Michelangelo made this highly finished drawing at the request of Vittoria Colonna, among the most accomplished women of the Renaissance. The widowed marchesa of Pescara, admired for her learning, piety, and eloquence, was active in religious circles and published acclaimed spiritual poetry. When they met about 1536, she became one of Michelangelo’s few intimate friends, and the only woman among them. He too was a poet, and the pair exchanged verses and letters, which joined with the designs he gave her in a heartfelt dialogue about their mutual enthusiasms for church reform and the arts.
Though titled a Pietà, the drawing actually telescopes two consecutive episodes from Christ’s Passion, doubling its theological and emotional impact. The venerable Pietà theme spotlights the Virgin alone over her prostrate son, just taken down from the cross; in this image, she mouths a grief-stricken appeal for heavenly consolation. But Mary is here upstaged by Christ, who is suspended in frontal view by two boyish angels – a group recalling the Man of Sorrows theme, a later moment that emphasizes Christ’s physical sacrifice as his corpse slumps in the tomb.
Like much of Michelangelo’s work, the drawing is deeply autobiographical. The key to its meanings, both public and private, lies in the verse from Dante’s Paradiso inscribed on the (now partly-cropped) cross: “There they don’t think of how much blood it costs” (Non vi si pensa quanto sangue costa). Michelangelo, who knew much of Dante by heart, quotes canto 29, where Beatrice deplores how few on earth appreciate the sacrifices martyrs make to spread the divine gospel down there, or how pleasing to God are those who cling to it. The message is conventional – the hardships of propagating the true faith – but it also held personal spiritual meaning for artist and recipient alike. Both traveled in Roman circles that preached salvation by faith, which might be achieved by prayerfully contemplating sacred events: Michelangelo’s late poetry increasingly invoked the blood shed by Christ, while Colonna wrote a “Lament over the Passion” which imagined the Virgin “delighting in this pain.” Michelangelo’s gift thus offered consoling testimony to their shared conviction that the savior’s tragic death is also a cause for joy, the climax of God’s divine comedy that offers each believing soul the hope of a happy ending.
In more individual terms, Michelangelo idealized Colonna as the kind of guardian angel Dante saw in Beatrice – a spiritual guide in their joint struggle toward paradise. “A man within a woman, or rather a god / speaks through her mouth,” he wrote, addressing her as “you who pass souls / through fire and water on to days of joy.” The drawing celebrates their closest bond: unlike most people “down there,” they do think of the divine matters he has depicted for her. The Pietà is thus a study of Colonna, though not in any literal sense. Michelangelo disdained painting mere likenesses: since inner beauty counts more than outer, an allegory of the beloved’s devout imagination reveals more than a record of her face. This is the portrait of a soul, not a body.
Colonna received the Pietà as one of three presentation drawings from Michelangelo. This was a new genre – completed sketches suitable as gifts. Michelangelo gave away such drawings only as testimonials of exceptional affection, and the Gardner image (and its recipient) must have been close to his heart, since he made sure his biographer Ascanio Condivi discussed it in detail. The Colonna group of drawings followed by a few years Michelangelo’s other major suite, for his greatest male love, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The two series embody the contrasting poles of Renaissance culture: Cavalieri’s drawings, all on classical mythological themes, ponder the joys and pitfalls of earthly love, while Colonna’s are on Christian subjects concerned with heavenly affections. Michelangelo’s infatuation with Tommaso was expressed in poems whose erotic frankness was startling for the time; his later verses to Vittoria still speak of Petrarchan longing. Condivi records Michelangelo saying that he created her Crucifixion drawing “for love of that lady,” but Condivi then makes clear that it was her “sublime spirit he was in love with.” The aging artist’s personal evolution reflected the widespread sobering of Catholic culture during the Counter-Reformation: where images once kindled passion, they now aimed to arouse chaste meditation.
The drawing enjoyed a widespread and influential afterlife. It was copied by Michelangelo’s assistants and adapted by artists such as Lavinia Fontana. The opportunity to fashion a symbolic pedigree no doubt appealed to Mrs. Gardner, who chose many treasures for their personal associations and conceived Fenway Court as an extended self-portrait. The grieving mother theme would have resonated for a woman who lost her only son as a baby. And she shared Michelangelo’s affinity for Dante, whose printed editions she collected; her affinity for Michelangelo himself is attested by her purchase of a painting then considered a portrait of him (actually Baccio Bandinelli). Most suggestively, she identified with cultured and powerful Renaissance women, adopting Isabella d’Este, the first great woman art impresario, as a patron saint and role model. She may well have felt a similar kinship with Vittoria Colonna: beyond shared artistic interests, both were childless women who raised orphaned nephews as surrogate sons, and Isabella was, like Vittoria, piously observant, with her own private chapel. We could equally conclude of Mrs. Gardner’s Pietà what her biographer said of the acquisition of another Renaissance Madonna: “In it her love of beauty and her devotion to religion were united.”
Source: James M. Saslow, "Pietà," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 81.