Michelangelo was only 24 when he finished the Pietà. After the statue was installed in St. Peter’s Basilica, he reportedly crept into the chapel at night to carve his name onto Mary’s sash. In 1972, the Vatican announced that Michelangelo had also engraved the letter M on Mary’s palm. Are these claims accurate?
Michelangelo had arrived in Rome in 1496 and had worked on a few small projects there, but it was the commission to enhance a Cardinal’s tomb that would change his life.
In August 1498, the Cardinal of St. Denis, Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, who was also the French Ambassador to the Holy See (the government of the Catholic Church), asked Michelangelo to create a statue for his future tomb in a shrine attached to St. Peter’s Basilica.
The contract that Michelangelo signed stipulated that he would produce a sculpture of Mary holding her crucified son, and that it would be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.”1
Michelangelo chose a single block of Carrara marble from a Tuscan quarry, and for more than a year he worked to perfect his design.
One remarkable aspect of the finished statue is Michelangelo’s expert manipulation of proportion and draping, which allows Mary to plausibly hold her adult son. His portrayal of Mary as young, suggesting her purity of spirit, was also unusual, and the faces of mother and son suggest tranquility and acceptance instead of pain or sorrow.
The sculptor’s name appears on a strap that crosses Mary’s chest. As historian Miles Unger noted, “Michelangelo’s decision to place his name so boldly in such a visible – not to say intimate – location stirred controversy from the beginning.”2
Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary and friend of Michelangelo, later told a story to explain the prominent signature.
He wrote that Michelangelo had visited the Pietà one day and “found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” [Cristoforo Solari, also known as il Gobbo (The Hunchback), was an Italian sculptor and architect.] Michelangelo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labours should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.”3
The inscription reads MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLOREN[TINUS] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this).
But does this story make sense? If Michelangelo hadn’t intended to sign his name, why would he have inserted the incongruous strap across Mary’s chest?
Several historians have questioned Vasari’s story. Miles Unger, for example, asserted that the strap is “an unusual accessory that seems to have no function other than to carry the artist’s signature. Clearly, this was not an afterthought but rather something Michelangelo had planned from the moment he began to work the block with mallet and chisel. The fact that Vasari felt compelled to concoct this improbable story is a sign of how uncomfortable Michelangelo’s champions were with this intrusion of artistic ego into a sacred tableau.”4
The Pietà is the only work that Michelangelo signed.
The Hidden Monogram
In May 1972, an unemployed Australian geologist named Laszlo Toth leapt over the railings surrounding the Pietà and attacked the statue with a hammer. Shouting that he was Jesus Christ, he struck a dozen blows that knocked off Mary’s left arm, removed the tip of her nose, and damaged her cheek and left eye.
Subduing Toth after the attack.
The Pietà, before and after restoration
An international team of art experts began a ten-month restoration. Six months after the attack, the Vatican reported that another clandestine signature on the Pietà had been found.
Mary’s fingers had broken off when her arm hit the floor. When examining the damaged hand, Dr. Vittorio Federici, chief of scientific research in the Vatican museums, concluded that Michelangelo had inscribed a letter M on Mary’s palm.
The Vatican’s announcement of the newly-discovered ‘monogram’ generated interest around the world.
Front page of New York Times, December 1, 1972.
“The Vatican did not explain why the presumed monogram was not recognized before in the palm of the Madonna’s open left hand,” the New York Times noted. “Inquirers were referred to a forthcoming detailed report. Photographs of the ‘secret signature’ will also be made available later.”
No report was ever released, however. Federici and his team may have decided that the lines on Mary’s palm were just creases after all.
Since the attack, the Pietà has been displayed behind bulletproof glass.
Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
An Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, Michelangelo is considered one of the greatest artists of all time. Although perhaps best known for his Sistine Chapel ceiling, he considered himself primarily a sculptor; he has had a profound impact on all aspects of Western art.
Medium: Carrara marble
Size: 174 cm. x 195 cm. (68.5 in. × 76.8 in.)
Location: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Hofmann, Paul, Michelangelo Monogram Found on Pietà, New York Times, December 1, 1972, p. 1.
Michelangelo, Encyclopedia Britannica, britannica.com.
Pietà, St. Peter’s Basilica website
Pullella, Philip, Vatican Marks Anniversary of 1972 Attack of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Reuters, May 21, 2013.
The Vatican Pietà, Fordham Art History, Fordham University website.
Other Information / Sources:
Contratti di Michelangelo, Florence, 2005.
Unger, Miles J., Michelangelo – A Life in Six Masterpieces, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Vasari, Giorgio and Gaston Du C. de Vere, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects in Ten Volumes, London: P.L. Warner Medici Society, Vol. IX, 1915.