The restoration of a Michelangelo sculpture has confounded the long-held belief that he attacked it with a hammer in a fit of artistic pique.
The Renaissance master worked on the sculpture, known as the Bandini Pietà, between 1547 and 1555 when he was in his seventies, intending that it would adorn his tomb.
It depicts Christ after he was crucified, cradled by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish religious leader, who Michelangelo carved to resemble himself.
According to long-standing legend, he tried to destroy it with a hammer when he saw that it was not up to his usual standards.
Michelangelo began work on the sculpture when he was in his seventies
But a painstaking restoration of the work, conducted in Florence where the sculpture is kept, has disproved that, and found instead that Michelangelo abandoned the project because of serious flaws in the marble.
“We found no traces of it being struck with a hammer,” said Ambra Nepi, from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the institution behind the restoration. It was founded in 1296 to oversee the construction of Florence’s Duomo, or cathedral, and its bell tower.
“Instead, we found the marble was full of defects. It contains impurities like pyrite that meant that sparks would have flown when Michelangelo hit it with a chisel. That’s the reason he was not able to complete it. It is a much more likely hypothesis than the idea that he was unhappy with his work and so tried to destroy it with a hammer,” she told The Telegraph.
During the restoration, the statue was cleaned of centuries of dirt, dust and candle wax.
That revealed numerous tiny cracks in the marble, particularly around the base of the statue.
The restoration began in 2019
Restorers found another surprise – the huge block of marble was hewn not from the famous Tuscan quarries of Carrara, as had been supposed, but instead from quarries owned by the Medici family in Seravezza, a few miles to the south.
“How this huge block of marble was transported to Rome, where Michelangelo sculpted it, is still a mystery,” said Ms Nepi.
The restoration, funded by the non-profit Friends of Florence Foundation, began in late 2019 but was interrupted several times because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The operation has restored to the world the beauty of one of Michelangelo’s most intense and troubled masterpieces,” the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore said in a statement. It is the first major restoration of the hulking marble creation in 470 years.
“The restoration means that every single detail of the sculpture is now visible once again,” said Beatrice Agostini, the director of the project.
The sculpture is one of three Pietàs that were carved by Michelangelo. The others are in Milan and in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.