Tuesday, 7 April 2020

From Leonardo to Michelangelo

Not far from Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where Leonardos's Last Supper can be found, is the Castello Sforzesco, the Castle of the Sforzas. It now houses various museums and interesting rooms, but when I visited it in 2010, my goal was to see Michelangelo's last sculpture, the Rondanini Pieta

I suppose most of us have seen his more famous Pieta of 1499 in St Peter's, Rome, either in the flesh or in pictures. That was made when Michelangelo was a young man, flexing his artistic and sculptural muscles. It is utterly beautiful, and always has a large crowd standing in front of it. But he returned to this theme much later in his life, and sculpted several versions.  This one he worked on from 1552 until 1564, just a week before he died. He revisited  the profound theme of Mary mourning over the emaciated body of her dead Son at a time when in his old age his own sense of his own mortality was growing. 
In his dying days, Wikipedia tells us, he hacked at the marble block until only the dismembered right arm of Christ survived from the sculpture as originally conceived. When I came into the room where it is located in Milan, I found it spellbinding. I gather it has now been given a mini-museum all of its own and repositioned so that it is easier to walk all around it, though some don't approve of its new setting.

All extraneous detail has been chipped away by the aged genius. It's as if he is struggling to come to terms with the scene, with his own mortality, with life and death. It has an intimacy of a very different kind to that of the Vatican Pieta, but at the end of the day, despite its unfinished roughness, this work of art looks, to me at least, more like reality.  Mother and Son struggle to emerge from the marble, like Michelangelo's earlier slaves. The body of Jesus crumples to the ground, held only by his mother. This is the end of the journey that began in Nazareth and Bethlehem, or so it seems. But in that embrace, that hand gently resting with both love and strength near her Son's heart, there is something eternal, pointing beyond the desolation and roughness.  Easter is not far away...

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