Did Michelangelo Have a Prideful Response to People Doubting his Creation of the Pietà?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to the world of sculpture and whether they are true or false.

SCULPTURE URBAN LEGEND: Michelangelo had an interesting response to people doubting his creation of the Pietà.

La Pietà is one of Michelangelo’s most famous works.

He was commissioned to do the work in 1497 when he was 22 years old. It was completed and displayed in 1499. The marble statue is distinctive for both its striking beauty AND for the manner in which Michelangelo depicts Mary as being much younger than most artists have drawn her.

Before its final (and current) resting place in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, it was first placed at the nearby Chapel of Santa Petronilla.

Now, according to Giorgio Vasari, when the work was installed, Michelangelo would hear people suggest that the work (which was quite popular right from the get-go) was done by various artists (Vasari specifically mentions Cristoforo “il Gobbo” Solari, but I’ve heard a variety of artists mentioned in the story – it’s likely that different people mentioned different artists).

Like Rodin (who ran into a similar problem with his first major sculpture, as detailed in this legend here), Michelangelo was a fairly unknown artist (he was still a couple of years removed from the work that would make him immensely famous, the statue of David), so it is reasonable enough that people would attribute the work to more famous artist.

Well, Michelangelo was quite irked by this, so he went and did something slightly drastic…

He actually added his name to the piece, carving it into the sash worn by Mary…

Translated, that says “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made it.”

Michelangelo was embarrassed at his prideful reaction, and vowed to never sign one of his works again (and he did not).

Now, Vasari is an interesting fellow, in the sense that he is the greatest historian we have for Renaissance artists, but he’s also more or less the ONLY notable historian we have for Renaissance artists, so we’re often dependent upon his histories, which tend to be a lot more accurate the closer the events are to his era (I discussed an example of a mix-up by Vasari in this installment of Painting Legends Revealed).

However, Vasari and Michelangelo WERE contemporaries (Michelangelo lived from 1475-1564 and Vasari lived from 1511-1574), so I think we can trust his histories of Michelangelo pretty well. When you add in the fact that the story is extremely reasonable, I think it’s fair to give this one a “True.”

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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