The Santa Croce: the grave of Michelangelo and his Duomo Pietà

Piazza Santa Croce large size

Buonarroti left Florence in 1534 for good (Click here for an overview of Santa Croce architecture, sculpture and painting). He had left the statues for the New Sacristy scattered on the floor. The Madonna and Child was only found in his studio years after his final departure to Rome. Michelangelo was given an honorable burial by the Romans in their city, Rome, in the Santi Apostoli. He was not only a great artist, but was also appointed honorary citizen of Rome. It goes without saying that the inhabitants of Florence were not happy that their own artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti, was in a church in Rome. However, the Florentines found a good solution. They kidnapped Buonarroti’s corpse from the church in the dead of night, wrapped it in bales of cloth and smuggled it out. Michelangelo Buonarroti was buried with great homage in his city, Florence.

Santa Croce aisle with tombs
Santa Croce aisle with tombs Michelangelo Buonarroti
Portrait Michelangelo Buonarroti part of tomb

Vasari devotes no less than twenty pages to the funeral of the person he considered the greatest artist of all time.233 A catafalque was erected in front of the San Lorenzo. Many speeches were made and there was a burial book, which was previously reserved for emperors only. In the Santa Croce you can see his tomb on the right past the entrance. The grave was designed by Vasari. On the front you can see the personifications of painting, architecture and sculpture. The personification of Sculpture is holding a marble block.

Tomb of  Michelangelo large size     Youtube 1.24 minutes

Photo: Jan

From left to right on the bottom painting      Sculpture      Architecture
Tombe Michelangelo Santa Croce painting sculpture architecture

picture: clare_and_ben

The Duomo Pietà

Although we aren’t in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, we will still discuss the Pietà because of the chronology of the story. Buonarroti carved the Duomo Pieta for his own grave..234 At the age of 75, Michelangelo was still working on the Pietà, but his hand was shaky when drawing, as can be seen from his designs for architecture, but he could not bring himself to stop using the heavy chisel. Vasari mentions that he was commissioned by the Pope to collect drawings from Michelangelo and:

‘Michelangelo heard who was there by the knock on the door, and he stopped working and took a lantern; after Vasari had explained what he was coming for, Michelangelo sent Urbino upstairs to get the design, and while they were talking about something else, Vasari wanted to look at a leg of the Christ Michelangelo was working on, a leg he was trying to change; but to prevent Vasari from seeing it he dropped the lamp from his hands, after which he called Urbino to bring some light, and while he walked out of his workplace, he said: ‘I am so old that death often asks me to come; one day my body will fall like this lamp, and my light will go out.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part II 1992 pp. 289-290 (original edition 1568).

The Duomo Pietà as a superlative: four figures ex uno lapide

A sculpture group ex uno lapide (from one block of marble) was seen as a demonstration of true mastery. Michelangelo had already made a Pietà (St. Peter): two figures from one marble block. Working with one block was an imperative for Michelangelo. Later sculptors like Bernini easily use more blocks.

Michelangelo The Duomo ‘Pietà’ Museo opera dell’Duomo zoom in large size
Michelangelo The Duomo Pietà Museo opera del Duomo
Michelangelo  “The Duomo Pietà” without leg
Michelangelo  "The Duomo Pietà"  without leg

Now older, Buonarroti wanted to surpass his first Pietà by carving four figures out of one block. Instead of signing his sculpture group as Buonarroti had done with his first Pietà, Nicodemus was given the appearance of the artist.

Michelangelo “Duomo Pietà”
Michelangelo The Duomo Pietà detail

Leonardo believed signing to be beneath him ; the work must speak for itself. The Duomo Pietà, which was never completed by Michelangelo, clearly shows how Michelangelo worked. Michelangelo used what he had learned from dissecting corpses in the Santo Spirito for his carvings. For example, there is another anatomical study in which Michelangelo studied bent and stretched legs (Sanguine and pen, 202 x 263 mm Haarlem, Teylers Museum, A39v). Another drawing accurately shows the muscles of a right leg (Sanguine, 283 x 207 mm Windsor Castle, Royal Library, RL0803re). He shaped the marble by drawing on his vast knowledge of bones, veins, tendons and muscles. Yet his medieval way of working presented him with an impossible task. Just to reiterate: the old way of working means that the artist first roughly indicates the contours of the statue with charcoal on the front of the block. Then, according to Vasari:

‘[…] It is as if one were taking a figure, made of wax or other solid material, a figure which one would then put stretched out in a bowl of water, water which is naturally flat and smooth at the surface, after which one would gradually lift the figure to the surface, so that first the most protruding parts would emerge, while the underlying parts, that is to say the lowest parts, would remain hidden, until the figure came to light in its entirety in this way.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Greatest Painters, Sculptors and Architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1992 part I, p. 283

Before Michelangelo, a man named Francesco da Sangallo had carved a statue with three figures from one block of marble. We have seen this statue,  ‘Virgin and Child with Saint Anne‘, in the Orsanmichele. Fourteen years earlier, Andrea Sansovino in Rome (Sant’Agostino) had carved an “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” from one block of marble, but Anna was put next to Maria with a child. So the figures were not entangled with each other. Buonarroti was familiar with this sculpture and that explains why Buonarroti chose four figures for his Pietà. Vasari had praised the ‘Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’ in his ‘Life of Francesco da Sangallo’ in the following way:

‘In addition to the work he made in Florence and elsewhere in sculpture or architecture, his work in the Orsanmichele is the Madonna and Child on her shoulder, who is seatedon Anna’s lap, made of marble; and this work, with freestanding figures from only one block, was and is considered a fine work.’235

This kind of craftsmanship, overcoming a great difficulty, a difficultà, as we also saw at Sansovino’s Bacchus in Bargello, was highly appreciated. Within two years Francesco had completed this sculpture and he signed, as you can read on Anna’s belt, with: FRANCISCVS FACIEBAT. The only naturalistic dissonant in the sculpture is Anna’s somewhat strange right leg, which is completely at odds with human anatomy. Apparently this was a necessary evil to make the other two figures, Mary with her son on her lap, possible.236

The measurement model: an extremely handy tool to navigate the marble

In the sixteenth century, the use of measuring models reappeared. The Romans must have known something similar. They have converted countless Greek, often bronze statues, very accurately into marble. This can be clearly seen in the Pio Clementino in the Vatican. Kieft discusses the use of measuring models by artists in his dissertation and argues why Michelangelo did not use this tool, but artists like Bandinelli or Giambologna did.237

Measurement mode A is the model and B is the marble block
Youtube point device common in the 19th century (2.51 minutes)
meetmodel Francesco Carradori, Istruzione elementare per gli studiosi della scultura, Florence, 1802

Measurement mode A is the model and B is the marble block Francesco Carradori, Istruzione elementare per gli studiosi della scultura, Florence, 1802

Measuring models are very accurate and detailed models of clay, plaster or wax that serve as a control tool for sculpting marble. Using a wooden construction, the measurement model was often continuously inspected with pins to see exactly how far and where you have to cut into the marble block. The measuring model is located in the studio next to the rough marble block from which the statue will be made. You always compare using the measurement model to and from where you can have the chisel do its work. Such a measurement model is an absolute necessity, especially when carving multiple figures out of a block. Although Michelangelo had an almost eerily good visual memory, it is impossible for people to imagine several figures from all sides spatially. What Michelangelo did manage with one figure, the David, or two figures, the Pietà (St. Peter), did not succeed with his Duomo Pietà. Condivi gives a description of the statue that shows how complicated the postures of the four figures are in relation to each other:

‘This is a group of four figures more than life-sized, that is to say a Christ who has been taken from the cross with his lifeless body supported by his mother; one sees her holding the body against her chest, with her arms and a knee in an admirable position she is helped by Nicodemus above her, who stands straight and firmly on his legs, lifting the [body] with an exertion of his arms, while one of the Mary’s helps her on the left, who does not fall short in the task, by which the mother is overwhelmed by an enormous amount of work. Because he is lifeless, the Christ looks soulless’238

Michelangelo spent many a night on his Pietà, wearing a strange hat with a candle on it for enough light. A French visitor who saw Michelangelo, at an advanced age, still at work was surprised at his zeal: ‘He did more in fifteen minutes than three to four young masons, he carved off three to four-finger-wide chunks straight to the marking.’239 Despite this zest for work and his enormous experience, Michelangelo was unable to meet the demands of his time, namely: to carve the figures true to nature and to proportion the different body parts correctly. If he – like his contemporary Bandinelli – had made a life-size model and used it as a measuring model, he would certainly have succeeded.

The Duomo Pietà: a failure?

Michelangelo eventually smashed the leg he worked on. According to Vasari he did this because: ‘[…] Urbino, his servant, who urged him to finish it every day; and that it had happened to him, among other things, that a piece of an elbow of the Madonna had broken off, and that he had already been furious before that, and that he had had had a lot of trouble with a hairline crack that was there; and when he had lost his patience he broke it, and he had wanted to break it completely, if his servant Antonio had not persuaded him to instead gift it as it was.’240

EeAnother possibility, which Vasari does not mention, is that Buonarroti was not satisfied with the statue, because it did not comply with the commandment of the Renaissance: ‘imitatore della natura’ is ‘imitatione del vero’. If you look closely at the Pietà – fortunately you can still get close to the statue in this museum and walk around it – you can see that Buonarroti in his anger did not only destroy the left leg of Christ. Michelangelo became the victim of his medieval way of working, about which Vasari was so enthusiastic. Moreover, he did not use a measuring model. The proportions of some body parts including the arm of Christ are inaccurate. For example, Nicodemus’ posture is incorrect, but you can only see this clearly at the back of the statue. The right elbow of Nicodemus should actually stick out clearly, but this is not the case. According to Kieft, the answer to the above question is therefore: ‘Yes, a failed work of art, but a failure with enormous grandeur.’241

Michelangelo Duomo Pietà  backside
Michelangelo Duomo Pietà  backside

pictures: Lee Sandstead

The sculptor Calcagni completed the mutilated Pietà. Take a look at Mary Magdalene, the left figure, if you stand in front of the statue, it becomes clear at a glance that she is certainly not by Buonarroti’s hand. Duke Cosimo refused to place this Pietà in his New Sacristy. He did not like the sculpture, it was not finished.

Michelangelo “Duomo Pietà” self-portrait as Nicodemus large size
Michelangelo "Duomo Pietà" self-portrait as Nicodemus

picture large size: Lee Sandstead

After the Duomo Pietà, Michelangelo will carve another Pietà that is not completed. It is striking that in his ‘Pietà Rondanini’ he limits himself to only two figures: Mary and Christ. This last work by Michelangelo Buonarroti is not in Florence, but in the Castello Sforza in Milan. We now walk west to Palazzo Vecchio

Michelangelo “Pietà Rondanini” 1564 large size
Michelangelo "Pietà Rondanini" 1564

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