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.