Antiquities and Archaeology
Michelangelo sculpture heads to jail
…despite vociferous opposition from art historians
By Ermanno Rivetti. News, Issue 243, February 2013
Published online: 05 February 2013
Michelangelo’s great unfinished sculpture, La Pietà Rondanini, which the artist worked on from around 1552 until his death in 1564, is being temporarily relocated to the Carcere di San Vittore, a Milanese jail.
The move, which has been approved by the city’s government and by Stefano Boeri, Milan’s culture commissioner, will take place while the sculpture’s permanent home, the Castello Sforzesco, undergoes some much-needed renovations. Despite vociferous opposition—mainly from art historians—the work is due to be installed in the jail this spring.
The sculpture has been on display in the castle since 1954, in a specially designed room which is now thought to be unsuitable for a work of this calibre. The statue attracts only 350,000 visitors a year—not nearly enough, say the city’s officials—and the room has no access for disabled people.
The Fondazione Cariplo, which supports art heritage projects, is providing €20m for the renovation of the castle (80% of the total sum needed), €3m of which has been earmarked to place the work in its temporary lodgings.
The Carcere di San Vittore is a 19th-century prison, designed as a radial structure with a central panopticon. The sculpture will be installed at the heart of the panopticon and will be visible from all of the prison’s wings. Rome’s Istituto Centrale per il Restauro is handling transport, conservation and safety issues. Boeri has told the Italian press that the public may also be allowed to see the work in its new setting.
The supporters of the project believe that La Pietà Rondanini, with its underlying themes of suffering and forgiveness, will have a positive impact on the psyches of the inmates, many of whom have never come into contact with works of art. Despite general approval, however, some art historians are against the plan. Vittorio Sgarbi, one of Italy’s foremost art historians, previously wrote a long article in the newspaper il Giornale, arguing that “masterpieces should stay in their respective homes. Nobody moves Michelangelo’s David from the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence; nobody moves his Madonna and Child from Bruges.” He also argued that even fewer people will see the sculpture if it is moved to the jail.
The project has drawn admiration from foreign prison officials and organisations that specialise in providing offenders with access to the arts. Ed Santman, the co-ordinator of art education in Dutch prisons, points to the recommendations of the Council of Europe, adopted in 1989 by the Committee of Ministers, which state that “creative and cultural activities should be given a significant role because these activities have a particular potential to enable prisoners to develop and express themselves”.
Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at the London-based Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest prison reform charity in the UK, says: “It is welcome to see an example of high culture being moved into a prison. There is a long tradition of art projects aiding the journey of long-term prisoners as they serve their sentence.”
Tim Robertson, the chief executive of the Koestler Trust, a London-based prison arts charity, says: “This is what art is about, and the most useful art should be for people who are falling off the edge of society.” He also points to the fact that Michelangelo himself was prone to run-ins with the law, and that his status as an “outsider” may resonate with inmates.
So far, there have been no indications that an art programme will be structured around the statue’s presence in the jail. Rachel Forster, who teaches art at HMP Wakefield, believes that “it would not be enough to just display the piece and then expect it to somehow make something happen”.
When the renovation of the Castello Sforzesco is completed, Michelangelo’s sculpture will be placed in a specially designed space in the old Spanish hospital inside the building.
UPDATE: Michelangelo won’t go to prison after all
Plans to temporarily relocate Michelangelo’s great unfinished sculpture, La Pietà Rondanini, on which he worked until his death in 1564, to the San Vittore prison in Milan have been suddenly put on hold. Shortly after we published an article about the plans, Italy’s ministry of culture stopped the city government and the culture commissioner, Stefano Boeri, from going ahead. The ministry claims that it has not made a final decision on the matter.
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