In the last decades of his life, Michelangelo undertook what we believe to be his last sculpture. At the Palazzo Rondanini, where it was first displayed, it was mistakenly described as a ‘modern group, roughed out and said to be the work of Michelangelo’ (Fiorio 2014: 14). The sculpture is such a radical departure from previous works that it was attributed to the artist only in 1807. It remains an enigma today.
Rather than the polish and perfection of his Vatican Pietà, what confronts us here are two severely attenuated figures. Their rough surfaces read like bodies flayed in stone. The Virgin Mary hovers above her son, enfolding his flesh mysteriously into her own. Two beautifully formed legs and a severed arm suggest an earlier version of Christ, once envisioned in classical, heroic terms. This initial figure was presumably destroyed by the artist himself in progressive stages of carving, and provides a glimpse of what might have been a very different work.
Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà has been described as a ruin and a tragedy by art historians. The missing limbs and hollowing out of bodies suggest not a lack of finish or incompletion, but a deliberate act of violence. Of all artistic forms, sculpture—as a subtractive process—highlights the blurring of boundaries between making and breaking. That emphasis is doubled in the Rondanini, where the process of breaking is not limited to freeing figures from the marble block, but also to their destruction.
But whether the result is tragic depends upon what is being staged here. The rich palimpsest of surfaces and forms inscribed in these remains render visible a powerful series of artistic choices, generally hidden from view. These bring us close to the hand and the mind of the artist, as he attempts in this, the last artwork he made before his death, to give form to the mystery of Christ’s passion.
The sculpture appears to have been undertaken without commission. It remained with the artist until his death, suggesting it was a highly personal study. Perhaps it was part of the same process of spiritual self-examination that is expressed in Michelangelo’s sonnets.
And like the stone rejected by mortals in Peter’s exhortation, the sculpture which was once deemed a ruin is now prized as one of the artist's most precious works.
Fiorio, Maria. 2014. The Pietà Rondanini (Milan: Electa)
1 So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. 2Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; 3for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.
4 Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; 5and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a corner, stone chosen and precious,
and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe,
“The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner,”
“A stone that will make men stumble,
a rock that will make them fall”;
for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.