Featured image, Rosa Verloop, nylon sculptures
This is going to be a “woe is me” post about a topic that we usually keep firmly behind the bathroom door. Therefore, if you don’t want to hear about the degradation of my digestive system, get out now. If, however, you also have an annoying, embarrassing, or otherwise very inconvenient bodily situation or illness that erodes your daily quality of life, you may be interested in my thoughts about how such a condition figures into my end-of-life decisions.
Spire, Caitlin McCormack, 2017. McCormack’s achieves her crotchet- and thread-work sculptures out of discarded thread. Once the crocheted object is completed, she binds it into a three-dimensional structure with enamel paint.
While lack of focus and lostness-in-my-self-and-the-world is part of my daily life, other effects of the vascular disease that causes my dementia have recently started to derail my ability to have what I still think of as a “normal life”: vascular disease is clogging up micro-vessels not only in my brain, but also in my pelvic floor and gastrointestinal (GI) tract: as informational websites discouragingly note, the impact on the digestive organs may range across “any [or all] segments …from the mouth to the anus,” and result in “a variety of morbid symptoms including dysphagia [difficulty swallowing, leading to choking and coughing], heartburn [another reason for my incessant coughing], distention, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chronic constipation, incomplete evacuation [despite having had a bowel movement, you still feel you have to go], and fecal incontinence.” Not surprisingly, the article adds, “GI tract involvement is also associated with depressed mood and lower quality of life.”
Mixed media piece that includes embroidery art, artist unknown. Image source
While I’ve had life-long difficulty with my GI function, as an adult I have managed to keep my innards moving (sort of) with the standard treatment of drinking a lot of water, following a fiber-rich diet, and taking fiber supplements. However, during the past 5 years or so, this maintenance method proved to be no longer adequate. I would have repeated periods when all of my usual tricks would not budge my recalcitrant innards. Laxatives would help, but gradually the doses I had to take became bigger and bigger. Also, after a laxative it would take may days for my stomach function to start up again. My gastroenterologist told me that all forms of laxative were bad for an already vulnerable GI tract, since they decrease the good bacteria and increase the bad bacteria in the gut biome. He said it was okay not to have a bowel movement for 5 or 6 days. (Ha!)
An embroidery panel from Transylvanian-born Andrea Dezsö’s series Lessons from my Mother
Sometimes, while I tried to get closer to my doctor’s cut-off point before taking a laxative, my body would take its own measures: I would start vomiting uncontrollably, followed by—or worse, accompanied by—diarrhea. While this was happening, I wished that Andrea Dezsö’s mother’s was right about just dying instead.
Andrea Dezsö’s series Lessons from my Mother
When these “attacks” persisted over a period of months and became more frequent, were here to stay I saw my gastroenterologist. He prescribed a medication which is not a laxative but an agent that increases the chloride and water secretion in the intestines and thereby helps to stimulate bowel movements and relieve some of the other symptoms of GI tract degeneration. I started with the lowest dose and it provided great relief through more regular bowel movements.
A happy stomach makes for a happy brain! Brain, by Ukrainian artist Anastasiia Podervianska, 2020. Poderviansska’s interest in textiles sculptures emerged while working with her father on his theater performances as a costume designer. She also makes embroidery art.
Over the next 9 months or so, the positive effect of this medication gradually wore off. By then my gastroenterologist had increased my prescription to 3 times the initial dose. While, as before, the increased dose worked for a while, during the past month I had a recurrence of the same kind of attack as before I started on the hoped-for fix. This time the attack lasted through a whole night and until the middle of the the next day. If one has to find some good in a stomach-load of badness, mine was that I was still able to clean up myself and the collateral unholy mess.
When the worst of the attack was over, I was exhausted and dehydrated. If one has to find some more good in a stomach-load of badness—and if you subscribe to our still-prevailing body “ideal” that “thinner is better”— my losing 5 pounds in two days could be that. For another day or two there was no chance of building up to my usual weight, since I could not keep even the simplest food or liquid down. I was drained of all energy. The “depressed mood and lower quality of life” associated with my gastric tract malfunction showed itself with a vengeance. Fortunately, I felt so weak that I did not as usual try to the futile fight against my lethargy—I was grateful to lie down with my audiobook and drop into sleep. The next day I was able to drink SouthAfrican rooibos tea, which was used by the Bushman as a dehydrating agent long before Western science had formulated electrolyte replenishments.
Knitted intestines, Ben Cueva
Once I managed liquids, Peter went shopping for the foods recommended for accustoming my stomach to solids: for starters I sucked the juice out of watermelon and later ate the pulp too. Then I graduated to honeydew melon and oatmeal. From the day when the evacuation started, it took a week before I had recovered the energy to even get dressed in outdoor wear and go to our mailbox downstairs. It was a happy day when I could finally go out for air. My doctor has now prescribed the highest dose of the medication that is allowed, which is 4 times as much as what I started with. It’s only been a week or two, but so far things are going really well.
Millefleur, by Kirsten Hassenfeld. Salvaged textiles, mixed media.
The wide-spread occurrence and harmful consequences of vascular disease has been well known in the cardiac field for a long time. Peter has been dealing with cardiac dysfunction for a while, so we are very much clued up to that. Neither of us, however, realized—until the onset of my most recent troubles—how wide-spread the damage is that vascular disease can cause in every part of the body.
Body Box, by Caroline Gates, Anatomical Art
In addition to recently-put-together knowledge of the effect of vascular disease on the whole body, dementia research has discovered that it plays a far larger role than previously assumed in many dementias: in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, neuroscientists found that “75% of those with a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in life, up to 75% have co-occurring vascular pathology at autopsy. And vice versa, in those with a clinical diagnosis of vascular dementia, many have biomarker evidence of co-occurring Alzheimer pathology; more than 25% of patients over the age of 75, a diagnosed dementia frequently co-occurs with other not-yet-diagnosed dementias. Mixed pathologies are the rule rather than the exception in people with dementia.
Marjorie Taylor, “Art and Science #1,” 2000: The left- and right sides of the brain (pink at the center), the cerebellum or reptilian brain (blue), and the spinal cord (cream/white). The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art
This most recent episode of my stomach dysfunction—and the brain-destroying- and other perils of vascular disease with which I am dealing—once again brought up thoughts about my decision to end my life at a point before my dementia takes away my ability to care for at least my personal hygiene. My stomach episodes had prompted me to send to my lawyer an amendment to my then current Advance Health Directive, namely to add another item to the list of flags that my desired quality of life is dwindling below the level of acceptability. Here is an excerpt of the flags already on the list:
- Do I wake up most days feeling joyful and excited about my new day, no matter the level of intellectual activity I am capable of?
- Do I look forward to more things than I dread?
- Am I insatiable in my needs and demands of my caretakers, be they family or care center personnel?
- Does it take my combined caretakers more hours per day to care for me than the hours I when I am not consuming care?
- Should I be at home, is/are my primary caretaker(s) stressed and worn out and constantly on the edge of a breakdown?
- Am I physically approachable without getting myself into a state of fear or anger; that is, is it still a pleasure for me to new near or cuddle with a friend or child or grandchild? In other words, do I still provide (and enjoy) “the comfort of a warm body?”
Kevin Womack, Sick Bed quilt from his Swaddling to Shroud series
To the kinds of flag listed above, I added:
- Am I still able to take care of my own natural needs (such as going to the bathroom, showering, and cleaning up after myself during a stomach “attack”) or do I require the help of one or a team of caretakers for my bodily maintenance?
(In the PBS documentary THE GERDA THAT REMAINS Peter and I go through this list and discuss some of the items).
Peter added the same “body maintenance” item to his list of circumstances when he would no longer want to be rescued or might choose self-death. The updating of these lists also made Peter and me rethink what our best actions would be in an emergency related to him (or me) that involved a heart attack or stroke. While we have had discussions about non-resuscitation should one of us be suddenly struck with something that has caused one of us, as we refer to it, “to lie on the kitchen floor unconscious and/or unable to speak.” If I were the one left to make the decisions and execute the actions required it would be particularly bad—my dementia has made it impossible to choose between alternatives, even things as simple as chocolate cake or carrot cake. How will I be able to make the decision that Peter is injured seriously enough that non-resuscitation (which he wants) is called for?
Title unknown. Czech artist Nikola Emma Rysava’s work revolves “around the body, death, and mythology. My figures oscillate between states of power and vulnerability.
Should I just let him be and not call 911? We know that if you call 911, resuscitation will immediately be attempted before his condition could be properly assessed. What if he is already dead? A friend has told me the story of how the rescue team had tried to resuscitate her dad EVEN THOUGH HE WAS CLEARLY DEAD AND HIS BODY ALREADY COLD. Should I first call our children and get their opinion and then make the decision? What do we lose in the options for recovery and rehabilitation if I waste any time at all? Clearly, reality is so much more complex than any plans one could make: what you need in such a crisis moment is exactly what I do NOT have: the ability to think through a complex situation quickly enough to make the best decision.
We discussed this dilemma with friends. Some of them would get help regardless, some would follow the principle of “let nature take its course.” Someone mentioned a case in which one spouse did not call 911 for the other (according to that person’s wishes and end-of-life philosophy) and that the dead person’s children were very angry that they had not been consulted. While Peter and I have pledged to each other to follow each other’s end-of-life wishes, i.e., “if it looks like death or closeness to death, leave it alone,” we decided to speak to our children and their spouses about the topic. Marissa and Adam as well as Newton and Cheryl told us to make the best decision we’re capable of and that they would never second-guess us. They also said that if we needed them there or just felt like speaking to them while the situation was unfolding, to do so. They would give their emotional support to whatever each of us decided.
Speak Louder, Nick Cave, 2011. Speak Louder invokes one of the artist’s favorite dictums: In order to be heard, you have to speak louder. The work unites seven of Cave’s iconic Soundsuits—or costumes that completely cover the individual’s body and thereby camouflaging the wearer’s shape through a second skin that hides gender, race, and class, thus compelling the audience to watch without judgment. Cave released his first Soundsuit in 1992, a “demonstration” against the brutal beating of Rodney King. Here, he creates a powerful ensemble by covering 7 individuals in a shimmering cloak of pearlescent buttons that brings them together into a figurative landscape. The figures’ tuba-shaped heads have been silenced, the mouths sealed off with dark fabric, imbuing the work with an ominous quality. Positioned in an array, but unified as one, the installation emphasizes the resilience of community. It speaks somberly to the losses of particularly African Americans and encourages them—and other viewers—to continue fighting for a better future.
Having discussed our dilemma and our feelings about it with our children, we feel relieved that they will stand behind any life/death decision that Peter and I may make for each other. We realize, too, that despite having talked through this type of dilemma between ourselves and with others, the actual situation in which either of us may have to make such a decision will still be confusing, uncertain, and the choices not clear at all. I—and I can speak for Peter too in this regard—I strongly feel that having used our reason to work through the situation with people we love makes the present better. Now that I am drifting from the realm of reason more rapidly than before, I am grateful that this uniquely human faculty still shows me the best way to live as part of my community. It gives me peace. And the courage to pick myself up and carry on, no matter the condition of my digestive system 🙂
Why did the arrival of this package at our front door make me so angry?
Because of what it looked like on the outside, I was angry enough not to want to open the box.
These were my runaway THOUGHTS when I saw the images and words printed on it:
Oh no, someone is sending me an activity toy. Vehicles I have to cut out so I can slot the accompanying characters in them. Or maybe the illustrations are just a “prize” to go with whatever was inside: one of those puzzles or toys that are supposed to improve my dementia brain by keeping my anxiety down and providing neurological stimulation?
Puzzle toy to help relieve that anxiety of severe dementia
While I have received all kinds of advice of how to slow down, reverse, or cure my dementia, no-one has ever suggested that I use toys designed for people with advanced dementia keep to their hands busy. I am happy that such toys exist to reduce the stress and boredom of people with advanced dementia. I have a friend in Canada, Ingrid, who’d been the best caretaker anyone could ever hope for to her mother, Edith (a creative and otherwise remarkable woman), who had Alzheimer’s. Ingrid sewed busy-hands cuddle toys for Edith before you could buy them: muffs or other soft objects that consisted of various textures and colors, and included small activity objects. They helped to bring her mother’s anxiety down, in the same way that the toys pictured above do for many people with close-to-end-stage dementia.
Above: My relative Ingrid said, “When I visited my mother [who had advanced dementia], we read the few letters she got from friends and relatives in Germany, we played music, but very little seemed to animate her anymore… To give her some tactile stimulation and to distract her, I made a hand muff with an inside lined on one side with velvet and silk on the other, with all manner of trinkets attached.”
Above: One of the hand muffs Ingrid made for her mother sported a stuffed toy bird that plays a genuine recorded bird call.
Above: Ingrid made, a “jean shorts” confection with tactually and auditory stimulating objects in the pockets—check out that whoopee cushion! As Edith’s dementia became worse, Ingrid’s tactile toys were the only “play” objects that her mother still seemed to recognize and want near her person. Edith died this past spring, with her hospice’s night nurse playing guitar and singing for her, and Ingrid touching and holding her.
With the BOX STILL UNOPENED, I googled the company that makes the toys on the box: Noggin makes computer learning games for children. Science shows that educational screen games in moderation are fine for children, as long as they aren’t ignoring all other aspects of life. As I read on, though, I found out Noggin had also jumped on the bandwagon of companies such as Lumosity that claim their products can prevent, slow down, reverse, or cure dementia: SuperNoggin is “a brain fitness program designed to maintain and even improve cognitive functions in adults, including those with normal aging memory problems (“senior moments”). Elements of the program have been identified as Alzheimer’s prevention strategies.” This discovery amped up my anger even higher. I have long followed scientific reports showing that the claims of this billion dollar plus industry are false: the article “Do Brain Training Games Actually Do Anything?” concludes that the skills for which the programs train older brains do not translate to the real world. Scientists concluded that “if you want to improve your performance on a task that’s important to you, practice that task. Playing brain games may only make you better at playing brain games.” As a result of such studies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Lumosity to the tune of $2 million for “false advertising” in 2016.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Dragon/Monster (1996)
My runaway thoughts caused my anger to reach monstrous proportions. I felt extremely upset, anxious, and unsettled. I have come to recognize my angry and anxious states and as soon as I realize I’m in one, I have to get out of it as fast as possible. It eats my energy and sense of self. Time for a self-intervention: fortunately I was at home alone. I can calm my agitation through pacing inside our apartment while listening to my audiobook, walking outside when it is not too hot, or just sitting in the La-Z-Girl half of our La-Z-Boy couch while listening to an audiobook. (Knitting works too, but not when I was this upset.) I chose sitting down with my audiobook.
Niki de Saint Phalle, The Serpent Tree (1970). The image featured at the start of this post is a detail of this drawing.
My anger had tapped my energy so much that I fell asleep in my chair within minutes of sitting down, my audiobook continuing to play a chapter or two into my unhearing ears. I woke up feeling much better. So much better that I understood my earlier paranoia was overly dramatic and far exceeded any normal reaction to an image on a box.
I knew I had to open the box to see if Schrödinger’s cat was dead or alive. As soon as I did so, it came to light that the content had nothing to do with the outside of the box.( Later the same day, Peter, too, received a similar Noggin box that contained an item he’d ordered.) I had wound myself up about an Amazon advertising campaign. I’d been fighting non-existent dragons. But they’d been very real in my head. Inside my box was a book I’d ordered: What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined, Nicole Rudick’s biography of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), a French-American sculptor, painter, filmmaker, and author of colorful hand-illustrated books. On the cover, Rudick calls the book an “(auto)biography” because it consists of nothing but the artist’s own words and images.
That the package contained What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined turned out to be particularly apropos to my anger: Niki de Saint Phalle’s art was, to a great measure, a response to her own life-pervading anger and pain that had a real cause: her father sexually molested her when she was 11 years old.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Untitled, 1961
Starting in the early 1960s, De Phalle started to express her anger in performance pieces that consisted of fraught and haunted figures (matriarchal and patriarchal) that carried centuries’ worth of unhappy obligation and limitations by gender and other societal roles—figures that she embedded with pockets of paint in many colors, painted white, and used as a target that she shot at with a rifle.
Niki de Saint Phalle wearing her “Shooting Suit” for a 1962 “Shooting Action” in Los Angeles. Pointing a rifle at her work, she would shoot at the canvases, which released the colors she had loaded inside the work as a symbolic conflation of her personal rage and her expanded concept of performative painting. “The weight of that unspoken truth was terrible,” de Saint Phalle said, “Incest must be spoken about openly so that victims are no longer afraid and can express themselves” (“Sculptor finally exorcises her rapist father”).
In 1964, de Sanit Phalle started to draw, paint, and sculpt her so-called Nana figures. “Nana” is French slang women, more or less the equivalent for “girls” or “chicks.” Similar to words such as “queer” or the n-word, it originated as a derogatory epithet. Like other formerly unacceptable word, “Chicks” and “girls” have become acceptable in certain circumstances when used by women themselves, as in “chic lit,” “chick flicks,” “Dixie Chicks,” or “Go Girl.” Niki de Saint Phalle first used nana in relation to a series of empowered female figures that she called Les Nanas au Pouvoir, or Girls in Power. However, De Phalle’s initial figures took the form of monstrous archetypes—Brides, Mothers, or Goddesses—made from amalgamations of plastic toys, fake flowers, dismembered baby dolls, and more.
White Birth or Ghea. “Ghea” is an Indonesian version of the Greek “Gaia,” the Earth Mother that is associated with the mothering, caring role of women. De Saint Phalle rejects this revered, expected, and compulsory role as one of the very few options that society imposes on women.
White Birth or Ghea. “Ghea” is an Indonesian version of the Greek “Gaia,” the Earth Mother that is associated with the mothering, caring role of women. De Saint Phalle rejects this revered, expected, and compulsory role as one of the very few options that society imposes on women.
Pink Birth, a different figure from the white one above, in which the colors pocketed inside it had been released through de Phalle’s shooting it with a rifle.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Kennedy-Khruschchev. In 1962, De Saint Phalle started the frieze that she would then paint white. She completed it with a shoot-out in June 1963. In retrospect, she thought, it seemed an uncanny premonition of the assassination of President Kennedy in November that year.
The shooting paintings helped greatly in de Saint Phalle’s exorcism of the anger and pain caused by her father. Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures started taking on a different mode: in 1964, the radically joyful Nana was born. Saint Phalle explained this dramatic shift in her life and her work: “After the shooting paintings the anger was gone, but pain remained, then the pain left and I found myself in the studio, making joyous creatures to the glory of women.” From then on, the Nanas became positive counterexamples of the oppressed reality of most women. For example, in 1965 in France women were not allowed to open a bank account or apply for a job without the approval of their husbands. This was still the case in relation to opening a shop account in South Africa in the early 1970, just after Peter and I got married.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Nana, 1971.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Garden, Tuscany, Italy. Opened in 1998
In 1983, Niki de Saint Phalle moved into the huge sculpture The Empress, designed in the form of a sphinx, which served as her studio and home for seven years during a period of intense work to complete the Tarot Garden. She used ceramics in addition to mirrors and glass for the sculptures.
To get back to the box: 1) It took me to about this point in the constructing of my post to figure out why I was so angry: for months, years before the arrival of the box, I have become aware that I will probably never succeed in conveying my most important insight: if you know one person with dementia or have read one case study of a person of dementia, you still know only what that person’s dementia is like. Although diagnosed by neurologists as having the same disease, each person’s dementia takes its own path. My paranoia about the box grew from the false presupposition I detect among people I talk to or read in advice columns about dementia: that everyone with the disease should appear and look like their grandmother or neighbor or aunt who is at the end stage of dementia. That every dementer should not be able to talk or walk around or write. If they do, they cannot possibly really have dementia. I am, however, in touch—via their blogs or videos or personal communication—with a number of people with dementias that are far more advanced than mine: they may have full-time caretakers to help with their daily activities of living, can barely walk, can no longer socialize, or have difficulty speaking at all, yet they still take photos or write accounts of their daily doings and feelings or make videos and post them. They look as if the only activity they still might be capable of would be playing with the comfort toys of late-stage dementia. They are ore than that. They still have rich inner lives that some of them can still project outwards. Dementia does not necessarily shut someone off right at the time of their diagnosis. In retrospect, I believe that the box triggered my subconscious knowledge and fear that my dementia is catching up to the ultimately correct image that so many people have of the disease: a drooly person clutching her stress-reducing toy while retreating into the thought-stripped silence of her mind.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Psychedelic Brain Dream
2), I am by no means equating my anger and anxiety to the rage and pain of Niki de Saint Phalle after her father rape her when she was 11 years old. For 58 years, she was unable to rid herself of the injury to the extent that she did no longer frequently suffer from it. Only when her father died in 1999 did she feel liberated from the effects of his abuse. Three years later she died. My half-hour of distress was built on “events” that took place only in my head and did not come from a long-suffered psychic scar. While I have dwelled on my anger and anxiety during the 10 days or so that it took me to write this post, it did not mark me with the pain of a betrayal by someone I loved. It has, however left a bruise: I will keep on having imagined perceptions that people/companies misunderstand me and are against me in some way. My periods of anxiety-to-the-point-of-exhaustion are getting more frequent. If I stay alive long enough to let my dementia develop to the final stages, I would probably—like almost all of my dementia buddies—come to a point when I no longer trust the people I love the most in the world. I would believe that Peter, too, is out to harm me. This thought fills me with pain and anxiety.
Niki de Saint Phalle, The Red Dragon, 1964
What still wards off my monsters is that I still have more hours each day of living peacefully rather than being wracked with anxiety. I also have many moments of joy every day. And I have Peter, who has loved me for 55 years and children and grandchildren who have loved me (most of the time!) since they were born. Friends who have loved me since I met them shortly after we immigrated to Salt Lake City. I have you, my blog readers, who support and encourage me. I have a safe and comfortable space to which I can retreat when the anger and anxiety overwhelms me. I can still get things out of my system by writing, even if it takes me days or weeks. I have access to art on the internet and, now and then, in person. I’m very lucky and very grateful. On good days I fantasize that the thought-stripped silence of my mind will resemble the psychedelic haven of Niki de Saint Phalle’s bedroom in her Empress house:
Niki de Saint Phalle’s bedroom in the Empress house
This post is Part II of my long goodbye to my forever-in-progress novel Last Pietà. Part I, my previous post, consisted of historical information about Michelangelo’s life, the stunning facts that intrigued me so much that I just had to write Last Pietà. It introduced the sculpture of my book’s title, on which the artist worked until 6 days before his death. In Michelangelo’s lifetime it was known as the Deposition, now as the Rondanini Pietà.
This post is fiction, an excerpt from the last chapter of my book, in which Maddaluzza, a character in the book, tells the story of Michelangelo’s last days. If you want to know more about her and the other main characters of my book, you can skip to the end to see their portraits and read their backgrounds before reading the excerpt.
Excerpt from Last Pietà
“Death Makes Us Know Our Proper Selves”
One good thing came from the new Pope’s five years of dithering about Ser Michelangelo’s position as Chief Architect of the new St Peter’s: my master had time to again take his hammer and chisel to the Deposition he’d blocked out while Urbino and the Marchesa still lived. Him he’d loved like a son, her like the Holy Mother Herself. When the Marchesa had been too close to death to mind the danger, she’d whispered in my ear that Ser Michelangelo had accepted the Lutheran’s thesis that man could pray directly to God for forgiveness and need not go through the priests or the Pope. While during the months and years after the two souls so close to his heart were taken—a sign from the Pope’s God?—the old man agonized whether the Lutheran way would work now that their goodness no longer gave him strength. Between blows that sent marble chips flying every which way, while at table for his midday salad, or when good friends visited, he blurted forebodings about his “double death”: his flesh would die and his soul be damned in the same moment. At night, death horrors often launched him upright in his bed or sometimes onto the floor.
After Antonio or I coaxed him back to bed and I’d read him his favorite poetry—the lines from the Trionfi in which the poet was restored to God’s grace through the vision of his beloved Laura—he’d be asleep. When I returned to my bed, my mind would gravitate to the Holy Mother in the studio beneath my room, struggling to hold on to the Son whose weighty body drifted downward from Her side, His right arm swinging free as though Her grip could not contain Him. I imagined—dreamed?—what Michelangelo would do next: smooth the Christ’s legs from the knees upwards, using finer and finer claw chisels to erase the marks of the coarser tools, until His skin and muscles were brought to light? Then on to the torso, where he’d apply finer and finer grades of sand up to His neck, then maybe move on to the Mother, while beside him the boy Sandro would pumice the Son’s thighs and torso, paste on, paste off, paste on, past off until the newer parts attained the same silky feel as the glimmering calves? Or would he first refine His face, polish His cheeks, His curly hair, His shaggy beard?
At the start of the year when Ser Michelangelo would turn eighty-eight, however, all thought of sculpture ended in our house. On the feast of the Epiphany Pope Pius at last announced that no one but Michelangelo could be the Chief Architect and that His Holiness would release the money to continue the building works. Moreover, the messenger delivered 200 scudi as a gift, a cask of water from Viterbo for his kidney stones, and a woolen cloak hooded in fox fur and lined with red velvet for his comfort. Michelangelo’s black eyes again glowed with the hope for his salvation. “I seek night and day to make friends with death,” he told each person in our house, “if I die in His House, he will surely take me to Heaven.”
As for Michelangelo’s sins, being a woman who herself has known lust, I had no trouble interpreting the sounds that over the years emanated from the master’s studio or bedroom whenever a new beautiful and beardless Cecchino or Febo or Gherhardo moved in to pose or sketch or carve for him. Moreover, since my master declared after his 86th Saint’s Day that “Antiono’s scribbles are worse than my wetnurse who could not even write her name,” and called for me to scribe instead, I became the one who took down poems the likes of “my earthy flesh…in which the soul doth swell/ do yet attest how bold I was in bed/ when we embraced” or “luscious is/ the boon of winged promotion/ to the hill from where I topple and decay/ the feathers of his chest/ were wings, his hill the stair”—stanzas he’d order me to omit from the fair copy since it might fall in hands other than those of that day’s favored youth. If these intimacies be sins to be paid for, wouldn’t the Ceiling of Sixtus, the Last Judgment, Pope Julius’ tomb, the Pietà in the Basilica, and the many years he’d bent his back plumbing the Basilica drum constitute enough good deeds to save the soul of a sick old man who’d suffered like Christ on the cross while trying to please his never-sated God?
The morning after the news arrived, Michelangelo set out for the building works despite the freezing drizzle that encrusted the houses on the Macel’ dei Corvi and the trees and grape trellises in our kitchen garden. Antonio led him from his bedroom complaining that the master would only wear his old threadbare cape, the Pope’s new cloak being too good for such weather. Shrugging off Monna Cornelia’s soft breakfast bread as well as her scolding, the old man left with the two site overseers who lived with us and would lift him onto his horse. Animated by the prospect of site work, the trio went off, their voices puffing blurry speech scrolls as my master undoubtedly held forth about “Bramante’s ramshackle mule ramps for hauling bricks to the scaffolding” or the need for more windows to prevent “the sheltering of bandits, coining of money, or ravishing of nuns in the darkness caused by the garish ring of chapels Sangallo built around Bramante’s drum.”
As spring rolled to summer, the house filled with talk and laughter as in earlier days with friends from Rome and afar coming to celebrate Michelangelo’s reappointment. Daniel de Volterra, who had just been commissioned against his will to paint over the buttocks and privy parts of the artist’s Last Judgment, was among them, which caused the flow of many lewd jokes. Almost every day Tommasso dropped in, he whom my master loved more than Christ, since for the young man alone Michelangelo combined carnal desire with the transcendent love he had for them both. He could not hide this yearning: his gaze continuously caressed the young man’s angular jawline and body that looked like a model for his David statue; neither could he keep from brushing the Count’s youthful skin while they studied a sketch or building plan side-by-side. Despite my master’s sexual hunger, I knew their love was chaste because why else would the Count come to my bed when Il Divino continuously enticed him to his in all but words?
Not half a year had passed in this peaceful way when one day, just as the bells were chiming the Sext, a donkey cart pulled up at the door and we heard loud shouts from the overseers who’d assisted the master in the morning. Tiberio was sliding from the driver’s seat and Montelupo sat in the back with Michelangelo, writhing with pain, on his lap: in the permanent dusk of the Basilica, he’d tripped over a plank and into rubble that cut a bleeding gash in his head. While Antonio and the boy Sandro hurried outside to help carry him in, I ran for my medicine bag and Monna Cornelia for hot bricks wrapped in baize to unclench his aching back and limbs. He would not let us remove his high boots. “They help for the cramp,” he said. He appeared not to have broken any bones. His head wound I treated with a salve of rose honey and a bandage. In the morning, a worse malady came: the catarrh had invaded his head and chest. He would not swallow my liquorice brew for his lungs, so that his coughs robbed him of breath. The ooze from his nose caked his beard with a thick mucus that caused a terrible itch, trapped flies, and dried to a crusty mould because he would not suffer me to clean it.
Michelangelo’s ill health endured until the tomatoes had ripened, the aubergines and leeks swollen, the basil and sage dried, and Monna Cornelia cooked a ciambotta for the feast of the Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary that finally lured him from his sickbed. When he at last let Antonio take off his boots, the skin was stuck to his breaches to the knees and came off with the fabric in strips like snakeskin. While the skin underneath was like that of a newborn, the man was but a phantasm of the broken-nosed, quick-witted, strong-muscled personage with bushy black hair, piercing eyes, and arrogant confidence whom I first got to know twenty years ago. Before he’d regained adequate strength, he declared that he was going back to work. In the morning, however, the efforts of all the men of our house could not fit his legs over the saddle for their stiffness.
Cursing like a Spaniard, he cuffed the horse, batted Antonio’s hand from his elbow, and shambled back inside, getting more foulmouthed with each shuffle toward his workshop. Antonio hurriedly gathered the master’s Basilica designs on the worktable. With Tiberio by his side, Michelangelo stared disconsolately at the conceptual sketches and blueprints that Pope Paul had approved many years before and that had already been the basis for eighteen years of construction. “What more do you want from me, my Lord?” he muttered. His spirit barely lifted when Daniele da Volterra or even his beloved Tommasso hastened to attend to him. He would never again be well enough to go to the building works. Even though the nearly completed drum would prevent future builders to deviate from his design, Michelangelo still fretted that his plans would be “altered and spoiled.” He summoned two carpenters to construct in wood a copy of the clay model he’d long ago made of the Dome he envisioned. Only after Tommasso had praised the carpenters for the “extreme nicety” with which it had been executed, and Michelangelo himself had faulted only the hairbreadth that the walls deviated from the blueprint, and the archetype had been handed into the keeping of Pius himself, would the old man find a modicum of peace.
When the pain of his kidney stones allowed, Michelangelo was able to work on the marble again. Hammer blows again looped through the house. “For exercise,” he’d explain, desperate to be held blameless, for while confined to his bed, he’d foresworn all art forever, “because it was not proper with my death so near.” He’d vowed to instead spend his last strength on God’s Church alone. As if reminding God that he was not to blame, he’d say under his breath, “If only I had a portable throne with twelve footmen to carry me about like His Holiness, I might still have been able to earn my salvation at the works.”
Unlike earlier times when Michelangelo was content to receive anybody’s praise—from the boy Sandro’s to the Cardinal’s—this time no-one except his assistants dared look at the Mother and Son. Not even Tommasso knew what changes he was advancing—his assistants covered the marble in a sheet of green baize as soon as anyone approached. “Vasari keeps looking at the Virgin’s leg,” he’d grumble. His work remained a secret until, very late one night, repeated whacks of his hammer wrenched the household from sleep. Antonio and Tiberio dashed down to the studio, but the master’s “Basta! Basta!” sent them scurrying away. I, too, had been startled awake. When the house was quiet again, I dozed fitfully, an unintelligible rhythm disturbing my dream. A new volley of whacks pulled me from sleep into a recognition: the bursts came from a heavy chisel rather than one of the fine finishing tools one would expect him to use. After I had drifted into sleep for what seemed like mere minutes, a loud crash catapulted me from bed. I darted down the stairs, my nightdress billowing behind me. In the studio, my eyes went straight to the marble: it was whole except that part of the Christ’s right shoulder and arm was gone. The remaining column of arm jutted like a ruined obelisk beside the torso from which it had been gouged, yet the vein beneath the elbow still pulsed with life. Michelangelo sat at the at the Christ’s feet, his legs splayed on the floor.
My nose registered the reek of burning hair. With dread tingling my spine, I rushed toward the old man, squatted beside him. Despite a tuft of singed hair, he did not look burned or injured, thank whatever god spared him. His eyes were closed and he was shaking. Between his spread legs, the severed shoulder pushed into his crotch. With both hands, he kept the arm end of the oddly shaped object from falling to the floor. He twitched and heaved. The marble clump bucked between his legs like what my husband, during our moments of fervor, used to call his “sparrow hawk with bells.”
I pried the old man’s hands from the marble arm, strained to lift the unwieldy castoff over his leg to his side. I slid him away from the Deposition until I could lay him down and ease his head onto my lap. He opened his eyes. At the sight of my face, his body unexpectedly relaxed. “I did not kiss you while you lived,” he said. From this I knew that he’d entered his rimbambito, his second childhood—he thought I was the Marchesa. As I spread the nearest baize cover over his body, he moved his hand out from underneath the cloth and over my nightdress up to my chest. When it reached my breast, he touched it lightly. Then, like a baby born too soon to suckle, he fell asleep.
In the morning his hammering stared up at dawn, reverberated between the walls and ceiling beams through noon and until the moon lit up the night. He no longer kept anyone away. He saw only the Christ and His Mother. He slept hardly at all, ate less, drank only wine. When visitors came, he did not greet them but fixed his zeal his more intensely on the tip of his chisel. Everyone admitted remained silent, stupefied as, day by day, they watched him carve through the Christ’s polished abdomen into the stone that originally formed the Holy Virgin’s torso, until She birthed from Her body a grown Man. Standing on a stool, he carved a new head for the Christ from the Holy Mother’s rib cage and shoulder. He gave the Christ a short, full beard, as far as one could tell from the still rough-hewn head. His hair had the contours of a cap, a simple mass in contrast to His former curls. For the Holy Mother, he made a new head from the as-yet unremoved marble between the figures, turning it to face in the same direction as Her Son’s. Together they formed an upward-trending arc. He rounded the top of her head like a scarf until it echoed the curve of the Christ’s ill-defined hair. He worked and worked until the new year came with a clamor of bells. He worked and worked, standing up all day on the Saturday eighteen days before his eighty-ninth Saint’s Day. He worked through the next day until Monna Cornelia reminded him that it was the Lord’s Day.
Only after Michelangelo’s death—after the rest on Sunday dulled his health so that he could no longer sit up on the Monday and would speak only to the one he loved best: “O, Tomao, non mi abandonare”; after on the Tuesday he could no longer take wine from the silver bambino horn that was his gift to Monna Cornelia and Urbino’s first son, little Michelangelo, for whom he stood godfather; after on the Wednesday he could no longer speak at all; and after on the Thursday he fell into a torpor; and after on the Friday—six days before his eighty-ninth Saint’s Day—he released his soul to the mercy of God; and after his body had been laid to rest in the Santa Apistoli Church next to the Pallazo Colonna; and after Duke Cosimo de’ Medici instructed Michelangelo’s nephew and heir to transport the corpse to Florence for the honor of a state funeral and a proper tomb; and after Leonardo had stowed his remains in a cart of hay disguised as merchandise so that not even the Pope could frustrate the artist’s wish to be buried in the city of his youth—only then did I lift the green baize from the Christ and His Holy Mother, sat down on the plinth on which my master would never see his last work mounted, and reflected on his astonishing transformation of the Holy Pair at a pace that would put a younger man to shame.
Lit by a shaft of sun from a high window, the white marble form rose above me, seemingly suspended in air. The Christ and His Mother appeared fused together. His hands were hidden, His barely-suggested arms holding on to Her body behind him. Her forward-leaning torso seemed to rest on His backwards-tending one. Her chin lingered on His head. It seems that He supported Her rather than the other way round. When the original head and shoulders had slumped forward in keeping with the way the legs were bent, the Christ was a sad, sagging form barely held from falling by His Mother. Now He emanated the signs of rising from the dead.
Tears blurred my eyes as I understood that the sculpture embodied a rebirth not only in space—from close to far—but also in time—from then to now. The Son’s upper body, rising from the gloss of the legs into the blurred torso and head, was floating upward toward an ephemeral space above the high ceiling. I saw then, as clearly as one of the Marchesa’s visions, that my master’s last work was not only a Deposition, a Lamentation, a Pietà, but also a Resurrection that attested to its maker’s own ascension, through faith and marble, into the Eternal Life of the Spirit.
The Main Characters of Last Pietà.
1), Maddaluzza: a young woman of my imagination who educated herself by reading everything that came to her bookbinder father’s shop: poetry, art, history, philosophy, medicine. She loved drawing, copying famous art, and sketching her own ideas.
Maddaluzza’s self-portrait in oil, discovered in the servant’s room after Michelangelo’s death and her departure from Rome to make a living from her own art (ca. 1556-1558). Title unknown.
After Maddaluzza of Pistoia was widowed at a young age and lost all three of her children to cowpox, Vittoria Colonna (a historical figure, see below) takes the young widow to be employed by her friend Michelangelo in Rome, who was looking for a good woman from a poor family who needed help—a good deed he hoped would help expiate his sins. By the time Maddaluzza had lived five years in Michelangelo’s house without him even speaking to her, the artist noticed her exquisite writing on a recipe page while arranging every meal of the week with Monna Cornelia, the housekeeper. She becomes one of his scribes, as well as one of the people who read Dante or Petrarch or Savonarola’s Sermons to him calm down after one of his frequent nightmares. She applied her medical knowledge whenever Michelangelo fell sick and was present at his death. She lived in a servant’s room above the artist’s studio, a few doors from the artist’s own bedroom. A varying number of male assistants lived in other nearby bedrooms.
The facade of Michelangelo’s house, which, at the end of the 19th century, was preserved to front a new house in a different street. In Maddaluzza’s time, the house was in Via Macel de’ Corvi, a somewhat insalubrious street whose name translates as “the Slaughterhouse of the Crows.”
2), Count Tommasso Cavalieri, a historical character, was a wealthy Roman nobleman who met Michelangelo when he was 23 years old. The then 57-year-old artist fell passionately fell in love with the young man. While Tommasso’s “ideal masculine beauty” probably had a lot to do with it, the artist was also impressed with his goodness and intellect. While the young man did not return Michelangelo’s sexual feelings, they remained close friends until the artist’s death. Tommasso’s presence at his deathbed was the only thing the dying man desperately wanted at the end.
Portrait of Tommaso Cavalieri, not by Michelangelo. While the artist dedicated many sketches to Tommaso, this portrait is not among them.
3), Vittoria Colonna, the Marchesa di Pescara, is another historical character. The Marchesa came from an old and aristocratic family. After being betrothed at the age of 6, she eventually married her fiancé, Ferdinando d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, when she was 17. She had obtained great wealth from her own family and his after his early death. During a self-imposed ten-year mourning period, she remained at her husband’s palace on the island of Ischia. At age 46, she came out of mourning and moved to Rome, where she lived in various convents, from where she held Sunday salons attended by the leading intellectuals of her day. Influential, wealthy, and highly educated, Vittoria corresponded with leading churchmen and humanists of the age. She admired Michelangelo and followed his work. By the time she’d been a widow for 11 years, she reached out to befriend Michelangelo (1536), four years after he had fallen in love with Tommasso. She was forty-six, Michelangelo over sixty. She was the only woman with whom he ever had a sustained relationship: he was smitten with her when they met, an infatuation that would last 12 years, until her death at age 68. He was in awe of her learning and spirituality and loved her “for her mind,” as is evident from their correspondence, the poems her wrote for her, and the religious sketches he showered upon her. She, too, seemed to have had no romantic feelings for Michelangelo. Her “purity” and strong faith, indeed, were the magnet that attracted him.
Vittoria Colonna in a portrait by Gulielmo Muzianod in 1520, sixteen years before she met Michelangelo.
Vittoria’s death left Michelangelo “in a state of near unconsciousness and derangement.” While he had almost all his life spoken and thought about death, he now became obsessed with it. He told his biographer Vasari, “I wrestle with death, there exists no thought within me in which death is not sculpted.” While mourning Vittoria and agonizing about his own edeath and damnation, he started a pietà, The Florentine, which he intended as his own funerary monument.
Though they did not meet until 1536, Vittoria and Michelangelo had—since the early 1530s— both belonged to an illicit group of intellectuals who leaned toward the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on salvation by God’s grace alone. This dangerous view invalidated the Catholic Church’s teaching that salvation is to be earned through good deeds and the purchase of indulgences. While they both subscribed to the Protestant notion of the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, Vittoria was nevertheless concerned about Michelangelo’s possible damnation for his sin of having sex with men. (The high-minded group’s members were apparently not above gossip.) Michelangelo, however, who would benefit immensely should it be true, embraced this idea of salvation wholeheartedly. It was a way to bypass the Church’s judgement that would go to hell. From the time he met Vittoria, his poetry showed a sudden and profound grasp of salvation by grace, not by works. Sadly, with the Counter-Reformation beginning in the 1540s all the members of the group were persecuted or driven into exile. Vittoria Colonna herself had been forced to recant under threat of torture.
Bonus info: For those of you have read this far, your reward is the “truth” about Maddaluzza’s portrait (detail) in the featured image as well as the complete painting that accompanies her character description. If you thought Maddaluzza looked a bit like me, you’re right—this is a a portrait of me as Maddaluzza taken in the mid-90s by Sean Graff, the incredibly talented friend and photographer who also took the cover photo on my first book, Blessings on the Sheep Dog (2002), a collection of short stories.
The title of this post is from The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. The goodbye on my mind is one of my own. It has been 1 year—no, 6 years, 11 years? almost 30 years?—in the making. Or shall I say, “470 years?,” thereby vaingloriously linking my major and final fiction writing effort to the last sculpture of one of the most famous and productive artists our Western world—and cultures beyond ours—have ever exalted: Michelangelo.
My vainglory far outstrips this: “Although history has long forgotten them, Lambini & Sons are generally credited with the Sistine Chapel floor.”
This piece of writing before your eyes was not only a long time coming but is also long in pages. For this reason, I will break it into two parts. This posting, Part I, consists of the historical background of Michelangelo’s final years. Part II is fiction, an excerpt from the last chapter of my never-to-be-completed novel, Last Pietà.
My story of Last Pietà
Almost 30 years ago, during the final throes of my PhD in English, I started writing what I then thought of as a short story about the coming-into-being of Michelangelo’s last pietà, now known as the Rondanini. After graduating in 1996, I expanded the story to novel-length. By the time my memory loss forced me to retire in 2011, my dream and goal was to refine and complete the book—by then 400 manuscript pages long and titled Last Pietà. After a months-long rest to recover from my strenuous final year of being the associate director of the U of Utah’s Gender Studies Program, I took up Last Pietà only to discover that my dementia-stripped brain was no longer capable of holding a book-length story in my head. Not even a chapter at a time… After a month or so of utterly confusing and frustrating attempts to edit the book, I had to admit to myself that I would no longer be able to fashion 15 years of research—and the novel draft based on it—into a manuscript ready to be sent to an agent or publisher. It was a very hard blow to my sense of self. That was eleven years ago, less than a year into my retirement. I heartbrokenly started saying goodbye.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
After giving up on Last Pietà, I decided to attempt an essay, based on my “Dementia Fieldnotes,” about my forgetting and the drastic impact it had on my everyday life. Over 6 years, this writing grew to my memoir, Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia (2017). This kept me too busy to think about Last Pietà. However, when Peter and I packed up our house to move into an apartment, there my forever-in-progress book was again, in the form of 1), several boxes of paper notebooks and photocopies of journal articles for the novel; and, 2), a bookshelf full of bound paper copies of my 400-page manuscript, each of which represented a particular milestone. One year ago, while mucking out the storage room at our apartment in serious Swedish death cleaning mode, I saved the 3 manuscripts closest to completion for our 3 grandchildren to add to their other family history documents. The rest went into our garbage shoot from where it plunged down 7 storeys to the street-level dumpster. Getting the papers out of my life in this way had elements reminiscent of a funeral: not only was there mourning, but also “the hole-in-the-ground” aspect of disposal. While I’m by no means equating a human to a manuscript, the loss of a material creative product as well as the loss of a person involves returning the substance in which their being dwelled to the universe. Both rituals launch one onto the final road of accepting the loss as real.
My ceremonial goodbye in the corridor by our storage room. Behind me the doomed manuscripts stretch like a pack of overlapping playing cards. Given that shaving one’s head a sign of mourning in some cultures, I thought my Covid-cropped style functioned as a suitable token of the grief accompanying the letting go of a long-held goal.
To properly tell you why giving up Last Pietà left a gaping hole in my life, let me start with the historical information that first attracted me to my topic: 1), Michelangelo’s last sculpture, known as the Deposition during his lifetime and now as the Rondanini Pietà; and, crucially, 2), the state of Michelangelo’s mind while he worked on it until 6 days before his death. The Rondanini was unfinished when he died.
The Rondanini Pietà was the last of three sculpted pietàs that he’d created over his 88 years of life. Works of art that depict the biblical Mary (sometimes accompanied by others) holding her dead son Jesus after he’d been taken from the cross are all called pietàs. Michelangelo also left behind a large number of pietàs on paper. The origin of the word “pietà” is a combination of the Italian word “pity” and the Latin word for “piety.” In Michelangelo’s time, it usually referred to one’s last duty to those we love: treating the dead body with compassion and devotion.
Michelangelo’s three pietàs
FIRST, a sculpture known as just the Pietà (1497-99). (Also known as the Rome Pietà to distinguish it from the other two.) It is a work of his youth, completed when he was only 22 years old. Tradition purports Michelangelo spent as much time polishing this masterpiece as he did sculpting it. Given that he finiushed it in under two years, his accomplishment—no matter the time ratio between carving and polishing—was truly virtuosic.
The Pietà is so meticulously finished that it’s hard to believe it was carved by the same hand or hands (he was ambidextrous) as his famous non-finito Prisoners/Slaves. The odd proportions of the two subjects have been taken to be a “mistake” of inexperience: the body of Mary seems disproportionately large, while her head appears too small. In contrast, Jesus’ body is smaller than that of an adult man. However, Michelangelo chose these proportions through practical foresight: they had to have these proportions for an adult corpse to sprawl onto the mother’s lap in such a way that the scene evokes her cradling him as a small child.
SECOND: the Florentine Pietà. Michelangelo started it at age 72 (1547), not as a papal or other commission, but rather to serve as his own funerary monument. He called it the “Deposition,” the name for a type of pietà that shows not only Mary with the dead Jesus, but also others who assist in the process. During the previous year, 1546, Pope Paul III had appointed the artist as Chief Architect of the sprawling St. Peter’s Basilica despite Michelangelo’s vociferous insistence that architecture was not his field. Earlier that same year, he’d suffered a profound personal heartbreak: Vittoria Colonna died, the only woman he’d ever been close to or loved.
The Florentine Pietà from the side: Mary, Jesus’ mother, is closest to the camera, holding her son. The tall figure behind them is the Pharisee Nicodemus; Mary Magdalen is furthest from the camera.
Michelangelo’s grief about Vittoria brought to the forefront his own fear of death, which he believed was imminent; hence the funerary sculpture. Spooked by the prospect of dying soon, his fear of going to Hell—from his forties onward—resurfaced forcefully: he believed that because of his “sodomy,” which then was the word for sex between men, he’d suffer Eternal Damnation. The astute Paul III, well aware of the rumors about Michelangelo’s dalliances, persuaded the artist to “willingly” accept his would-be role at St. Peter’s by dangling eternal life as his reward: the work was not really for His Holiness, but for God Himself. By building a Church that would surpass any other in the world, even his worst sins would be forgiven and his place in heaven assured.
Afraid that future architects might deviate from his vision for the dome of St. Peter’s, Michelangelo had a carpenter (two carpenters?) make a model in wood (1558-1561) of a clay model he had made years before. According to Vasari, the carpenters executed it with “extreme nicety.” It cost 25 crowns and was made in a fortnight. Michelangelo’s predecessor and competitor Sangalo had made a model that cost 4,000 crowns and was 7 years in the making.
Over the eighteen years Michelangelo’s was Chief Architect, his anxiety about death was repeatedly worsened by internecine politics among the advisors of the five Popes that he served: their various refusals to release more building money until one or the other of the Building Committee factions would have swayed the Pope to accept their ideas led to frequent work stoppages, which meant that Michelangelo would have to argue against plans that revolted his sense of aesthetics and sometimes threatened the stability of the structure. The Florentine Pietá, which was to be a pleasure that would get his creative flow going and therefore be a respite from his work for God, turned out to have its own frustrating obstacles. Michelangelo’s first biographer, Gorgio Vasari, writes that Michelangelo’s chisel blows produced sparks or cracks because of the particular hardness of the marble block he’d chosen. He also described Michelangelo’s efforts to correct one of Jesus’ legs where a large chunk of marble had split off.
Eight years into the artist’s dual architectural and sculpting projects, Michelangelo suffered a second profound personal loss: Pietro Urbino, his beloved servant of 25 years who lived in the artist’s house, died after an agonizing illness. On his deathbed, Urbino called out—between his cries of pain—”Finish it, finish it.” In vain did Michelangelo race against time to complete the Deposition. After Urbino’s death, his servant’s unfulfilled request haunted Michelangelo: he even stole time away from the Basilica to spend on the pietà. It was then that the idea might have come to him to use the sculpture as a kind of memo to God: he gave the elderly figure behind the two women, the Pharisee Nicodemus, his own features, so that they might jog God’s memory that He’d forgiven the Pharisee his sins of greed and self-indulgence that led to stealing money from believers in God’s own house—and that while wearing a mask of righteousness!
Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the face of Nicodemus in The Florentine, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence.
Despite Michelangelo’s initial hopes for the Deposition, he took a pick-axe to the work one day and mutilated the still unfinished group (1555). Whether he did so out of grief, because of the flaws in the marble, and/or his dissatisfaction with what he had achieved, is not known.
A contemporary artist’s reconstruction of what the damaged Florentine Pietà, together with all its knocked-off limbs, looked like after Michelangelo had turned his frustration on the group. Apart from lopping off the left leg, Michelangelo also severed the left arms of Jesus and Mary in their entirety, along with Jesus’ right forearm and the Magdalen’s right arm. The jagged cracks above Jesus’ left elbow are one of the first things the viewer notices about the work.
Michelangelo gave the damaged sculpture as a gift to one of his collaborators, Tiberio Calcagni, who painstakingly repaired and pieced together the damaged pieces, made a new left leg for Jesus, and finished the Mary Magdalen figure.
The Deposition/Florentine Pietà as it appears today, after Tiberio Calcagni’s sixteenth-century repairs as well as a twentieth-century team’s restorations. Jesus is at the center, supported on his right by a disproportionately small kneeling Mary Magdalen, who holds up Jesus’ right leg by the thigh. On Jesus’ left, Mary holds up her Son’s torso with her left arm as it reaches under his arm to clasp the band by which he’d been lowered from the cross; she also supports his head by the press of her cheek against it. A close look beneath Mary’s elbow and behind Jesus’s arm reveals that his left leg is missing. The disproportionately large stooped, hooded figure behind the group is Nicodemus, bearing Michelangelo’s likeness.
THIRD and LAST: The Rondanini Pietà. Like its predecessor, it was called the Deposition in Michelangelo household. He began it 1552-1553, that is, 470 years ago. His work on it overlapped with the sculpting of the Florentine Pietà.
In 2016, Peter and I went to Milan, where I fulfilled my long-held dream to see the Rondanini Pietà. While spending about an hour with it in an almost-empty chapel, I had one of my major reckonings with my unfinished novel. That was 6 years ago.
Peter and I saw the Rondanini in its own chapel at Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, its permanent home since 2015.
While I was in the presence of the Rondanini, information I had learned over my years of research and writing tumbled into my mind: Michelangelo lived for 11 more years after his destruction of the Florentine. During that time, he made drastic changes to the Rondanini, one of them reminiscent of his assault on the Florentine but without the anger and violence. He worked feverishly on the sculpture until 6 days before his death.
A team of artists restored Michelangelo’s original version of the Rondanini, shown next to the sculpture at the time of Michelangelo’s death (and up to today). The position of the restored torso was inferred by matching it to the truncated arm of the original version, which, after Michelangelo’s transformation, is a stand-alone marble column on Jesus’ left.
Sitting down on one of wooden benches in the chapel, I marveled at the grandeur that defies any expectation of what an old, sick man near death still might achieve. Until the day I lose my understanding of such matters, I will be in awe of the enormous amount of work Michelangelo completed in his last days and the vision it required to carry out this transformation, which completely changed its form and meaning. And the stunning result.
While not particularly thinking of my novel, my subconscious mind could not help but delve out my non-starter efforts to complete my novel and place them side by side to the artist’s drive to complete the Rondanini. While aware of my hubris, I felt jealousy for the success of a man with whom I had strongly identified for so many years, as compared to my failure. Given that (it goes without saying) I fell incomparably short of the artist whose talent, dynamism, and ingenuity I most admire, I wept quietly in the near-empty chapel. Gradually, however, I came to a place where I knew in my soul that his success had nothing to say about my failure. My heart warmed with the sense of how lucky I was to have learned about his life and work; and grateful that the knowledge played a momentous role in my life. Peace and acceptance gradually pervaded me. I left the chapel feeling that, like the Rondanini, I had been transformed to a better, closer-to-god, version of myself.
What is the continuation of this post about?
My next post will answer the question: how did Michelangelo’s changes completely change the Rondanini’s form and meaning?
I will answer the question through what Keats calls “the truth of the imagination”: what happened during the dark but transcendental final days of Michelangelo’s creative life? To this purpose I will post a much-shortened version of the final pages of my would-be novel, which allows someone who loved him—someone who was there—to tell what she saw and heard of a great man’s last goodbye that started 470 years ago and ended 17 years later with his death. The narrator of and a character in Last Pietà—the feisty Maddaluzza—will have the last word.