Thursday, June 5, 2014

Discovering a Masterpiece of Michelangelo

Today's photos:

(Since photos are not allowed in the exhibit area, my pictures number 3 and 4 are photos of pictures from the newspaper and from the catalogue of the exhibit).


1. The church of Santa Maria Minerva.

2. The second version of the statue is in the church.

3. The first, or original, version of the sculpture is displayed in the exhibit.

4. A close-up of the face of Christ in the original version. The defect in the marble on the left side of the face of Christ is clearly visible.

5. The entrance to the Capitoline Museums. On your right is the banner proclaiming the exhibit.


In the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva near the Pantheon is a statue by Michelangelo, usually called Il Cristo Risorto (the Risen Christ) or Il Cristo Portacroce (Christ the Cross bearer). There are, however, two versions of this statue, and the one in the church is the second one, not the original. This situation has come to the attention of the public because of an exhibit which opened at the Capitoline Museums on May 27, to recall the 450 years which have passed since the death of Michelangelo in 1564. The story of the two statues and what happened to the original one is both fascinating and complicated. This is my attempt to simplify the story, hoping not to oversimplify it!


Between the years 1514 and 1516, Michelangelo Buonarotti was sculpting in Rome a statue of Christ carrying the Cross. The artist reluctantly abandoned the work, unfinished, when a black vein suddenly appeared on the white marble, running down the left side of the face of Christ. Greatly disappointed because of this defect in the marble, Michelangelo gave the statue to Metello Vari, the client who had commissioned it from him, just before he left for Florence. This aborted attempt was followed 20 years later by a second version, the one now in Santa Maria sopra Minerva.


 Although this second version is billed as a work by Michelangelo, very little of it shows the master's genius. Some experts say that only the face may possibly be by the hand of Michelangelo himself. Certainly the gold loincloth, presumably attached at some point by order of prudish ecclesiastical authorities, is NOT the work of Michelangelo. It is believed that the artist was dissatisfied with both works and wanted to sculpt a third version, but this never came to pass.


So if the second version ended up in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, as we know it did, what happened to the original piece with the defect in the marble? Well, for almost 500 years it was lost, after having changed owners and locations several times over the centuries. Here is a brief history of its whereabouts during those 500 years.


The statue began its life in Michelangelo's house in Rome near the Column of Trajan where he sculpted it between 1514 and 1516.


When the defect showed up on the face of Christ, the artist gave the statue to Metello Vari who placed it in his garden of ancient statues in Rome.


In 1607, the statue was purchased by Vincenzo Giustiniani for his family's palace in Rome, just opposite the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.


In 1644, Andrea Giustiniani, heir of Vincenzo, had the statue placed on the main altar of the little church of San Vincenzo Martire in the town of Bassano Romano (Viterbo, Lazio). Here it remained, a forgotten sculpture, for over 300 years.


In 1972, the statue, still not recognized as a work by Michelangelo, was removed from the main altar and relegated to an obscure spot in the sacristy.


In the year 2000, the sculpture was seen and recognized by the art historian Irene Baldriga, despite the thick coating of grime and dust it had acquired over the centuries. The statue was then cleaned and restored by Rossano Pizzinelli who, with great skill, removed the bronze loincloth to reveal the statue as Michelangelo had sculpted it – completely nude.


The sculpture is now the centerpiece of the exhibit in the Capitoline Museums entitled: Michelangelo. Incontrare un artista universale. (Michelangelo. Meeting a universal artist). The exhibit opened on May 27 and will continue until September 14. It consists of 156 items, about 70 of them by the hand of the master himself. Il Cristo Portacroce, the first item you come upon in the exhibit, is beautifully and dramatically displayed. It would have been even more interesting if they had obtained the second version from Santa Maria sopra Minerva so as to display the two statues side by side.


Other parts of the exhibit include examples which represent the genius of Michelangelo in the  four arts in which he excelled: sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry. The exhibit is beautifully arranged but, unfortunately, it is strictly forbidden to photograph the exhibit pieces.


I should say something about the name of the statue. Most experts now agree that it should not be called The Risen Christ or Christ the Cross Bearer. Instead the exhibit calls it officially Cristo Redentore (Christ the Redeemer), since the figure of Christ is shown holding the Cross, a rope, a sponge and a shroud, symbols of his passion and death, and thus of our redemption. In parentheses the exhibit also calls it Cristo Giustiniani, after the family who purchased the statue in 1644.


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