The Marble Knee of the Missing Left Leg of the Christ from Michelangelo’s Deposition

by theresamoritz

4340_s0002189_001Entry 21 August 1, 2013

I ended my last blog post with a preview of this one: I would report on some research that was inspired by Wikipedia’s entry on Daniele da Volterra, in particular, a brief comment that says the artist’s will names him as the owner of “the marble knee of the missing left leg of the Christ from Michelangelo’s Deposition.”

Da Volterra’s Wikipedia entry is not the first one I’ve looked at in connection with paintings in the Louvre. Although at first I planned to concentrate on what I could learn from the information in my Louvre book and its DVD, I soon found that the book rarely gives more than a bare identification—artist’s name, life dates, name of painting, date of composition, dimensions, medium, location in the museum, inventory number—of any painting that is the sole Louvre example of its creator’s work. I began Googling any unfamiliar artist’s name, which, not too surprisingly, took me to Wikipedia.

Indeed, that’s where my Google search for da Volterra took me. I encountered not only da Volterra’s role in altering Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (see blog post 20) but also the “marble knee of the missing left leg of the Christ from Michelangelo’s Deposition.” I immediately wanted to learn more. I felt that Wikipedia was implying something about da Volterra, but I couldn’t tell what: was the possession of the knee from the “missing left leg” a sign that da Volterra had committed a crime against his old friend, Michelangelo, a crime that would perhaps be consistent with his willingness to paint over his friend’s work? The word “missing” also suggested to me that there was some kind of mystery associated with the sculpture. I thought the will, mentioned as containing the reference to the knee, might help me, but Wikipedia did not say where I could find the will itself or anything written about the will. This was also true of the Wikipedia entry on the Deposition, to which there is a link in the da Volterra entry; moreover, neither the marble knee nor the missing left leg was even mentioned in the Deposition entry. In short, what Wikipedia said was not sufficient to satisfy my curiosity, nor did it give me much reason to think that I should expect to find more information elsewhere.

I was, however, helped very much by the bibliography included in the Wikipedia entry on the sculpture. Two sources were especially useful: Jack Wasserman’s Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Leo Steinberg’s “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After.” Art Bulletin 71, 3 (1989): 480-505. Both of these sources refer to the Deposition by another name commonly applied to the piece, the Florence (or Florentine) Pietà. I recommend Wasserman’s book not only for its valuable commentary but also for the many beautiful photographs and informative analytical drawings of the sculpture. For a quick look at the Deposition, here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry:

I will not attempt to summarize all the additional information I collected; I will limit myself to what I now feel I can be sure of about the knee. First, the possession of the knee is much more likely a reflection of friendship than a sign of betrayal; all the sources I consulted, including Wasserman and Steinberg, emphasize the close ties between the two men in the crucial years from when Michelangelo worked on the Deposition (ca. 1547-1553) through his death in 1564 (witnessed by da Volterra). Second, there is indeed a mystery associated with the “missing left leg”, but it has to do with the process by which the sculpture was created, not with a criminal act. The leg is missing in the sense that the figure of Christ in the Deposition has only a right leg, no left leg; in addition, scholars, among them Wasserman and Steinberg, have spent considerable energy in arguing over whether Michelangelo crafted a left leg and, if he did, what happened to it; this leg would presumably be the one from which da Volterra obtained the marble knee.

The attention paid to the absent leg stems in part from aesthetic considerations but also because the Deposition is one of the very last sculptures worked on by Michelangelo, and one prominent theory has him becoming so frustrated with the piece that he smashed it, something he is not known to have done with any other project. Wasserman and Steinberg disagree as to what happened; neither doubts, apparently, that da Volterra had a marble knee sculpted by Michelangelo, but Steinberg believes the knee came from the Deposition and was part of the refuse created when Michelangelo,particularly disturbed by the left leg he had created for the figure of Christ, made it a special target in his effort to destroy the piece. Wasserman believes that the knee in da Volterra’s possession may have come from another work, the Rondanini Pietà, in part because he believes problems in the marble prompted Michelangelo to remove the partially completed left leg from the Deposition as part of a plan for refashioning the sculpture.

Wasserman was helpful on the subject of da Volterra’s will. He points out that the will does not name the Deposition in particular, but rather refers only to a pietà; this name, then, could refer to the Rondanini Pietà instead of the Deposition. He also makes clear why a visit to the will is impossible: the 1866 article by Benvenuto Gasparoni, in which the text of the will was published, did not give the document’s location.

Not only was Wikipedia’s information incomplete as to da Volterra’s possession of the knee, but also Wikipedia should have acknowledged that there is significant disagreement as to the accuracy of the information it does provide.

I’ve included a photo of a sculpture by da Volterra in the Louvre’s collection. It falls outside my usual material, but it is of special interest for this post, because it’s a bust of Michelangelo.

I’m done at last with the knee, but I do wish that someone would have said something as to its current location. Alas, for some reason, no one seems as interested in that as I am.