To Hack Off a Leg: Michelangelo’s Florence “Pietà”

Michelangelo, "Pietà," Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, c. 1547-1555

Several months ago I wrote a post on Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (also called the “Bandini Pietà” or “Duomo Pietà”). Back then, I promised to explore in a future post some of the reasons why Michelangelo might have mutilated this sculpture (which originally was intended for the artist’s own tomb). When I promised to write this post, I didn’t realize that I would be opening a big can of worms! I’ve spent several hours combing through a lot of research and ideas – and to tell the truth, I still haven’t completely formed an opinion about what I find the most compelling.

Although I wrote down a lot of information in a lengthier draft of this post, I’ve decided to condense a few thoughts here. (If you want to see more research or a semi-detailed historiography of mutilation research, contact me!)

Our good ol’ friend Vasari gives several contradictory suggestions for why the sculpture was mutilated: 1) the marble contained flaws; 2) the marble was too hard, and sparks would fly from the chisel; and 3) Michelangelo’s standards for the piece were too high, and he was never content with what he had completed. (This last suggestion seems like a musing on Vasari’s part.) Vasari also explains that Michelangelo was pressured to work on the piece: “It was because of the importunity of his servant Urbino who nagged at him daily that he should finish [the Pietá]; and that among other things a piece of the Virgin’s elbow got broken off, and that even before that he had come to hate it, and he had had many mishaps because of a vein in the stone; so that losing patience he broke it, and would have smashed it completely had not his servant Antonio asked that he give it to him just as it was.”1 In the end, Michelangelo lets his pupil, Tiberio Calcagni, restore the group. As we will see, the left leg may or may not have needed restoration before Calcagni got his hands on the sculpture.

Many scholars in the 20th century have interpreted this mutilation to include the removal of Christ’s left leg, which appears to have been created to hang across the thigh of the Virgin. (An eighteenth-century wax model of the sculpture gives in indication for how it may have originally appeared.) Some scholars, such as Henry Thode (1908), feel that the mutilation may have been done for compositional purposes; the sculpture might have appeared to unattractive and cluttered with the left leg.2

In 1968, Leo Steinberg wrote an interesting (and controversial) article about “the missing leg” of the Florence Pietà. Steinberg argues that the left leg originally existed and was slung over the Virgin’s thigh, as a solemn symbol of a sexual union (a motif that is found in later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art). Such a composition would have emphasized the symbolic and mystic marriage between the Virgin and Christ. However, it could be that the vulgarization of this motif (during the very years of Michelangelo’s work on this piece) and metaphor might have threatened the symbolic significance that Michelangelo sought.3 For that reason, Michelangelo may have become frustrated and attacked that specific part of the statue. Steinberg got much criticism and was misinterpreted on some accounts, which he explores in twenty years later in another essay (see third footnote).

The most recent and seminal writing on the Florence Pietà was published in English in 2003 by Jack Wasserman. This book unfortunately is out-of-print, but I was able to snag a lonely (yet very deserving!) copy at my university library. Wasserman has issues with Steinberg’s argument on a few levels, but basically argues that the placement of Christ sitting or reclining on the Virgin’s lap does not constitute an “aggressive” action.4 Wasserman gives the example of Caroto’s Pietà (c. 1545) as another example of an “unadulterated Pietà, without, that is, the carnal and symbolic accretions Steinberg imposes on it.”

Detail of stump and dowel hole, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

Wasserman also cautiously suggests that Tiberio Calcagni might have actually been the one to remove the left leg of Christ (foot, thigh and calf) as he went about restoring the rest of the statue. Wasserman then finds, in turn, that Calcagni did not succeed in his attempt (or perhaps never attempted) to replace the limb. Calcagni may have created the stump (and the visible drilling hole, see above) with the intention of adding/reattaching a limb, but no traces of binding stucco have been found in the dowel hole. Wasserman even posits that Calcagni might have contrived the story that Michelangelo intended to destroy the Pietà (as reported by Vasari). Instead, “Calvagni desired to benefit from the fact that Michelangelo had broken away several other parts of the Pietà to disguise his own guilt for having demolished Christ’s leg without replacing it, thereby irrevocably disfiguring the great work of art.”5

Virtual image of limbless model and detached limbs, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

The other interesting thing about Wasserman’s book is that he discusses how the several limbs of the sculpture were intentionally severed. Wasserman finds that the outlying limbs were removed in an effort to recarve the marble, not destroy the statue. Wasserman believes that Michelangelo used a point chisel to first remove Christ’s and the Virgin’s left arms, and then the right arm of the Magdalene. Then Michelangelo removed Christ’s right forearm, but left the Mary Magdalene’s head without damage.

With this new, practically limb-less marble, Michelangelo gained access to the reserve marble just left of the Virgin’s leg, in order to “excavate” a new left leg for Christ that would parallel the angle of Christ’s right leg.6 Perhaps, considering this new design, the Florentine Pietà might have more closely resembled Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà (1564).

1 Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1568 edition), as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 4 (1968): 347.

2 Steinberg, 347.

3 Henry Thor, Michelangelo und das Ende der Renaissance, as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After,” in Art Bulletin 71, no. 3 (Sept, 1989): 503.

4 Jack Wasserman, Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 84.

5 Ibid., 84.

6 Ibid., 70.


The Prude Nude: Censorship and Cover-Ups in Art

For some reason, over the past several days the topic of nudity and censorship keeps popping up in my work (and on Twitter!). I thought I would share some of the interesting things that I am sharing with my students (and have recently discovered).

First off, I suppose I should admit I think that censorship (or cover-ups) of nudity often are a bit amusing. Drapery, fig leaves, conveniently-placed branches – it’s quite an interesting phenomenon in Western art. I often joke with my students about how a bit of drapery conveniently blew across the battle field, right over David’s torso, just before the shepherd boy killed Goliath. (It must be so, right? Bernini recorded the event as such.)

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, 1537-1541

Next week, my students will be learning about Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (shown above). I imagine that this is probably the most well-known story about censorship from the Renaissance period. Right off the bat, discontent was expressed at the nudity shown in the Last Judgment scene. (Side note: I think this complaint is a little strange, because there are plenty of other “Last Judgment” examples in art in which the damned are naked. Perhaps people really had issue with the fact that both the righteous and damned were fully-exposed?) Vasari records that when the Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, saw the almost-finished painting and commented that the nudity made this painting more fit for a bath or a tavern than the pope’s chapel.1 Michelangelo, notwithstanding, decided to paint da Cesena’s portrait on a nude figure (see below). Da Cesana appears in Hell as the figure of Minos. Michelangelo even added some donkey ears, for some extra flair (and humiliation). Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) for da Cesena, Michelangelo covered the man’s genitals with a serpent.

Michelangelo, Last Judgment (1537-1541), detail of Da Cesena as Minos

However, the story of the Last Judgment and censorship doesn’t end there. During the meeting Council of Trent in 1563-1564, the indecency of the Last Judgment fresco was a topic of discussion. It was decided to that the painting should be modified so that the genitalia would be covered. (One can only imagine how Michelangelo must have felt if he heard the news; the artist died in February 1564.) Soon after, in 1565, the artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures. Unfortunately for Volterra, the commission had a negative effect on his career. Henceforth the artist was known as “Il Braghettone (“breeches painter” or “underclothes painter.”)

Censorship continued through the centuries. I’m particularly reminded of when Masaccio’s Adam and Eve (“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”) were covered in the 17th century with little <ss>tutus</ss> vines (which were removed when the fresco was restored in the 1980s). And the austere Victorians also liked to cover up their subjects. I think one of the most interesting examples is Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid (c. 1545). In the 19th century, Bronzino’s subjects were “made decent” with the help of a myrtle branch (placed over Cupid-the-Contortionist’s rear) and a clumsily-painted veil over Venus’ torso (see image below). Venus’ left nipple was painted out of Cupid’s grasp, too. Finally, Venus’ tongue was also painted out of the picture, so that her incestuous kiss would Cupid would be a little more, um, chaste. These modifications were removed when the painting was restored to its original state in 1958.

Bronzino, "Allegory of Venus and Cupid" (c. 1545) with 19th century modifications

It seems like there must be a demand or interest in the topic of censorship and art. A few days ago, a tweet alerted me to a relatively new program on BBC4, “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.” You can watch a short introduction to the documentary on YouTube or watch the whole thing online. The film covers the history of the fig leaf in art, explaining when the fig leaf began to be used in Christianity. The show first explains how classical statues were shown in the complete nude, and one scholar explains how the small phalluses shown in Greek statues were seen as a symbol of restraint and control. (I didn’t know that!)

At one point in the documentary, a specialist explains how the fig leaf both covers the genitals but also draws attention to this area of the body (a similar effect, I think, to the Venus pudica pose). I think that’s a very good point. In many respects, one can argue that these “cover-ups” ended up having a reverse effect than what was intended. Even the outcries against nudity just cause people to focus on the naked figures even more.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What are some censored works of art that stand out in your mind? What are your favorite (or not-so-favorite) depictions of fig leaves?

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists (translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 461-462.

2 You can read a little bit more about the censorship of the “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” at the short article entitled, ‘A ‘most improper picture.'”


The Turkey in Art

Happy Thanksgiving! This morning I’ve been wondering a little about the history of the turkey bird and its representation in art. I’ve learned a couple of interesting things, particularly from the book More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality by Karen Davis. This book not only discusses the history of the turkey in connection with the Thanksgiving holiday, but also a broader history (and consumption) of the bird. The turkey was first shipped to Europe from Mexico in the early 16th century. The turkey was then bred in Europe (Davis specifically mentions Renaissance England) and eventually the domesticated bird was brought back over to the Americas.1

I think it’s pretty safe to say, then, that the turkey was viewed by Europeans as an “exotic” bird, at least initially. As I’ve been looking at some representations of turkeys this morning (all by European artists), I can’t help but wonder which of this artists might have viewed the turkey in an “exoticized” light, and which (later) artists may have seen the turkey as an integrated part of European life.

Here are some of my favorite turkeys in art:

Giambologna, "Turkey," 1560s. Image courtesy of

Johann Joachim Kändler, Turkey model, c. 1733. Getty Museum. This turkey was one of eight models which were made by the Meissen manufactory. Kändler, a sculptor, was hired to help with the royal commission for large porcelain animals.

Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with Turkey-Pie," 1627

Metsu, "The Poultry Seller," 1662

Michiel van der Voort the Elder, detail of pulpit, 1713, Cathedral of Our Lady (O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal), Antwerp

The turkey depicted on this pulpit is found on the left side of the image, halfway up the staircase. Its distinct tail feathers are especially noticeable. In addition to the turkey, this pulpit shows a variety of other birds, including a parrot, heron, owl, and peacock. These birds are included to emphasize the natural world, which was thought by Saint Bernard to be a source of inspiration for the faithful. (I bet this is the only instance in which the turkey bird serves as a point of spiritual inspiration!) I’d love to research more about this pulpit (if anyone has any sources to recommend, please leave a comment!). So far I have only found a few sources online: the Web Gallery of Art and this online forum. You can see another detail image of the pulpit here.

Goya, "Plucked Turkey," 1812

Do you have any favorite depictions of turkeys? Happy Thanksgiving!

1 Karen Davis, “More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality” (Brooklyn, New York: Lantern Books, 2001), p. 54. Citation available online here. Davis’ book also goes into some depth discussing the difference between the wild turkey and domesticated turkey (see, for example, p. 79). She also mentions that the turkey was not a widespread part of Thanksgiving meals (outside of New England) until after 1800 (see p. 53).


Loggia dei Lanzi and Subjugation

Several years ago, I sat in the Loggia dei Lanzi (Florence) and sketched some details of the statues found there. If I had thought hard about it, I might have noticed that several of the sculptures there share an interesting commonality. See if you can find the common theme:

Giambologna, Rape of a Sabine, 1581-83

Cellini, Perseus, 1545-54
(I recently wrote a post about Perseus here.)

Pio Fedi, Rape of Polyxana, 1866

Do you notice anything? All of these sculptures have subject matter which emphasizes the subjugation of women or “man’s longed-for control over woman.”1 I’ve been reading an article this week by feminist Yael Even who reveals this common theme in the loggia space. It’s quite fascinating. The most interesting thing to me, though, is that another sculpture used to be located here. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (1456-57, shown right) was the first sculpture placed in the Piazza della Signoria (where the Loggia dei Lanzi is located). However, over time, Donatello’s sculpture was shuffled around different sections of the loggia and elsewhere. In 1980, the sculpture was eventually moved (concealed?) to the inside of the Palazzo Vecchio. Yael Even points out that the difficulty with placing this sculpture has to do with the subject matter – instead of emphasizing the subjugation of women, Donatello’s sculpture depicts a woman killing a man.1

When looking at all the depictions of female subjugation in the loggia, it’s no wonder that this sculpture sat uneasily (literally!) with the Florentines. After all, wouldn’t it make a (male) viewer uncomfortable to know that women can retaliate?

I really recommend that you read Even’s article.

1 Yael Even, “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation,” in Woman’s Art Journal 12, no. 1 (1991): 10.

2 Ibid.


Things Spotted by Students

One of the things I absolutely love about teaching is that students point out details in art that I have never noticed previously. Thanks to my students, I constantly find new discoveries in works of art that have long been familiar to me.

A couple of years ago, a student pointed out a detail in the Greek kouros statue from the Metropolian Museum of Art (ca. 600 BC, Archaic period, shown right). If you click on this image, you can see a small band that goes around the neck of this statue. I never, ever noticed that necklace until a student pointed it out.

So, what’s the significance of the necklace? To be honest, I don’t know. It reminds me of the torcs that was worn by ancient Gauls (see the Dying Gaul (ca. 230-220 BC)), but I don’t know if there is a direct connection to the kouros. Really, I can hardly find any discussion on the kouros necklace, except for a few things like this short passage in an old archaeology journal: “The Metropolitan Kouros is the only example in sculpture with a neckband in relief, and is further unique in having it tied in front – examples in vase paintings always have the neckband tied in the back.” 1

If anyone knows of any information on this neckband, please let me know! I’m sure that my past student has long-forgotten that he pointed out that necklace to me, but it has piqued my curiosity for a long time.

Yesterday, a student pointed out another detail that I have never noticed before. The class was looking at a reproduction of Pontormo’s Deposition (c. 1528, see left), and a student asked if we knew any information about the man who is on the right side of the painting (he is wearing a dark hat and staring out at the viewer). Until she said something, I never had even noticed that man before! In class I speculated that it might be a portrait of the artist, and I learned today that others have suggested the same thing (see similar speculations here and here). Some people think that the artist depicting himself as Joseph of Arimathea, and that makes sense to me.

I’m so glad that students point out new things to me. It’s fun to continually observe and discover new things, even as a teacher. I guess that my eye is trained to look at specific things in Western masterpieces, and sometimes I overlook small details without realizing it. Thanks for giving me a fresh perspective, class. I like to learn and find new things, too.

1 Stephen B. Luce, “Archaeological News and Discussions,” in Amerian Journal of Archaeology 48, no. 3 (1944): 283.


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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.