A Rare Opportunity to See Michelangelo’s Pietas Reunited, Thanks to Casts

In Milan, copies of the three iconic sculptures allow a unique reading of Michelangelo’s life-long fascination with the subject of pieta.

Bandini and Rondanini Pietas by Michelangelo exhibited in the in the Sala delle Cariatidi at Palazzo Reale. Mauro Ranzani

Three casts of Michelangelo’s Pietas have come to Milan, where they are exceptionally reunited in a spectacular and exciting display signed by Massimo Chimenti in the Sala delle Cariatidi of the Royal Palace. The breathtaking hall serve as a stage where three long sheets, suspended from the ceiling, serve as a backdrop to the extraordinary work by Michelangelo, amplifying their strong aesthetic value and the religious sense evoked by the sculptor in the different phases of his life.

Careful documentary and iconographic research on the three Pietà aims at creating a visual narrative capable of presenting episodes in recent history that had Michelangelo’s sculptures as protagonists: restorations, installations and transfers  – as the insanely risky travel of the Vatican’s pietà to the 1964 New York World’s Fair – immortalized by rare photographs and films, from important Italian archives and photo libraries that collaborated on the project.

“Thanks to the three precious casts, this spectacular exhibition, set up in one of the city’s most beautiful halls, will be able to tell visitors about the evolution of Michelangelo’s sensibility throughout his life,” said Tommaso Sacchi, Councillor for Culture of the City of Milan. It will be a great thrill to be able to embrace the three Pietà at a single glance, and the comparison, in Milan, can be complemented by a visit to the Museum of the Pietà Rondanini at the Castello Sforzesco, where the original of the last Pietà, the one the Master worked on until the last days of his life, is located.”

Three casts of Michelangelo’s Pietas at Palazzo Reale. Photo by Mauro Ranzani.

As a young man, Michelangelo created the Vatican Pietà, sculpting in his late adulthood the so-called Bandini Pietà at Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the Rondanini Pietà at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. 

These examples tell the story of the sensibility achieved by the Tuscan genius over the course of his long life: from the grandiose early work with a classicist imprint to the unfinished sculpture of his final days. More than sixty years separate the first Pietà, the one in St. Peter in Rome, from the last, the Rondanini.

Michelangelo put his hand on the first block of marble for the pietà in 1498, in his early twenties. The contract explicitly requested “a Virgin Mary clothed with the dead Christ, naked in her arms.” 

For the second one, Michelangelo is much changed man and artist, dealing with a wrong block of marble to the point of wanting to abandon sculpture. By the time he sculpted the Bandini Pietà, between 1547 and 1555, Michelangelo Buonarroti was already an old man who often meditated on faith, Christ’s passion, and his own impending death. The history of this Pietà is long and troubled. The marble, which was full of impurities and too hard, did not allow Michelangelo to complete the work, and led the artist to break a limb of Christ and later to hammer the statue, breaking it in several places.

The last Pietà, the Rondanini, is now on display at the Castello Sforzesco. Michelangelo worked on this marble until his death leaving it unfinished. 

Thanks to this rare opportunity to see them reunited – even if they are copies – the exhibition aims to focus on the maturing of the feelings of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of art, showing how the same scene can reach such different outcomes in the hands of an artist through time.

Michelangelo’s Pietas are on view through 8 January in the Sala delle Cariatidi at Palazzo Reale. Free admission.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.