Michelangelo’s “Pietà Rondanini”, an incunabulum of contemporary art

The Pietà Rondanini – created in two stages, between 1552 and 1553 and later between 1555 and 1564 – is the great, unfinished work on which Michelangelo spent the last days of his life, chisel or gradine in hand. It is currently on display in Milan’s Sforza Castle.

The statue is a representation of infinite “pietà”, as felt by the Madonna for her dead Son – so infinite that no finished work could ever circumscribe it. In Michelangelo’s words, we could say it is so infinite that the hand that obeys the intellect could not discover it from the marble.

Art historian Giulio Carlo Argan has commented that the value of this sculpture is precisely “in its fragment nature: it is almost like a thought that cannot be expressed beyond half sentences and truncated allusions, or instant rhythmical charges that are promptly stifled.”

Siena-born artist Massimo Lippi has stated that modern and contemporary art began with the “Pietà Rondanini”:
“Michelangelo could feel the end of an era was near. His superior talent could not submit to the canons set by academies. He reinvented everything and stunned anyone who had gotten used to Brunelleschi’s innovations by then. In the ‘Pietà Rondanini’, the rules of making art are surmounted by an instinctual power that was a final, direct, and definitive confrontation between a soul and God. He was ninety years old, and in Rome his work barely made any noise: a cough and a bang of his hammer, repeating the same motions of the Settignano masons from whom he had learned his art.”
“The ‘Pietà’ is an incunabulum of contemporary art. Those smooth, polished legs trod by light, while the upper part is still a cocoon, roughly sculpted […] It is not a real ‘Pietà’ yet, but it already presents the imminent dawn of the world, in the Resurrection.”

“Michelangelo proceeds by abbreviations, syncopes, ‘ablatio’, and deletion of all that is excessive, to reach the essence. With disproportion and paradox – Mary is so young, ‘daughter of her Son’… there is no sacralization of form. The work does not mark the end of the Christian era, but the end of the artist’s presumption that by inverting perspective he could create beauty himself.”

“Michelangelo seems to state that artists can look for beauty in the world, with God’s help, and give it back to Him and His Church. This is an incredibly modern approach” (translated from “Quella scintilla di bellezza che dà gloria a Dio”, interview with Massimo Lippi, on “30Giorni”, January 2008).

Michelangelo’s “Pietà Rondanini”, an incunabulum of contemporary art

Sforza Castle, Piazza Castello
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