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Michelangelo’s Pieta Visits NYC

When the famed Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti brought his statue, known as “Pieta” to the Vatican in 1499, he did it under the cover of the night. The statue was covered with old blankets and carried on a sturdy old wagon. There was no fanfare, no crowd, and no reception committee. In fact, Michelangelo was not sure he would be allowed to move the Carrara marble 11,600-pound statue into St Peter’s Basilica. The statue was in the midst of a political dilemma that bordered on bloodshed.
The statue was originally commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Bilheres de Lagraulas, who was also the ambassador of the Holy See on behalf of the French monarchy. Originally, he wanted the statue so he would be remembered long after he had died. To achieve this goal, he commissioned Michelangelo to make a memorial for his tomb that would capture a scene that was popular in Northern European art at the time: the tragic moment of the Virgin Mary taking Jesus down from the cross. International politics intervened.

The French Cardinal was given the job of encouraging Vatican support for a marriage between the French King and Anne of Brittany, who was the heiress to the Kingdom of Naples. His effort did not work out, and the invasion of Naples by Charles VIII of France ensued. Between the years 1494 and 1498, the tension between France and Italy was at a boiling point. Then a new French monarch, Louis XII, was determined to repair the rift between the Holy See and France. He did this by arranging for a marriage between noblewoman Charlotte d’Albert and the son of Pope Alexander VI, whose name was Cesare Borgia. Hoping to make up somehow for his diplomatic failure to present a war to prevent a war, Cardinal Jean de Lagrauls offered “Pieta.” It was carved by an Italian artist, made for a French space inside the Italian basilica, and was it had a French theme and was carved into Italian marble. It was intended to be a symbol of the French presence in Rome and was to be exhibited to the public as part of the 1500 jubilee. It was to be located in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla. The chapel has been closely connected to France since the 700s and has received generous donations from King Louis XI. What could more pleasing to both sides.
The theme of “Pieta,” is translated from Latin to mean pity and piety. It references the time after the crucifixion when a young Mary is holding the corpse of her son Jesus Christ. “Pieta” was an instant success and has been revered for centuries and visited by millions in Saint Peters including this writer with his family. The “Pieta” is one of the most famous religious sculptures of the Italian Renaissance. It is the only artwork by Michelangelo that he ever signed. It is incredible in its display of classical beauty and naturalism. Fortunately, the statue survived an attack in 1971 by Laszio Toth who hit the statue with a hammer fifteen times before being brought down by Vatican security. He managed to break off her left arm and part of her eyelids and nose were damaged. Skilled craftsmen were able to restore the statue.
Cardinal Archbishop Francis Joseph Spellman of the New York Archdiocese petitioned Pope John XXIII to grant permission for the “Pieta” to be brought to the World’s Fair and be displayed in the Vatican Pavilion. His request was granted, and preparations were begun to transport the nearly three-ton statue onboard the Italian Cruise ship SS Cristoforo Colombo under the command of Captain Guiseppe Shletti. A team known as the Vatican Pavilion Transport Committee headed by John Murray, an expert in the field. Along with would go a lesser-known work, “The Good Shepard,” the sculpture is unknown. It was reconstructed from bits and pieces found in the Catacombs. After his success in transporting the statue to and from St Peter’s, Pope Paul VI granted Murray and his wife an audience to thank them for their endeavor. Murray’s son John Jr said the Pontiff told his father that he was the first person to ever move the “Pieta” from Rome and he’d be the last. Pope Paul then knighted Murray with the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.
The shipper created a watertight case, which was then enclosed in another case containing floatation material, and that case was installed inside a third case and homed a beacon device that would alert the searcher to its exact location. The top of the case was painted orange. In the event the ship sank, the case could be spotted easily as it floated on the surface. The Firemen’s Fund insurance company insured the “Pieta” for six million dollars. The “The Good Shepard” was insured for two million dollars.
Catherine Mannix, daughter of U.S. Navy Commander Philip Shanley, recalled, “My dad did not travel on the ship; his job was in Rome until the Pieta was crated and loaded and then meeting the ship in New York when it arrived. Every picture I have of him doing the loading and unloading shows how stressful and serious the job was. He told us that it was the most nerve-racking experience he had ever had. It was so valuable that it was irreplaceable, and they all had that in mind constantly while packing up and unloading”.
The ship chosen for the voyage was the Italian line’s SS Cristoforo Colombo. Built in the 1950s, she was launched on May 10th, 1953, at the Ansaido Shipyards of Genoa Italy. She is the sister ship to the SS Andrea Doria and slightly larger. The SS Cristoforo Colombo was 29,191 gross tons, seven hundred feet long, ninety feet in beam, driven by twin screw steam turbines. The total passenger capacity was 1,055. After the tragic collision of her sister ship, SS Andrea Doria, with MS Stockholm in 1956, she was the flagship of the Italian line until the launching of the replacement in 1960 for SS Andrea Doria by the SS Leonardo DaVinci.
Elaborate precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the precious cargo. The ship was put in drydock to prevent any movement during the actual loading of the special container. The container was lowed into the emptied first-class pool where it was decided the crate would suffer the least damage in the event of an emergency. The crate was cushioned by a thick rubber base. It was fastened with easily removable hooks to facilitate its release in the event of a disaster to allow the crate to flow free.
The crossing was uneventful, and the SS Cristoforo Columbo was escorted into New York Harbor by three Moran tugboats carrying signs, “New York Welcomes Pieta.” They guided her to a Hudson River berth at West 44th Street. On board also, having joined the ship from a cutter in the lower bay, were New York City detectives, dignitaries from the Archdiocese, and rigging experts from Meritt, Chapman, and Scott Inc.
Once the liner was docked and secured, a crane barge, The Challenger, was brought alongside and prepared to offload the precious cargo. The following morning, the massive crane easily lifted the three-ton “Pieta” onto its deck. Observing the lift were Bishop Bryan McEntegert of Brooklyn, Captain Giuseppe Shlettit, and officers from the U.S. Coast Guard Harbor patrol, NYPD Police, and the World’s Fair’s special police force. There was one other very worried observer, the vice president of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company G. Doane McCarthy Jr.
The Challenger was towed around the Battery and up the East River and through Hells Gate at slack tide, then up the East River into Flushing Bay. The shipping carton was lifted off the barge and onto waiting track trailers and escorted by NYPD for the trip to the Vatican Pavilion. At the pavilion. It was installed in a niche protected by a transparent plastic shield and bathed in blue and white lights.
In its first week, the “Pieta” was viewed by 331,472 guests. More than 124 million people viewed the statue in the first year of the fair. This writer had the good fortune to be one of those who viewed the “Pieta” during the World’s Fair. It was the second most visited attraction after the General Motors building.
The SS Cristofor Columbo was scrapped in 1982 at the scrap yards in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In ignoble end to a noble ship.