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May 21 Attacking the Pieta

Today in St Peters, Rome, a 33 year old man called Lazlo Toth, wielding a geologist's hammer shouted, "I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead". Alarmed pilgrims and tourists watched as he attacked Michelangelo's Pietà statue in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

Who was he? What happened to him? and more importantly what happened to one of the most sublime works of art.


With fifteen blows he removed Mary's arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Toth was subdued by bystanders, including American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who hit him several times before pulling him away from the Pietà. In view of his apparent insanity, Toth was never charged with the crime. On 29 January 1973, he was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital. He was released on 9 February 1975, and was immediately deported to Australia, where he had studied prior to the attack; Australian authorities did not detain him.

The Pieta is a sublime piece of Christian Art portraying the marble figures of Mary holding the crucified Christs dead body. (See pod of Mar 6th) When art historian Giorgio Vasari saw the statue in 1550, he wrote in his book about the lives of artists. “It is a miracle that a rock, which before was without form, can take on such perfection that even nature sometimes struggles to create in the flesh”. Michelangelo was 24 at the time of its completion and it was soon to be regarded as one of the world's great masterpieces of sculpture. The statue is so lifelike that a viewer can almost feel the curls of the dead Christ’s hair and the softness of the Madonna’s lips. The veins in Christ’s muscular arms seem to be still holding blood. The folds in the Madonna’s veil seem made of muslin rather than marble. It is also the only piece Michelangelo ever signed Sixteenth century art historian Again Giorgi Vasari explains why : One day Michelagnolo [sic], entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, 'Our Gobbo from Milan.' Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labours should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it. Michelangelo later regretted the vanity of this act, and resolved never to sign another piece of his work.

Sublime works of art evoke strong emotions, Michelangelo had a habit of shouting at his sculptures and even occasionally lashing out at them with his tools. Born and educated in Hungary, after graduating in geology, in 1965 he moved to Australia. As his English was poor and his geology diploma was not recognized, Toth initially worked at a soap factory. In June 1971 he moved to Rome, Italy, knowing no Italian, and aiming to become recognized as Christ. He sent letters to Pope Paul VI and unsuccessfully attempted to meet him. Danny Bloom who was a transient backpacker buddy of Toth's shortly before the attack said that Laszlo spent a great deal of time in his room, feverishly reading the Bible.

Art historians were divided on how to proceed with the restoration of the masterpiece. Some art historians and restorers wanted the statue to remain as it was damaged as a sign of the violent times. Others said it should be restored but with clear marks delineating the damaged parts as a historical testament. The Vatican instead decided on what is known as an “integral restoration,” one that would not leave any traces of the intervention visible to the naked eye. “With any other statue, leaving the wounds (of the attack) visible, however painful, could have been tolerated,” said Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. “But not with the Pieta, not this miracle of art,” he said. Using a specially made invisible glue and powder made from the same type of marble, the restorers painstakingly pieced together the chunks and fragments, including one that arrived anonymously from the United States. A tourist who was in the basilica picked up a piece in the confusion as police were arresting Toth. The tourist later apparently felt guilty and mailed it back. Some 10 months after the attack, the Pieta went on display again in the chapel that bears its name, this time behind a panel of bulletproof glass, where it is viewed by millions of people a year.


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