It was to be the sculpture that would adorn Michelangelo's tomb, or at least that was the artist's plan. He began working on the Pieta in 1547, while in his 70s, only to scuttle the effort eight years later. The New York Times reports a major restoration effort—the first ever done on the sculpture—begun in 2019 has now been completed, and it gives credence to the frustration Michelangelo experienced while trying to bring his vision to life. His intention was to chisel Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus (his face a self-portrait of the artist) out of the marble block, but found it flawed. An analysis done as part of the restoration backed that up.
The stone contains trace amount of pyrite, which can react with metal, likely causing the sparks that were said to emanate from the marble as Michelangelo struck it. Fractures and cracks imperceptible to the eye were also present, and would have broken upon being struck. That might have been what happened as he carved the left arms of Jesus and Mary, with lead restorer Paola Rosa telling the Times, "He encountered the fracture, he may have tried to work around it, but in this case he wasn’t able to do much." ANSA reports the restorers also dispelled the story that Michelangelo used a hammer to try to destroy the statue out of frustration.
They determined that was improbable unless Tiberio Calcagni, the artist who took care of the sculpture after Michelangelo's death and continued working on it, removed any destructive blows leveled by the master. The restoration was designed to address mottling that resulted from protective wax that had been applied to the statue since the late 1800s while being kept at the Florence Cathedral, along with stucco that had been applied to broken pieces and white patches caused by a plaster cast applied in 1882, reports Artnet.
It will be on display for the next six months in the open-air lab at the Opera del Duomo Museum where the restoration was carried out. ANSA notes Michelangelo worked on this Pieta—known as the Bandini Pieta after the banker who purchased it around 1560—50 years after his first and most famous Pieta; his third and final Pieta, known as the Rondanini Pieta, was sculpted shortly before his death in 1564. (Read more Michelangelo stories.)