UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Visibility of sculpted matter and form : Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà and the ontological nature of sculpture Vranic, Ivana


The Rondanini Pietà (1552-1564) engages the viewer in an embodied and temporal process of perceiving the becomings of sculpted form—rough and smooth surfaces, indentations, fissures and contours—enfolded in the material and physical qualities of the marble block and its flesh-like surface. Emphasizing the process of creating the work, a multitude of chisel marks animate sculpted matter and prolong the eventual pausing of the viewer’s eyes. The materiality of the stone urges the viewer to move around to perceive the sculpture as it becomes transfigured anew through the continuous morphing of the facial and bodily features of its two figures: Christ and the Virgin. Deterring the comprehensibility of the subject matter, the enfolding of matter and form, conceptualized as the infinito, calls attention to the very rhetorical and ontological nature of the work as sculpture. Kept in private collections for several centuries, the Rondanini Pietà is an uncommissioned sculpture considered to be the last work by Michelangelo Bounarroti. To interpret this Pietà, scholars have utilized established biographical, iconographic, and chronological approaches to the artist’s oeuvre. In 1934, Charles de Tolnay published the first modern study of the work, interpreting it as a testament of the artist’s religiosity—an interpretation that dominates the scholarship. Focusing primarily on a discussion of the Rondanini Pietà, this thesis introduces a concept of the infinito and with it a theoretical framework to expose the overdetermined nature of this scholarship. Judging the work to be either finished or unfinished (finito or non-finito) scholars rehearse the Cartesian dichotomy of res extensa and res cogitans, segregating matter from form and denying sculpture its ontological quality. In order to understand what comes prior to the processes of description, interpretation and contextualization, what is at stake is to rethink how we approach sculpture as a medium that has specific physical and material characteristics that determine its rhetorical potential. Making the viewer part of how sculpture works to make temporally visible the becomings of form, the concept of the infinito challenges us to reflect upon the methodologies used in the study of sculpture produced in the period.

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