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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Michelangelo and Titian: Endings

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Renaissance artists rarely produced art for themselves. When they did there was a freedom of expression without cares about patrons paying or overseeing their work. Michelangelo and Titian, the two sixteenth century powerhouse competitive artists, decided to create their own memorial as the end of their lives approached. Long time rivals, with completely different approaches to their art, they chose the same subject for their tombs. Was it coincidence or was this their last chance to try to surpass the other? Did jealousy or piety fuel their creativity?

Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Titian (c.1488-1576) were keenly aware of each other’s career, style, and patrons. They met on two occasions. Michelangelo traveled to Venice in 1529 and Titian traveled to Rome in 1545. Both lived long and had fruitful careers, although fundamentally diverse from each other in temperament and values. They were experts at keeping fresh young talent at bay to continue their respective dominance. Titian worked as an oil painter primarily in Venice; Michelangelo hailed from Florence but spent many years in Rome as painter, sculptor, and architect. They both were shaped by traditions long valued in their artistic communities. Yet they borrowed from each other and may have had a hard time admitting how influential one was on the other.

Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà, detail, 1547-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, photo Gerriann Brower.
Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà, detail, 1547-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, photo Gerriann Brower.

The subject they both chose was the Pietà, a depiction of the dead Jesus held by his mother Mary. The scene captures Mary’s profound grief, mourning for his followers, and anticipation of the Resurrection. Both artists included self-portraits in their scenes. Neither artist achieved their greatest ambitions in creating their personal Pietà. Against their wishes, their artwork was not placed at their burial site. Neither artist finished the artwork to their satisfaction prior to death. A side-by-side examination of the Pietàs gives us insight into their creative spirits, how they saw themselves in the scene, and how they wished to be remembered.

Four Pietàs

Michelangelo created three sculptures of the Pietà and one gift drawing of the subject during his lifetime. His first sculpture of the subject was his youthful masterpiece in St. Peter’s, with two additional sculptures left unfinished in his advanced age.

At twenty-three years old, Michelangelo created his initial masterpiece for a French cardinal’s tomb. Originally in the old St. Peter’s, the Vatican Pietà is now is on view in the first right-hand chapel as you enter St. Peter’s, unfortunately now behind plexiglass after someone smashed it with a hammer in 1972. It was meant to be seen much closer in order to appreciate the nuances of Mary’s expression and the limpness of Jesus’ body.

It is also significant as the only signed work. Most likely he planned to inscribe his name while he crafted the piece. He signed it prominently along the sash on Mary’s chest. It cleverly says “Michelangelo the Florentine was making this.” To fully appreciate the Latin imperfect tense, he makes it clear he was actively in the process of making the sculpture. He left off the last letter at the corner of her veil so the viewer would need to complete the sentence, in translation, “Michelangelo the Florentine was making thi[s].” In Latin the verb is at the end, hence, “Michael Angelus Bonarotus Florentinus facieba[t].” It was an act of bravura and self-promotion. Without a doubt he wanted people to know he had arrived. And it was well deserved since the sculpture, done pre-David and pre-Sistine ceiling, brought him public acclaim and commissions.

At age seventy-four Michelangelo revisited the subject. For some time, he was convinced of his imminent demise as he had lived past many of his peers, popes, and family members. He decided to attempt a Pietà for his own tomb. After working for decades on commissions for other people’s tombs he thought it time to address his own memorial. Called the Florentine Pietà, Michelangelo began work on it in about 1549. Unbeknownst to him he would have ample time to complete the sculpture as he lived to be nearly ninety. Yet his concept – or the marble – presented flaws and problems from the beginning.

Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà, 1547-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY NC SA2.0.
Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà, 1547-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY NC SA2.0.

Viewers can sense there is something off in the sculpture straight away, especially in the lower three figures. All these arms and legs! To whom do they belong? Michelangelo, never one to turn down a challenge, struggled to carve four figures from one block of stone. It is difficult enough to carve one giant figure like David from a block of marble, or two like the Rome Pietà, but creating four figures from one block is the equivalent of winning 23 gold Olympic medals ala Michael Phelps.

Let’s untangle those limbs and see who Michelangelo included in his memorial sculpture. The tallest figure standing at the center above others is most likely the biblical figure Nicodemus. It is also his self-portrait and the first figure he carved. The bearded man with a hood helps supports the limp body of Jesus while Mary supports most of his body. He is the only standing figure and turns his gaze downwards towards Jesus.

Nicodemus is not the most common art historical figure. He appears only three times in John’s gospel, but remains a shadowy figure. He was intrigued with Jesus, but was not an active follower. In the Middle Ages a legend developed and he was thought to be a stone mason or sculptor who made a portrait of Jesus. We first meet him in John 3 when Nicodemus expressed awe with Jesus’ miracles. He came to Jesus one night when they conversed about being “born anew” through faith and the Spirit. Nicodemus struggles to understand spiritual rebirth. Coming in the night means quite literally that Nicodemus was in the dark, curious about who Jesus is, but not becoming a disciple. He represents the kind of person, like Michelangelo, who tries to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

He next appears to defend Jesus from his fellow Pharisees who protest that Jesus has not been arrested after preaching in the Temple. Finally, he is there after the crucifixion. There are two able-bodied men who helped transfer Jesus’ body to the tomb, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. His self-portrait could also be of Joseph, but because of the connection to Nicodemus being a worker of stone, most scholars lean towards identifying him as Nicodemus. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man who donated his own tomb to bury Jesus. Nicodemus came prepared with about 100 pounds of spices, a huge quantity, which indicates they wanted to give him an proper burial. John 19:40 writes “They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloth, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (The linen cloth becomes the famous/infamous the Shroud of Turin.) Both men were righteously caring for the deceased, a common criminal by Roman standards. By carving his self-portrait Michelangelo confronts his own mortality, burial, and belief in the Resurrection. It is the most powerful and successful of the figures.

Jesus is the central figure, although the positioning of the arms, while realistic for a dead man, presents logistical issues. The contortion appears that the left arm is longer than the right and that if the figure were to resurrect itself and stand, he would tower over Nicodemus. Where is Jesus’ left leg? Now missing, it was originally placed over Mary’s lap (also awkward). She is seated on the viewer’s right, holding him under his left arm. Kneeling on the left is Mary Magdalene who uneasily reaches under Jesus’ thigh with a very long right arm. Her proportions seem more childlike in stature and does not appear as a grown woman. Her gaze is directed toward the viewer. Her kneeling pose is not immediately apparent unless the viewer moves to the left. If she stood perhaps her size wouldn’t appear so diminutive.

Michelangelo, Florentine Pietà, 1547-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence,

photos Gerriann Brower.

We are seeing the great master as a vulnerable artist, unsure of his approach with the sculpture and perhaps taking on more than the block and his aged skills were able. The chronicler Giorgio Vasari recounts a late-night visit to the master’s home when he saw Michelangelo with the Pietà. Holding a lantern, Michelangelo sensed Vasari was giving the side eye to the unfinished sculpture. He dropped the lantern, leaving them in the dark. He did not like peepers viewing his work, especially one he was struggling to complete, and this was six years on from when he started it.

Sometime after this incident, Michelangelo showed his frustration with the group in an angry rage. According to Vasari, he smashed off Jesus’ left leg, his arms, and the arm of Mary. His servant Antonio implored him to stop. Eventually the unfinished and partially destroyed marble was moved to the banker Francesco Bandini’s house. Michelangelo’s friend, assistant, and fellow sculptor Tiberio Calcagni repaired what he could, although the left leg was never attached. The cracks are still very visible. Apparently, Michelangelo never worked on it again. It stayed in Bandini’s house and was eventually moved to the garden. Just before his death Michelangelo requested to get it back, but it didn’t happen. Vasari blamed it on defects in the marble block, or Michelangelo’s concept – or both.

Michelangelo’s vexation was understandable. Most of his time was devoted to planning and supervising the dome of St. Peter’s as well as other architectural projects in Rome. In the same year he started the Pietà, he stopped painting frescoes and his last sculpture of Brutus, a marble bust, was finished some nine years prior. It was physically demanding to climb scaffolds or chisel away at marble. Michelangelo never had a studio with many teaching assistants – certainly he had help obtaining supplies, a runner, housekeepers, and numerous contacts to expedite communications and deliver materials. He lived simply. But when it came to creating art, the master did it all. And the master was a perfectionist. If the marble was flawed in a way that he could not carve it as desired, then the only solution would be to piece the sculpture together. The ancients, medieval, and Renaissance artists did it by fitting together individual pieces to make it look like one solid block of figures, but that was not his mentality. If he couldn’t carve four figures from one block he was not going to capitulate and piece them together. That defeated his goal and, in his mind, it was justified to abandon it.

When he died there was another Pietà in his house, the Rondanini Pietà, begun in about 1555. Consisting of two figures, the concept is simpler, but there are also problems. Both figures are standing. Christ is held up by the Virgin Mary, yet there is another face chiseled out on top of Mary’s veil. Were there three figures initially or was he in process of refiguring the statue? The likelihood of Mary holding up the body is improbable. Christ’s right arm is detached from his body and his legs appear too long.

The Florentine Pietà was in his house, perhaps for more than ten years. Following his death, it remained in the Bandini family garden for nearly one hundred years before Duke Cosimo III of Florence had it transferred to Florence where it was placed in the Duomo until 1933. It is now in a modern museum behind the Duomo. Michelangelo wished to be buried in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, but like his intended memorial sculpture, his wishes were not honored. His body was discreetly moved from Rome to Florence and his tomb is now a selfie spot for tourists in Santa Croce. Some mistakenly believe Michelangelo made the sculptures, which he did not.

The takeaway? He was still creating at an advanced age, he reworked and reconceived his art as he progressed, but even the masters didn’t always turn out a perfect product. He worked on the Rondanini Pietà until six days before he died. Even though these are less than perfect sculptures, there is a humbleness in the roughed-out marble and imperfections.

The Last Painting

Titian and Michelangelo had little in common. Both were known for depicting nudes. Michelangelo painted and sculpted the heroic muscular nude and Titian painted flesh unlike no other, sensual, plump women devoid of any athletic abilities. Titian excelled in portraiture, as well as mythological scenes for royalty in Europe, subjects Michelangelo avoided. Titian was the painter of European royalty and Venetian high culture while Michelangelo remained tied to papal commissions.

There was always a divide between central Italy and Venetian group think about art values. Venetians were known for using color, leaning towards oil painting, and sometimes figuring out the composition and poses as they painted, in a freer style that appeared more painterly, in other words lacking hard linear outlines. This approach was known as colorito. Titian mastered this approach and especially in his mature works figures do not have distinct outlines but rather appear blurred around the edges. Michelangelo’s paintings follow central Italian protocols.

Central Italian traditions pointed to a strong basis in drawing, detailed drawings that create a template for the finished product, and until oil painting convinced artists to use that medium, fresco painting prevailed. Fresco painting required pre-planning. Oil painting not as much. An artist can paint over a figure or alter a pose in oil painting. Fresco is one and done. The central Italian tradition was referred to as disegno.

These two approaches resulted in a slightly fabricated debate between artists, poets, and critics over which approach was most valid and made the best art. The rhetoric extended to disputing which medium best reflected nature – sculpture or painting, with poetry and architecture sometimes thrown in the mix. The Florentines said the Venetians couldn’t draw well (of course they did) and the Venetians said the Florentines couldn’t use color properly. These were often wars with paint brushes and words which resulted in one-upmanship. Through travel, trade, and the printing press artists and patrons knew what was going on artistically in Europe. Imagine the world without the internet when only books, prints, and word of mouth kept people up to date. Imitation was a form of creativity and flattery in a subtle way that didn’t infringe on the originator of the object, but that someone in the know would be able to pinpoint the influences.

Vasari visited Titian in 1566. Vasari was a primary instigator of these art battles and Michelangelo was always his center point. He was unabashedly a Tuscan and of the disegno tradition. Vasari was not complementary about Titian’s painterly process or colorito. He did not disguise his bias. We know that Titian certainly knew of Michelangelo’s first Pietà and also his memorial sculpture. The Pietà was an unusual subject for Titian, who was no stranger to religious subjects. It seems more than coincidence that he chose the same subject as his rival.

Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0.
Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0.

Six years after Michelangelo’s death Titian began his final painting intended for his tomb. Six years later when he died in1576 it was still a work in progress. Like Michelangelo’s sculpture, it is a sizable work of art. The painting is nearly eleven feet by twelve (378 x 347 cm). It consists of seven different sizes of canvas pieced together, like a quilt, with Christ and Mary at the center.

There are four figures, two angels or putti, and two painted statues. Titian has masterfully framed the four figures against an architectural backdrop which provides stability to the composition. Titian created a strong diagonal starting with the kneeling figure in the guise of St. Jerome on the right up to Mary Magdalene who strides forward and raises her right arm in an expression of grief. The scene takes place at night with the only light sources emanating from the body of the divine Christ and the reflection in the gold mosaic niche above. Although the angel on the upper right holds a candle, it does not illuminate the painting.

The two statues are Moses on the left and a Hellespontine Sybil on the right. She holds the cross and a crown of thorns. Moses holds his tablets of the Ten Commandments and a rod in the other hand. In case a viewer isn’t sure of their identity Titian painted inscriptions on the bases. Both figures stand on a lion head base. St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice, is symbolized by a lion and lion emblems are found frequently in Venice. The Sybil is a prophetess who supposedly predicted the crucifixion of Jesus. The statues and architecture provide symmetry in an asymmetrical figural arrangement. The two angels balance out the upper right and lower left corners. Moses and the Sybil are perhaps homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses and the sybils of the Sistine ceiling. Titian also references the debate about which art form is truest to nature by painting sculptures and architecture, therefore placing painting as the preeminent. The Pietà is a stunning tribute to the arts in general.

Due to Titian’s custom of unblended brushstrokes in his later years, a viewer must look closely for some intriguing details. One is the shining mosaics reflected in the golden niche above the fallen Christ. Here he pays tribute to Venice’s mosaic heritage especially Venice’s Basilica of San Marco. The white bird is a pelican, often a Christological symbol, who self-injures by pecking at her breast to feed two chicklets. The bird is painted in such quick brushstrokes with only a hint of what is happening. There is just the slightest smudge of red to draw the eye in. Titian is an example of “slow art” or the need to look closely to understand the meaning and the mastery.

St. Jerome (c. 345-420) is painted as an ascetic in his red garment, loose at the shoulder. Jerome studied the scripture in the original languages and later translated them into Latin, which became the standard common version. Often depicted in a study, or in this case as a poor hermit, referring to his years as a monk living in a cave. Of course, he wasn’t present at the time of Jesus’ death, but often a variety of saints are portrayed in sacred conversation (sacra conversazione) with Mary. St. Jerome tenderly touches Jesus’ hand and upper arm. He is depicted as an old man and most scholars agree that Titian strongly implied this as a self-portrait. His self-portrait from 1565-70 in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, shows a strong resemblance to St. Jerome with a trimmed white beard.

Titian, Self-Portrait, c. 1562, Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Titian, Self-Portrait, c. 1562, Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

There are two surviving self-portraits. Here he presents himself as a minor nobility with a gold chain as a Knight of the Golden Spur. With black clothing, long beard, and skull cap he casts himself in aristocratic circles, although he makes his role as a painter clear by holding the brush. Done in his early seventies, he may have made this for his family as it was still in his possession four year later. This is probably the portrait referred to by Vasari during his visit to his home and studio.

Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, detail, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0.
Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, detail, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0.

Titian included two coded references to grace given by God through the intercession of votive objects. On the right-hand side of the painting a forearm and hand are propped up against the leg of the Hellespontine Sybil. This is a strange thing to include in a Pietà meant as a memorial. In context of the time, it can be understood as an ex-voto image. Ex-votos were common in Titian’s time and the practice is still in use today. Visiting an Italian church today you may see motorcycle helmets, a piece of clothing, jewelry, or a photo of a loved one left by statues or paintings of Christ, Madonnas or other saints. It is a way of asking for grace, healing, or giving thanks for a healing. Anatomical ex-votos were made of wax, plaster, or other materials in Titian’s time. We can safely assume Titian was referring to a request or thanks for a healing, either for someone he knew or a family member. The arm in the painting is a ghostly image that blends in well with the tone and coloring of the painting.

Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, detail, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Wikimedia Commons.
Titian and Palma il Giovane, Pietà, detail, c.1570-76, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Wikimedia Commons.

Just below the arm and leaning against the lion’s head on the right side is a painting within the painting. It is a votive tablet and if examined closely consists of two kneeling men praying before a painting of a Pietà. He painted in dialect an inscription below which scholars have not been able to translate completely. In 1576 the plague was raging through Venice. It struck fear into citizens and caused many deaths and contributed to the construction of churches and commissions for paintings as ex-votos to cure or give thanks for the end of the pestilence. Again, Titian does not make it clear who is in the painted tablet or why he included it. Many assume he painted himself and his favorite son Orazio as the penitents asking for grace and forgiveness. The facial features are not clear enough to distinguish except that both have a beard and the one on the right appears younger.

To the immediate left of Christ’s feet on the tablet is an important clue. A double headed imperial eagle is painted against a gold metallic background with a chevron. It appears to be another tablet behind the painted ex-voto. The eagle and chevron design were bestowed on Titian in 1533 as his personal family coat of arms by Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V. The Emperor showed his gratitude towards Titian for the paintings he completed. This was a great honor for a man from a small town in the Dolomites who committed himself to a life of painting for others. It elevated him socially and professionally as a minor nobility. It is fitting he included here as thanks to his patron or perhaps to draw a dotted line connecting the votive tablet with two men to his coat of arms to indicate their identity.

Titian intended to be buried in the Venetian church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, usually referred to as I Frari (the friars). If the altarpiece had been installed at the location he had agreed upon with the Franciscan friars, it would have been the third Titian masterpiece in the church. He carefully took into account the location of the Pietà in relation to the architecture and placement of his other paintings. His first acknowledged masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin, a striking altarpiece framed by the church’s interior arch, was completed 1515-18 when he was in his late twenties. It is an artistic wonder of composition and color. The second is the Ca ‘Pesaro Altarpiece from 1519-26 featuring the Virgin Mary, child, saints, and the Pesaro family.

The Pietà would have been the first one to the right upon entering the church, further up the nave the Ca ’Pesaro on the left, with the Assumption in the center at the high altar. With this configuration the diagonal composition of the painting from right to left and Mary Magdalene’s right arm gesturing and turning towards the right suggests the viewer turn towards the Assumption. The Ca’ Pesaro altarpiece two chapels up and across the nave has a diagonal composition from left to right. This results in both paintings directing the viewer towards the Assumption. However, the friars were reluctant to place the Pietà in Titian’s desired location, most likely because the painting displaced a miracle working crucifix long admired by the Franciscans. The friars were also concerned with the notion of the painter depicting himself in the work. Having three Titian paintings in a major church might make the church Titian centered. The Pietà now resides in Venice’s Galleria dell’Accademia. It is always a loss when artwork hangs on a museum wall instead of in situ, its original desired location.

Titian’s Pietà was in his studio when he died August 27, 1576 at age eighty-eight. Although he officially died of “fever” it was likely he succumbed to plague. His family received permission for a more public funeral and he was buried at I Frari at the chapel where he intended to place his final painting. Chaos ensued following his death. His beloved son Orazio was executor of the estate but died a month later of the plague. Titian was wealthy. His house and studio were ransacked for materials by various heirs. His remaining son Pomponio sold what was left but by then most drawings and important pieces of his collection were gone.

A five-year disagreement over the Pietà and other properties ended with the painting in Palma Giovane’s custody. A Venetian painter, Palma claimed to have finished Titian’s painting. Most scholars agree Palma painted the angel in the upper right holding the candle but did not alter much else. This did not stop Palma from boldly adding an inscription to the bottom of the base of the stone by Jesus’ feet: “What Titian left unfinished, Palma reverently complete, and dedicate the work to God.” How much more did Titian intend to change in the painting we will never know. The painting stayed with Palma until his death in 1628, then was moved to another church until 1814, when it entered the Accademia.

Neither artist was naïve about self-promotion. What peers wrote about you mattered. How you presented yourself in a self-portrait or through correspondence, or in Michelangelo’s case in his poetry, also mattered. Both artists had the final pictorial say in their brand image and how they wanted others to think of them. Both chose redemptive iconic Christian self-images. Nothing says “I believe and I ask for forgiveness” than painting yourself as a holy person at the scene of Christ’s death. Both artists pictured themselves as humble penitents. Michelangelo made his self-reference clear while Titian was more elusive. The Pietàs are deeply personal reflections of their faith and mortality.


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Goffen, Rona. Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. Yale University Press, 2002.

Humfrey, Peter. Titian. Phaidon, 2007.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holly Friday. Abingdon Press, 2021.

Loh, Maria H. Titian’s Touch: Art, Magic, and Philosophy. Reaktion, 2019.

Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Miracles: Artistry and Efficacy Between the San Rocco Christ and the Accademia Pietà.” Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp. 320–49.

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