Michelangelo’s Pietà is one of the most famous works of art in the world, achieving the same level of popularity that, perhaps, only The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa enjoy. It is estimated that the sculpture is visited by between 40,000 and 50,000 people every day. Following the restoration projects completed for Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, iGuzzini met the brief put forward by the Fabric of Saint Peter – represented by Cardinal Angelo Comastri – which emphasised the requirement for a new lighting system that could allow its thousands of visitors to fully appreciate the artwork, as well as to create exceptional scenarios for special occasions and particular visitors.
The masterpiece, made of Carrara marble, has remarkable dimensions: a height of 174 cm, a width of 195 cm and a depth of 69 cm. Because of its limited depth, some art historians believe that it was originally designed to be displayed in a niche.
Completed in1499, the Pietà was one of young Michelangelo’s very first sculptures. It portrays Christ’s mother holding the body of her dead son in her arms. She looks much younger than Christ because the sculptor took his inspiration from Dante Alighieri and St. Bernard’s prayer in the last canto of the Paradiso: “Vergine Madre figlia del tuo figlio, termine ultimo di eterno consiglio, tu sei colei che l'umana natura, nobilitasti si, che il suo fattore non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.” (Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan, You are the one who lifted human nature to such nobility that its own Maker did not disdain to be made of its making.) So Christ’s mother is his mother, but also the daughter of God, the Creator.
In Christian tradition, the theme of Compassion was usually represented by an image of the Virgin Mary sitting upright with the body of Christ portrayed as rigid and unmoving. Michelangelo’s portrayal of the two protagonists and of Mary’s feelings is profoundly humanised. In his Pietà, Mary wears a dress with many folds and her head is covered by a draped veil. She holds Christ’s head with her right hand, her fingers squeezing the ribs under his right shoulder, and protects his body with a flap of her cloak. Her left hand is turned palm upwards at the height of Christ’s knee. Christ’s head had fallen backwards and his right arm had dropped by his side.
According to the words of Cardinal Comastri, Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Virgin’s face succeeds in merging two feelings that seem irreconcilable: pain and serenity.
This absolute masterpiece is also the only work signed by Michelangelo. The band that runs around Virgin Mary’s bust, bears the following engraving: MICHEL.A [N] GELVS BONAROTVS FLORENT [INVS] FACIEBAT (Made by the Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti), which uses the imperfect tense to reflect Pliny the Elder’s view that a work is never perfect but always perfectible.
The sculpture is currently housed in the first chapel of the right hand side nave of the immense St. Peter’s Basilica, but it has only been there since the mid-eighteenth century.
The sculpture is protected by a thick, shatterproof glass screen following the lengthy restoration required as a result of an attack by a mentally disturbed individual in 1972. As such, the large number of visitors can only view the sculpture from a fixed distance and well-defined positions.
Since October 2018, the Pietà has had a new lighting design created by the Rossi Bianchi Lighting Design studio. This was revised and implemented through constant and constructive collaboration between all the parties and professionals involved, who were extremely conscious of the enormous responsibility undertaken by working on such an invaluable work of art.
The design studio’s main aim was to create a consistent overall vision that would allow visitors to see and enjoy the expressive intensity of every detail in this masterpiece. This required a measured and composed lighting design that would illuminate the contours of the sculpture and the glow of the marble. The project, which involved completely removing the previous lighting installation, features four different lighting scenarios that can accommodate different activities and visual requirements. The individual scenarios were defined according to the general criteria and requirements that determined the choice and layout of the new luminaires. The installation consists of latest generation LED sources with a warm white tone (3000 K colour temperature), high colour rendering, a long life span and low energy consumption. They are extremely compact and are either totally concealed or have a minimal visual impact. High efficiency projectors with focused emissions and carefully controlled opening beams illuminate both the marble sculpture and the chapel. Track lighting was also installed vertically on either side of the pilasters in front of the sculpture to allow the projectors to be positioned at ideal heights for aiming the beams and controlling the luminance. No extra masonry work or feeding points were required and maximum visual comfort was achieved when viewing the sculpture through the safety glass, either from inside the chapel or from a distance. The light intensity of the individual luminaires is also adjustable, which is an indispensable requirement when it comes to defining and choosing between the different scenarios. The lighting system was designed not only for the sculpture, but also for the chapel housing it. The luminaires used are Palco projectors with 12° and 26° optics and the Palco Framer profiler, all installed on low voltage tracks. Underscore linear lighting illuminates the vaults. The luminaires, all DALI-controlled, are divided into groups, each with its own power unit, so that the levels of light intensity emitted can be calibrated to create different lighting scenarios in line with a range of visual requirements and tasks. Everything is managed by a single control system. The project defines a series of alternative lighting situations named after the four cardinal points: ‘North scenario - sculpture focus’; ‘East scenario - light blade‘; ‘South scenario - full light’ and ‘West scenario - daily’, in order to clarify their different display effects.
The North Scenario – sculpture focus uses track-mounted Palco projectors installed either side of the pilasters. There is no overriding directionality and the balance of the chiaroscuro effects enhances the sculpture’s plasticity. Visitors can appreciate every individual detail while also enjoying a sense of overall harmony. The central vault, featuring frescoes by Giovanni Lanfranco, is also evenly lit with values that gradually decrease towards the capitals. The arches and lateral barrel vaults are illuminated homogeneously with less intense light. The Crucifix is illuminated diagonally by a projector mounted on the cornice, at a considerable distance.
The East Scenario – light blade emits a narrow light beam that illuminates the sculpture with a blade of light effect coming from a projector mounted on the lateral capital on the east side of the sculpture. The incidence angle is clear and there is a sharp contrast with the surrounding shadow. The recumbent face of the Virgin Mary is also illuminated by a soft upward streak of light. The subdued lighting of the vaults and backdrop creates a frame around the sculpture and vibrant reflections enhance the shine of the marble to create a powerful visual effect with a strong emotional impact.
The South Scenario – full light is designed for special events and activities which require higher lighting values that allow clear visibility of the sculpture from the central nave of the Basilica. Compared to previous scenarios, the lighting of the central vault, arches and lateral vaults is more sustained. Frontal projectors also enhance the light grazing effect. The altar is bathed in soft lighting. The Crucifix is highlighted from above by a Palco projector with 26° optics.
The West Scenario – daily uses track-mounted projectors with 12° optics mounted on either side of the pilasters. Their beams crisscross at symmetrical angles to highlight the sculpture’s plasticity. The background, illuminated from the bottom up, balances the contrasts. The central vault is evenly illuminated with values that gradually decrease towards the capitals. The side arches and barrel vaults are homogeneously illuminated with less intense light. The Crucifix is highlighted by a projector located at a distance to reduce shadow effects. The chiaroscuro accents create a consistent and unitary overall perception of the sculpture with values that allow it to be viewed through the safety glass from both close up, inside the chapel, as well as from a greater distance.
The new lighting design helps the viewer to better appreciate the masterpiece, while also highlighting its theological elements and devotional character so that it can be fully understood.