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Milan’s Castello Sforzesco gives a new home to Michelangelo’s last masterpiece

by Marco Carminati

In 1952, the city of Milan got busy trying to acquire Michelangelo's Pietà Rondanini, at that time available on the market. The artwork has now been placed in its new home: from May 2 it will be on display in the Castello Sforzesco's Spanish Hospital in Milan (through May 10 free of charge).

This Pietà - sketched out in a 196-cm high, 70-cm wide and 73-cm deep block of Apuan marble - was the last work undertaken by Michelangelo, and was found in the artist's Roman workshop at the time of his death, on February 18, 1564.

The marble sculpture was later lost sight of, and resurfaced in 1807 in the Roman palace of the Rondinini, or Rondanini Marquis, after whom it was named.

The Palazzo Rondinini, together with the Pietà, had different owners over time: Capranica until 1841, Borghese until 1851, Feoli until 1870, Odescalchi until 1904 and finally Vimercati Sanseverino until 1946.

In November 1946, the Vimercati Sanseverino heirs sold the Palazzo Rondinini to the National Bank for Agriculture and even attempted to put Michelangelo's Pietà on the market.

In 1949, the National Gallery of Art in Washington placed its bid, and in 1950 a group of U.S. Catholics offered to purchase the statue and give it to Pius XII during the Jubilee. The statue, however, was barred from leaving Italy as it was a registered artwork.

Its starting value, estimated at 250 million Italian lira, thus dropped to 135 million, and Roman antique dealer Ettore Sestieri, who managed the sale on behalf of the Vimercati Sanseverino family, granted an exclusive purchase option to the Superintendence of Milan: however, it was necessary to make a decision quickly, as the option was to expire on June 30, 1952.

It was at this time that Fernanda Wittgens - then director of the Brera Art Gallery - saw to it that the Pietà ended up in Milan.

Wittgens started asking for money in Milan's upper class milieu. She got in touch with Raffaele Mattioli, head of the Italian Commercial Bank, asking him for a substantial contribution. Mattioli offered to help Wittgens, but despite the banker's and the public officer's joint effort, the 135 million lira needed were not reached.

It was therefore necessary to ask then-mayor of Milan Virginio Ferrari, who committed to a public subscription for the sculpture and at the same time exercised the purchase option.
Fifty million lira, however, were still missing. Fernanda Wittgens again knocked at the doors of Milan’s wealthy bourgoisie: Mario and Aldo Crespi, the Rizzolis, the Gerlis and the Borlettis. Even left-wing parties and factory workers, however, got organized to actively take part in the Michelangelo subscription.

The outcome was triumphant: on November 1, 1952, the Rondanini Pietà arrived by train to Milan (after an adventurous journey which lasted fourteen hours with three changes of wagon).

The sculpture was temporarily placed in the Castello Sforzesco’s Ducal Chapel, and remained there until the summer of 1953. The architects at BBPR Studio then designed a wonderful arrangement for the Scarlioni Hall; the display was inaugurated on April 12, 1956.

For half a century, the Pietà never moved. In recent years, however, curators have started thinking of a different location for the statue, where it could be displayed at its best. After many projects and controversies, a solution was found.

The former Spanish Hospital was chosen as the most suitable space to accommodate the sculpture. The building, which served as an infirmary for the troops stationed in the castle, has been preserved intact in its Sixteenth century forms and decorations, dating back to the age of Philip II of Spain.