In Milan, the travel books direct us first to Leonardo’s Last Supper, the opulent fresco of high Renaissance color faded by moisture and rattled by Allied bombs during World War II. Contrary to Michelin, Lonely Planet, and the rest, however, I recommend—no appointment necessary, as with the Last Supper—a visit to the Sforza Castle, where there stands in splendid isolation a sculpture of such muted mystery and power that it is liable to alter your perception of reality, and of life and death, in a way that Da Vinci’s masterpiece will not: Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietá.
I saw the sculpture in person for the first time several years ago, while on a bus tour of northern Italy whose trajectory ran from Venice to Turin. But more than a decade before, I had gazed upon a black and white photograph of the Rondanini in the last pages of the profusely illustrated biography of Michelangelo from the ’60s Time-Life series of artists’ lives, which I had picked up second hand at a bookstore in Van Nuys, California. Not only did the sculpture in the photograph look so much more diminutive than the artist’s David and two previous Pietás, but its otherworldly detachment seemed like a repudiation of the sublime athleticism and anguish of those more celebrated works.
Cut to Milan, day three of the four-day bus tour. Willi, our German guide, had arranged for lunch, followed by a little shopping, and then to see the The Last Supper. When I told Willi that I would be spending my time instead at the Sforza Castle and asked him how to get there, he answered by saying he wouldn’t hold the bus if I weren’t back in time, and walked away.
Although I had a city map, I had no idea what the Castle looked like, got lost riding the street cars and, having forsaken lunch, began to suffer the desperation of the hungry, dehydrated, bladder-challenged tourist searching under a severe time constraint an object of profound personal pilgrimage. Eventually, I found myself standing before the imposing, crenellated walls of a medieval fortress. Along with the Bargello in Florence, the Sforza Castle is the most un-museum like of buildings. After finding the entrance and purchasing my ticket, I speed-walked through centuries of Lombardian armor and pennants and statuary and comparatively unrenowned paintings—and then, in the last space before the museum shop, there it was.
The Rondanini Pietá was not diminutive as I had imagined, appearing slightly larger than life. The dead Christ’s smooth, bare legs rise from the base of the statue in a finished state; his knees are particularly well-articulated. But as the legs rise into the hips and the hips into the torso, the marble becomes rougher and the chiseling more visible until, from the shoulders up, Christ and Mary, who is supporting his corpse from behind, look to be, at first glance, almost featureless. Gradually, however, I was drawn into the ostensibly hollow gazes of the two figures and their anguish, loss, and tenderness. What makes these emotions more compelling for me than in Michelangelo’s more realistic Pietás is that the Rondanini seems on the verge of succumbing, like the bodily Christ, to the physical dissolution of death: This is not merely a scene of death, but of death becoming, which reminds us that death, like life, is an organic state. And yet, in the midst of death’s dynamic crumbling, mother and son’s eyes, only three of them, remain open. There is something inextinguishable at the back of their gazes, perhaps a light transcending human emotion and decomposition that Michelangelo saw as an old man standing on the brink of death himself.
These mysteries that I had first seen in a photo, were profoundly enriched by my in-person contemplation of the Rondanini. But I was completely unprepared for the startling momentum shift in the work that is visible only when viewing it in person from the side or back. From the front Mary appears to be supporting the body of her son in the convention of the genre. But walk to the right of the statue, stop at a ninety degree angle, and see how it changes: Instead of Mary supporting her son, Christ is lifting her in a surge of wave-like energy. This surge is further evident from the back of the sculpture where Mary, whose legs are merely sketched in the marble, seems to be wrapped around her son’s shoulders as he prepares to lift them both away.
At some point in absorbing myself in this last work of Michelangelo’s, so suffused with life and death and eternity, I looked at my watch. My tour bus had left for Turin. After the panic of missing it had subsided, I settled in to spend a little more time with my Rondanini. I recalled reading the comment by an American author of European guidebooks that the sculpture was unfinished, which seemed to ignore the fact that Michelangelo had labored over it for almost a decade before his death. Although I thought the guidebook author wrong, his mistake was perhaps excusable: After being overrun by the torrential vitality of the artist’s other work, would it not be natural for most observers of the Rondanini to conclude that the old man, then in his eighties, simply lacked the energy or focus to properly finish it?
In my view, however, the sculpture is not only finished, but its technique speaks to the obsessive and alienating materialism of our own times with the disorienting eloquence of Picasso or Matisse. The Rondanini’s dissolving forms, its blurred gazes, its startling, wave-like surge of energy that becomes apparent only after a prolonged, in-person viewing—all these are the hallmarks of a work that points toward the dissatisfaction with realistic representation that is perhaps the most significant aspect of our own modern art.
After immersing myself in the Rondanini for over two hours, drifting between reflection and an extra-rational state that some may call meditation and others prayer, I awakened to the challenge of having to train out of Milan and find my tour group in Turin. My last thought before leaving the sculpture behind was an incredulity at how not more than a handful of museum-goers had visited the Rondanini during my stay. But had the small room been thronged, my visit would have been much shorter and less intimate.
Therefore, instead of asking why the Rondanini remains so obscure, let us head to the Sforza Castle and, in the gratifying absence of the vast majority of art-going tourists who have chosen to gaze upon The Last Supper, witness for ourselves the magnitude of what they are missing.
Sean Warren’s short story, “The Last Romantic,” appeared in NER 35.2, and is part of a novel, My University: The Early Life and Times of Tom Powers, United States Navy. He writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.