Condivi and Michelangelo’s "Pietà"

Well my friends, I think I may have found another minor error in an art history textbook. The textbook I use for my Renaissance classes, The Changing Status of the Artist, says the following: “Ascanio Condivi recorded that his friend Michelangelo carved himself in the guise of Nicodemus mourning over the dead Christ”1. This seemingly insignificant comment has captured my attention for several months, and consequently I have long wanted to read Condivi’s biography of Michelangelo (first printed 1553). Now that the school quarter is finished, I finally found time to read the biography this past weekend. But when I got to Condivi’s discussion on the Duomo Pietà (c. 1550, see below), I couldn’t find any discussion about a self-portrait! Only in the footnote of biography did I notice this information from the editor: “The figure of Nicodemus, according to a letter from Vasari to Michelangelo’s nephew Leonardo shortly after the artist’s death, is a self-portrait”2

Now, in the great scheme of things, perhaps it isn’t too a big deal that my textbook misattributed this self-portrait information to Condivi instead of Vasari. I understand that. But I also am in favor of historical accuracy, and I thought I would put the record straight here. If any of my past students are reading this, please make a note of the error on page 69 of your textbook!

That being said, this misattribution happily led me to become familiar with Condivi’s book first-hand. Many scholars believe that Condivi’s work is the best account of Michelangelo’s life; this book can practically be considered an autobiography. Condivi wrote that he got his information “with long patience from the living oracle of his [master’s] speech.”3 It appears that Michelangelo wanted this biography to be written for two reasons: 1) to correct omissions and errors about Michelangelo that appeared in Vasari’s first edition of Lives of the Artists and 2) to exonerate Michelangelo from accusations that he deceived the heirs of Julius II and embezzled sums of money (in regards to Michelangelo’s seemingly-endless sculptural project for Pope Julius II’s tomb).

Condivi’s biography is a great resource for any Renaissance scholar, and it’s a rather quick read. And although I didn’t read any new information about Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the Duomo Pietà, I was prompted to consider reasons why Michelangelo included his self-portrait. Condivi wrote that “Michelangelo plans to donate this Pietà to some church and to have himself buried at the foot of the altar where it is placed.”4

So, if this was to be a funerary function in some sense, Michelangelo may have wanted to include his portrait as part of the traditional convention to represent an image of the deceased on funerary monuments. Michelangelo may have also identified with Nicodemus for either spiritual or personal reasons. For example, according to legend, Nicodemus was a sculptor.5

However, this Pietà never was placed next to Michelangelo’s tomb. Vasari, who designed Michelangelo’s tomb, unsuccessfully tried to acquire the Pietà from the family who owned the sculpture at the time. However, I think it’s best that Vasari didn’t get his hands on the Pietà: it appears that Michelangelo changed his mind and didn’t want the sculpture for his tomb after all. In 1555, two years after Condivi wrote his biography, Michelangelo abandoned and mutilated the Pietà. He then sold the sculpture in 1561 to his friend Francesco Bandini, a Florentine banker in Rome. So if Michelangelo sold the sculpture, it’s very likely that he had no intention of using the sculpture on his own tomb. In a way, I’m surprised that Vasari didn’t pick up on that simple concept.

A lot of scholars have discussed and analyzed why Michelangelo mutilated the Duomo Pietà, and I think I will compile some thoughts in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honor c. 1450-1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 69.

2 Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl, edited by Hellmut Wohl, 2nd ed. (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 140 (my emphasis). I realize that the Changing Status textbook could be referring to something else written by Condivi besides his biography (such as a letter), but I highly doubt it. The editor of this Condivi text probably would have mentioned if Condivi had written anything about Michelangelo’s self-portrait, instead of only mentioning this letter by Vasari.

3 Ibid., xvi-xviii.

4 Ibid., 90. Michelangelo wanted to be buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, but was actually interred in the Florentine church Santa Croce. Vasari writes details of the internment (and opening Michelangelo’s casket to reveal a body untouched by decay!) in his second version of Lives of the Artists (1568). See Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 486.

5 King, 69.

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Very intersting, as always. Your blog is amazing!

  • Girl With Chalk says:

    Amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  • heidenkind says:

    Re: note 4–Why don't we have St. Michelangelo? That would be cool. :) He could be the patron saint of egomaniacal artists. I think he already unofficially is! ;)

  • kelsey cook says:


  • Annette says:

    I love this post, M.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! Heidenkind, I think we practically do have a St. Michelangelo, don't we? :)

    Vasari practically suggested as much in his biography. Condivi casts Michelangelo in a pretty saintly light, as well. It's funny, because Condivi bashes artists like Raphael and Bramante throughout his biography of Michelangelo, but at the end of the book he suggests that Michelangelo never spoke badly of anyone himself (even his rivals). I guess Michelangelo left all of the trash-talking to his "authorized" biographer? Ha! Not likely.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Well spotted M!

    I've been noting discrepancies with sources in printed and online versions which have resulted in me having to go back and tweak some of my own posts – which is one of the beauties of the online format – easy editing. When you make a mistake in print, its stuck!

    Increasingly, some of this comes to focus on Vasari – so many different versions over the years, with tidbits in footnotes that become lost with reprints. Then there are issues with translation vs interpretation for those that can only use Vasari in English. These are potentially many hurdles that students, researchers and scholars can trip over.

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    @H: Online material is perfect for tweaking! I agree.

    There are a lot of issues with Vasari translations and editions. I hope that Vasari scholarship and publications (in English) continue to improve, especially in an online format. I look forward to when this site is completed, which hopes to put all unabridged English versions of "Lives" online.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.