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