Michelangelo in Milwaukee

One of Michelangelo’s first major works was his Pietà. He finished it in 1500 when he was 23 years old. His colleagues in Rome greeted the new sculpture with disbelief that such a young and relatively unknown artist could create such a remarkable work. Michelangelo’s reaction was to return to the piece and chisel his name broadly down the sash that runs between Mary’s breasts. “Michelangelo Buonarroti made this,” he wrote, a quattrocento version of “screw you.” It was the only work he ever signed. This sculpture is considered a masterpiece, but had never grabbed me in any particular way.…

One of Michelangelo’s first major works was his Pietà. He finished it in 1500 when he was 23 years old. His colleagues in Rome greeted the new sculpture with disbelief that such a young and relatively unknown artist could create such a remarkable work. Michelangelo’s reaction was to return to the piece and chisel his name broadly down the sash that runs between Mary’s breasts. “Michelangelo Buonarroti made this,” he wrote, a quattrocento version of “screw you.” It was the only work he ever signed.

This sculpture is considered a masterpiece, but had never grabbed me in any particular way. And so it hardly mattered that there is a full-scale bronze copy of the Pietà, cast directly from the original, at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art. For its part, the Haggerty perennially discusses whether it should be moved. It takes up a lot of space in the Old Master’s Gallery, and some art curators consider it junk. There is talk about moving it into a church on the university grounds. The piece doesn’t seem to inspire passionate loyalty from local arts lovers.

I wouldn’t have cared much about it either, except that the work somehow keeps cropping up in my life. It has followed me in unexpected ways for years and will not let me ignore it. I now think Milwaukee’s Pietàis a very fine thing, and it would be a great loss for the Haggerty to give the reproduction less prominence. Let me explain why.

My first encounter with the Pietà was seven years ago on a trip to Rome. At the time, I was a brand new single mother of three young children, one still in diapers. My world was abruptly destabilized when my marriage ended, and what I remember most prominently from this trip is an inability to connect with the great works of art I was seeing. I’m an art historian, yet I wandered through the Roman ruins with no feeling of recognition. The ruins bored me and made me feel insecure about what I didn’t know about the Classical world.

On the day we visited St. Peter’s – full of travel fatigue, but dutifully charting off the historic sites – we entered the vast church and made our way to the right side, where the Pietà could almost go unnoticed. I glanced at it and thought, “There it is.” It looked small at 5 feet, 8 inches, pushed too far from our viewing space to matter. It was, moreover, behind bulletproof glass, a precaution taken after an attack in 1972 by a deranged Australian geologist who assaulted the sculpture with a hammer, whacking off Mary’s nose and one of her arms. ‘OK, let’s go,’ I thought.

I started to leave, moving on to the next “monument,” when my friend summoned me back and started commenting on the piece. He was not an art person, but he noticed certain moments of the sculpture and somehow helped me slow down and experience the piece as well. Then we really looked, for a long time, sharing our observations. An oasis of calm settled within the storm of bustling tourists in St. Peter’s.

We get nothing out of life unless we find a way to notice.

Four years passed. My life regained a sense of stability. Last summer, I was able to live and teach in Florence for a month. My colleague Natanya Blanck and I decided to take a side trip one weekend to Ravenna, home of the great Byzantine churches with all their lavish mosaics. The local art museum was having an exhibition that included work by Jackson Pollock. We thought, “Pollock in Ravenna, how strange.” We entered the small museum and seemed to be the only visitors that day.

Before we went upstairs to see the show, however, we noticed a plaster cast of a figure in the hallway. It turned out this was actually the body of Christ from the Pietà and had been directly cast from the original sculpture. It was just the body of Christ, no Mary holding it.

It looked dusty and dejected, as if the museum didn’t quite know what to do with it. Natanya and I started looking. We became amazed at the details of the veins in Christ’s arms and the undulation of the muscles. You can’t see the details of the Pietà in St. Peter’s because it’s far from the viewer and encased in glass. But this Jesus was right at our level and we could walk around it and get as close as we wanted. I don’t remember who first reached out to the sculpture, one finger very hesitantly moving across time and space, like God reaching for Adam on the Sistine ceiling. We looked at each other and laughed at how ridiculous we felt. Then we looked around the hall and saw no one nearby.

We became more brazen. Natanya moved her finger over Christ’s hand, noting the beautiful gesture of the carving. I ran my finger down Christ’s arm. This felt enormously wrong to us. Unknowingly, Natanya and I had fallen headlong into the central debate (or one could say triumph) of the Renaissance: Spirituality and sensuality commingling for the first time.

Michelangelo knew this all too well – the great battle between our human desires and our spiritual longings. They were able to meet briefly in a Neoplatonic embrace in the Renaissance, and Natanya and I were experiencing this way too intimately. For Michelangelo, whose sexuality is undocumented, historians speculate that his main love may have been an aristocratic youth named Tommaso dé Cavalieri, 34 years his junior. There are about 300 poems and madrigals that Michelangelo wrote to him. The passion, however, was perhaps unrequited, leaving Michelangelo in a lifelong celibate spasm of frustration and yearning, all mixed with his great devotional, spiritual commitment.

We traced the carving of Christ’s lips. We let our hands slide down his chest. We ran our fingers over his calf. Speechless and committing such sacrilege, yet also fully experiencing the incomprehensible subtleties and mastery of Michelangelo’s carving, we silently, almost ritualistically, felt the body of Christ. After a good 30 minutes of this, our hands were black with dirt. The sculpture had probably not been dusted for decades. We stood there slightly stupefied, not with the blood of Christ on our hands, but the dirt: evidence of our transgression.

We fled to the washroom to erase the deed. Since then, I can’t look at the Pietà without thinking of it as an overtly sensual piece. Christ, Michelangelo tells us, is a god, but it is his human vulnerability, beauty and sensuality that provide the proof. Christ is both a man and a god. He is tormented, undoubtedly, in the same way Michelangelo feels both torment and intimacy within the conflation of physical and spiritual desire. Michelangelo seems to be saying that to lose oneself in the sensual is also a door to the higher realm: Neoplatonic thinking again. The Church wouldn’t endorse this point of view for long.

I’m looking at an image of the sculpture right now. It is like a waterfall. The composition is a triangle from Mary’s head at the top down to her pooling wide robe at the bottom. She is a rock – solid and immobile. The elegant, stable, pyramidal geometry of the Renaissance reflected a time when humans felt the world could be a logical, understandable place. This was in contrast to the mysticism of the Middle Ages, when man’s fate was controlled by the unseen, unpredictable, often harsh forces of God. Renaissance thinkers believed nature could reveal its own scripture and that knowledge and analysis held keys to eternal truth.

The rhythm of the piece begins with Mary’s face, tilted downward, calm and radiant. The cloak over her head throws real shadows onto her face, making her moment all the more private and remote from the viewer. There is a downward momentum that moves from her shoulders to the large horizontal Christ figure on her lap. His right arm falls limp. Her robe and lap widen and the folds become more active as they descend, cascading in great sweeps with deeper and deeper carving. There’s a diagonal edge of her robe at the bottom that mirrors the diagonal drape of Christ’s arm. Everything falls with a heavy, yet graceful, momentum downward to the ground. It’s the weight of the human condition that we must bear, the weight of emotional loss, and the very physical and real weight of the dead body itself: a triad that parallels the triangle of the composition. The physical, spiritual and temporal metastasized in stone. The viewer feels the intensity without even knowing why. It’s this immense, formal downward pull that draws us into the pain, in subtle contrast to the sense of peace and repose on the surface. A perfect, profound paradox.

Only one part of the sculpture counteracts all this weighty momentum. It is Mary’s left hand. It is open and turned upward. This subtle, simple gesture counterbalances the rest of the piece and symbolizes the resurrection of Christ or, more generally, the continuum of hope, or maybe the act of letting go. Again, Michelangelo opts for the minimal and subtle. We have to discover it and interpret it. He doesn’t knock us over the head with miracles.

My 11-year-old daughter Rae loves rodents. When her beloved rat Sunny reached old age, its fur coarsened and its back legs became partially paralyzed. We decided to have it put to sleep.

Rae wrapped Sunny in a little blanket and we drove to the vet. There, we sat silently, waiting to be helped. At some point, I looked up at Rae, and Sunny was draped in her arms, its head resting on the crook of her elbow. Rae’s head was tilted down and her expression was calm and untroubled.

It became clear to me at that moment why Michelangelo sculpted Mary holding her dead son on her lap the way he did. Mary’s face is calm, pure, radiant and introspective. Michelangelo does not show her in spasms of pain as previous artists from north of the Alps, where the Pietàimage was more prevalent, had done. During the Renaissance, people questioned why Michelangelo would sculpt Mary looking so young and untouched by the tragedy. Michelangelo said that because Mary was a virgin, she stayed pure and didn’t age. But that doesn’t really answer the question.

Seeing Rae and Sunny in their last moments together, I realized that the reason Michelangelo’s Mary is calm is because she is still mothering. She is still with her son, holding him, caring for him. Jesus’ fingers on his right hand tell us the whole story. He’s still holding on, metaphorically. This is the only place in the sculpture where mother and son remain physically connected. The fabric of Mary’s robe drapes through Christ’s index and middle fingers. Directly above this is the deepest and most dramatic carving of the entire sculpture. Michelangelo sculpts a cavern within a gaping fold of Mary’s gown. It leads us to the focal point where Christ is held and supported by Mary’s right knee. The cavern between folds provides a dark abyss, like an empty womb. It is Christ’s birth and his death, the beginning and the end.

Part of Michelangelo’s genius was finding these loaded moments where emotion is building but hasn’t been released. It’s the internal dynamics of emotion that interest him as an artist – what cannot be seen by the eye, a parallel to faith. It’s hard to imagine our contemporary culture having any language to understand this notion. Michelangelo wants us to be able to enter the drama, yes, but he wants us to think about it in a fuller, richer way than if he had simply offered us Mary’s gasps of pain. He wants to help us prepare and give us hope at the same time.

The Haggerty Museum’s full-sized bronze copy of the Pietà was cast directly from Michelangelo’s original. It is said that only two other such bronze copies exist in the world. Shortly after this one was cast in 1945, the Italian government outlawed full-scale reproductions of monumental works. Created by the Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry in Florence, the mold used for the bronze was said to have existed for several hundred years prior to the 1945 casting. In 1964, Boston Store was doing some kind of Renaissance Days promotion and purchased the sculpture, shipping the 1,300-pound object to Milwaukee. When its Renaissance theme ended, Boston Store offered the Pietà to the Milwaukee Art Museum (then the Milwaukee Art Center). At some point, Marquette University expressed interest in it, and it eventually went to the Haggerty Museum.

This Pietà, with its deep chestnut-brown patina, has sat in the museum’s Old Master’s Gallery since it opened in 1984. It’s left the institution only twice: for a Younkers department store “Italian Daze” event in 1984 and for an Italian Community Center anniversary celebration in 1991.

The journey from the initial tapping of Michelangelo’s chisel on a chunk of Cararra marble, to the release of an exact copy of his work some 400 years later, to its arrival in Milwaukee, is an odd chain of happenstance. We are talking nearly two tons of sacred/aesthetic matter here, landing like a feather in an industrial Midwestern city’s department store with nary an eyebrow raised. And it’s still here today, hardly less displaced than it was in Boston Store, still uncomfortably fitting into any context because of its status as a “reproduction.”

Is the Milwaukee Pietà worthy of veneration as an art object? Does it have value or meaning as one of only three bronze casts of the original? Should it be a tourist attraction?

Few people in town seem to know about this sculpture. Would the very same people who fly thousands of miles to eagerly see the real Pietàin Rome be interested in actually being able to see the Pietà up close? Or do we stampede to St. Peter’s in quest of something that has nothing to do with actually looking at a work of art? Are we just desperately trying to convince ourselves we are having “real” experiences by seeing “real” things, even if the experience is no more intimate than seeing it on TV?

I don’t know what to think about the lonely, displaced Milwaukee Pietà. It looks a little strange in bronze – one seamless molten lump. Mary and Jesus appear somewhat exposed in the museum space, surrounded by paintings of mostly later centuries, rather like Amish travelers at a bus stop. Yet, you can walk right up to the piece and move around three sides. This is the only way to see how Michelangelo’s composition, which from the front looks very stable, still and poised, is actually full of looping, cascading curves and complex contours. Moving to the side by Christ’s feet provides an unbelievably different feeling than viewing the sculpture from the front. You cannot see this at St. Peter’s. You can only see this in Milwaukee.

The Frick Museum in New York City owns a 14-inch bronze of the Pietà and seems to keep it as a respected part of the permanent collection. Even during Michelangelo’s life, copies of the Pietà were generated. The 16th century did not have the horror of the “inauthentic” that we do. Making copies was the only way to allow an image to circulate or reach a broader audience. Nanni di Baccio Bigio made a full-sized marble version in 1549 for the church of Santo Spirito in Florence. Juan Battista Vázquez made a copy for Avila Cathedral in Spain in 1561. The question is whether these copies, made by artisans in close proximity to the original, are meaningful works of art in and of themselves. They certainly were considered precious in previous centuries.

If the Milwaukee Pietàwas cast in 1945 in Florence – just after the end of World War II – the supplies of metal (copper and tin) needed for the foundry would have only recently become available again. There is no record of who the original patron was for this sculpture or what it cost.

So what is its value? We treasure things like gold and diamonds because they are relatively rare and they sparkle. But value and meaning can easily be manipulated. Value is an abstraction. It is mostly market-driven, floating, in flux.

The Vatican and the Catholic Church know this very well. In the Middle Ages, the Church earned a great deal of income from relics – the body parts of saints and others displayed in churches – with rumors they could generate miraculous cures. Pilgrims traveled great distances to come in contact with the relics and leave monetary offerings with hopes of receiving favors. The Church also sold “indulgences” which were pardons from personal sin. There were objections to all of this in the 1500s with the Protestant Reformation.

In 2002, the Vatican granted permission for Mary’s head from the Pietà to be cast by a Florida foundry into 3,000 bronze busts (selling for $15,000 each), 1,000 silver casts (selling for $30,000 each) and 25 gold casts (at $1 million each). An article in The New York Times reports this is the first time a reproduction of the Pietà has been allowed. (Well, not quite, as we know in Milwaukee). The Madonna busts are being sold to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the statue’s presentation to the church. Along with a purchase, each buyer gets a private tour of the Vatican Treasury and the Vatican Museum. Profits will help the Vatican pay for upkeep and restoration of its art. It’s ironic, given the controversy over a reproduction like Milwaukee’s Pietà, to see Mary’s head cast in endless gold multiples, repetitively undermining the value and integrity of the original work of art.

How do we determine the cultural, civic or personal value of the Haggerty’s Pietà? Is it more akin to Mary’s head cast in gold, a commercial abomination, or is it dignified and rare, a historic copy? When we visit Florence and look at Ghiberti’s famous bronze door panels on the Baptistery, we don’t seem to fret over the fact that we are viewing reproductions. The real panels are protected in the museum. When crowds gather around Michelangelo’s David outside the Piazza della Signoria, they don’t care that they are staring at a full-scale reproduction. The copy allows us to see the sculpture in its original site. The real David is tucked away from the elements, pigeons and vandals in a museum.

So why not value and enjoy the Milwaukee Pietà? We’ve got the Brewers, the Bucks, the Packers and the Pietà. Let’s talk it up. Dust it off and air it out.

Maybe the Pietà should be moved out of the Haggerty for greater visibility. Maybe it should be put on the RiverWalk, just upstream from the new bronze Fonzie monument. Strange juxtapositions have been known to render potent experiences.

Debra Brehmer is a frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine.




Debra Brehmer, an arts writer and curator, owns and operates Portrait Society Gallery, a contemporary art space in Milwaukee. She was also the former editor and publisher of Art Muscle Magazine and teaches part-time at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.