[Michelangelo’s] first important commission, a Pietà (Mary with the dead Christ) [was] intended for the tomb of a French cardinal in Rome…It is by any standards a mature and majestic work, combining strength (the Virgin) and pathos (the Christ), nobility and tenderness, a consciousness of human fragility and a countervailing human endurance, which fill those who study it with a powerful mixture of emotions.
I first read of the Pietà in the context of its restoration:
[O]n May 21, 1972 (Pentecost Sunday)…a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ, I have risen from the dead!” With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.
After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter’s…
The essay I read on the Pietà was an equally painstaking description of the restoration process. It has been more than thirty years since I did so and only one detail of that labor–equal parts love and laboratory–has endured in my memory. Toth’s hammer did not just break the marble of the Pietà, it also stained it. There were, apparently, some residues of a greasy, oily substance on the hammer-head–perhaps from its previous use in a workshop of some kind–and as Toth struck the stone of the sculpture, these were transferred onto it. Toth’s blows hadn’t just disturbed the structural integrity of the Pietà; his hammer was not just violent, it was also not pristine. He brought and transferred impurities and scars of another kind to the Pietà. He made and left a mark. The resultant bluish-blackish stains had to be removed carefully–perhaps by some kind of gentle chemical treatment–so as to not result in a bleaching of the marble, which would have had the adverse effect of leaving ugly discolored blotches behind and permanently disfiguring the Pietà.
I do not know why this detail of the restoration still endures in my memory. Perhaps because it was the most surprising and unexpected detail of all: I had thought most of the labor of the restoration would have been expended in collecting all the shattered pieces, expelled away from the site of the blows, and then putting them in their rightful places. The restoration would have been akin to the solution of a particularly intractable three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. That process would have been all ingenuity, all skill, all technical virtuosity.
But the act of removing the stains–even though embodying a technical art of another kind–somehow also spoke of a very particular gentleness, a delicate care, almost loving in its sensitivity. That final human touch in the removal of the despoilment was what perhaps made it so literally memorable.