipping away all the work done in his usual robust style. I think he was capable of departure at that age. Wasn’t Matisse doing that same thing with his famous collages at a very old age? How about Picasso’s change of styles? He got interested in ceramics at old age and revolutionised that medium. In fact, this would be a great subject, reviewing masterpieces created at old age.

    Thanks for this post, Swallows, made me reflect and read about things I never thought of before.

  5. Frank Lin says:

    Having read the Agony and Ecstasy by Irving Stone, the novel did seem to suggest Michelangelo was on the verge of developing a new style towards the end of his life. He couldn’t have become that incompetent in his art, he was responsible for designing St. Peter’s dome; even made a wooden model…Could such a mighty artist have fallen so far?

  6. 100swallows says:

    erika: Ludwig Goldscheider says: “Michelangelo began the group probably by the end of 1556, when he abandoned the Florentine (Duomo) Pietà, and then revised it again–perhaps seven years later. The legs of the Christ and the free right arm are relics of the first version.”

    You see that “probably” and that “perhaps”. Still, there doesn’t seem to be much justification for claiming he began it BEFORE the Duomo Pietà–one block in the shop was enough. But anyway that doesn’t hurt your theory. The remains of the robust Christ may well correspond to those first years and the change of direction to a much later one.

    Also supporting your idea that he was still “accountable”, i.e. not senile or depressed, is the model for St. Peter’s that he finished just two years before his death, and also the designs for the Porta Pía in Rome. Of course Matisse and Picasso had spent their whole lives changing directions–Picasso especially was the experimentalist par excellence. You would have to cite somebody outside that revolutionary twentieth century.
    I think so radical a change and coming from Michelangelo so late is really unlikely, but what do I know? After all, he must have meant (or was going to mean) something by making those two figures that way. Maybe if I liked the group I would try to find a good reason for including it as yet another achievement of the Master.
    That’s a great idea to review masterpieces created in old age. Thanks: I just might.

  7. 100swallows says:

    rich: hold on. I’m still thinking how I can answer you. That is quite an assignment you gave me.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Frank. I just put in the message to erika and as you see I mentioned the model for St. Peter’s as evidence of Michelangelo’s accountability. I never read more than a paragraph of Stone’s book, but remember it is romanticized fiction and so really shouldn’t be used as evidence here.

  9. Max says:

    Romanticized fiction with lots of sweat and blood in research.

  10. Jim Larson says:

    I think he knew he was dying and he changed from his robust figures to the self portraiture of essence, which was thinner with a profile that has a nice curvature. Can dying imagery slim down in preparation for the transition to the next world?

    • 100swallows says:

      Jim: Maybe. Michelangelo wrote Vasari almost fifteen years earlier that he had one foot in the grave. But it is hard to believe he waited until this last work to begin such a radical departure. But some explanation there must be.

  11. tom says:

    I actually think it is a new direction for Michelangelo in the sense you get a theme of decay in his later works in particular his drawing “The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John” where the Christ body is almost completely dematerialized. Similar in a way to Goya’s Black Paintings….just my two cents.

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