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.
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.