By Martina Bollini

Forty-four years ago, on 21 May 1972, Michelangelo’s Pietà was vandalized by Laszlo Toth, an Hungarian-born Australian geologist. On the day of Pentecost, the man repeatedly battered the statue with a hammer, shouting “I am Jesus Christ – risen from the dead’. Toth was judged insane and was never charged with a criminal offense. He spent the following two years in an Italian psychiatric hospital and, after his release, he was deported to Australia. 

The Pietà was severely damaged and underwent a controversial restoration. Art historians did not agree on the extent of the intervention. Eventually, the Vatican called for integral restoration, which would hide every trace of the assault. 

The phenomenon of iconoclasm was widespread during the last century. Among assaulted artworks we can find Leonardo’s Mona Lisa; Raphael’s Sposalizio; Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi; Poussin’s Golden Calf.  As a matter of fact, the history of Western art has been periodically marked by iconoclastic movements, such as those of the eighth and ninth centuries, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of the French Revolution. These movements were often motivated by political reasons: by damaging the symbols of power one can perceive to diminish that power itself. On the other hand, unrelated, individual acts of iconoclasm are usually associated with a mental disturb. It is nonetheless important to take notice of the power images have on each one of us, although in very different ways. An iconoclastic deed is not only an attention-seeking act: it represents an attempt to break the hold a particular image or part of an image has on the individual imagination.  

Further reading: D. Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498-1499, marble, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

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