On 21 May 1972, Michelangelo’s Pieta, exhibited to the public in St. Peter’s Basilica, was attacked by a hammer-wielding tourist who had managed to elude the sanctuary’s guards. Hungarian-born Australian geologist Laszlo Toth, who suffered from sever mental problems, threw himself at the sculpture shouting, “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!” and he struck the Pieta 15 times destroying the Madonna’s nose, breaking off her left forearm, and smashing that arm’s elbow into over 50 pieces.
Today, 41 years later, the Vatican Museums are dedicating a study day to the sculpture’s reconstruction entitled: “Michelangelo’s Pieta: In Memory of 21 May 1972 – A Restoration Story”. During the course of the day’s planned events, the complex and delicate task of restoration that took place between 1972 and 1973 in the Vatican Museums under the care of then-director, the Brazilian Deoclecio Redig de Campos, will be analysed. Thanks to the existence of numerous casts, the skill of several specialists, and reusing original fragments as well as a paste made of glue and marble dust, it was possible to faithfully restore the work.
The Pieta is considered Michelangelo’s first masterpiece—he was little more than twenty when he sculpted it—and it is the only one he signed. The sash running across the Virgin’s chest reads: “MICHAEL.A[N]GELVS BONAROTVS FLORENT[INVS] FACIEBAT”. The study day will reveal, among other things and thanks to documents conserved by the Office of the Fabric of St. Peter’s, the various places the statue resided before its placement, in 1779, in the first chapel on the right of the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica where it is visible today, but protected after the attack, by bullet-proof glass that separates it from the visitors to the basilica. The only time that the Pieta has left Vatican territory was in 1964 when it travelled to the Universal Expo in New York to be admired by over 21 million people. On that occasion, the photographer Robert Hupka immortalized it in a book entitled “An Act of Love”. Another little-known fact about the work regards the crowns that have adorned the Virgin’s head throughout the centuries, which will be discussed by the archaeologist Pietro Zander.
The study day will also have the exclusive viewing of the documentary “Violence and the Pieta”, restored in colour and digital format by the recently deceased Brando Giordani in collaboration with RAI’s Department of Culture, that narrates the entire process of the statue’s reconstruction. The documentary was filmed by the express will of Pope Paul VI who compared the shattered statue with an image of the Church in tears, attacked by evil.
Another of Michelangelo’s celebrated statues, the David, which is found in Florence’s Accademia Art Gallery, was also attacked by a mentally unsound person with a hammer in 1991. The toe’s of the statue’s left foot were broken off. That restoration process, undertaken by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (workshop of semi-precious stones) in Florence, will be presented in the afternoon, serving to introduce one of the Vatican Museum’s latest initiatives: the creation of a virtual gipsoteca (plaster cast gallery) with 3D models and “clones” of the collections’ most irreplaceable works.