Within the newly renovated and redesigned Museum of the Works of the Duomo in Florence is a gallery which stuns most visitors; the gallery of Michelangelo’s Deposition Pieta, also called the Nicodemus Pieta. The new space replaces the previous location of the work – a landing on the main staircase of the ‘old’ museum. In its new location it shines and fills a room five times the size of the stair landing.
A quick summary of the design: The highest figure of the four is said to be Nicodemus, in reality a self portrait of Michelangelo in his later years. The figure to the left of Christ deposed, as you stand before the work, is Mary Magdalen. The figure to the right of Christ is Mary, his mother.
Michelangelo left the figures of Mary, Christ and Nicodemus unfinished. It is widely believed that Tiberio Calcagni, a sculptor of some note, finished the Mary Magdalen after Michelangelo’s death.
The story of this gorgeous work is a long and complicated one. Here is what most historians believe: Michelangelo began work on the Pieta in 1556, eight years before his death. In the course of the work, he became increasingly frustrated with the quality of the marble, the position of the figures and the constant pressure he felt to ‘get it done’. The master eventually broke away several sections of the work (for reasons we do not understand) and eventually gave the main marble block and pieces to his servant, Antonio. The servant then sold the work to Calcagni.
Calcagni replaced the pieces on the main block of marble and then completed the figure of Mary Magdalen. Somehow, in the course of the work, movement of pieces and repair, Christ’s left leg went missing.
As you study the work today, it is difficult to see in the balance and beauty of the piece that anything is missing. It is believed that Michelangelo intended for Christ’s left leg to rest on his mother, Mary’s, thigh; perhaps too strong an implied relationship between mother and son – pressure from the church – caused him to remove the leg.
Below is a close up of the pin “hole” where Christ’s left leg would have been attached. To this day, no one knows what happened to that piece of marble.
Even with its provenance in question, the piece of marble, back lit and highlighted in the gallery of the Museo del Opera del Duomo still fascinates us. How Buonarotti could turn marble to flesh remains as mysterious as the story of the Deposition Pieta.
Credit to Penhook for some of the reference material used in this post. Thank you.