ROME — Upon entering the vast papal basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, most visitors are immediately drawn to the first chapel on the right, where Michelangelo’s famous “Pietà” is set above the altar, beneath a flat marble cross. Visitors are kept at an infuriating distance from this extraordinary statue group and may decide to see what other treasures the basilica has in store. But I suggest we stay a while longer, wait for the crowds to pass, and think about this pivotal piece of European sculpture and its role in the genesis of artistic identity.

A key development in the history of art was the formation of an individual identity for artists, separate from the craftsmen working following patrons’ orders in early modern Europe, roughly speaking between 1400 and 1600. This was not a single moment, but a process. Yet one episode stands out as exemplary, which Giorgio Vasari recounts in his mid-16th-century biography Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. It is the story of a signature. 

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Pietà” (1497–1499), Carrara marble (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The scene is set in St. Peter’s, and the story is about Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” which he sculpted in 1499. Here is how Vasari tells the tale:

Michelangelo placed so much love and labour in this work that on it (something he did in no other work) he left his name written across a sash which girds Our Lady’s breast. This came about because one day when Michelangelo was entering the church where the statue was placed, he found a large number of foreigners from Lombardy who were praising the statue very highly; one of them asked another who had sculpted it, and he replied: “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelangelo stood there silently, and it seemed somewhat strange to him that his labours were being attributed to someone else; one night he locked himself inside the church with a little light, and, having brought his chisels, he carved his name upon the statue.

If you have visited St. Peter’s, you may well have heard a guide tell this story. What strikes me about it is the strange detail of the Lombards, visitors from Milan who were foreigners in the region. Both Michelangelo and Vasari were Tuscans, and the idea that Michelangelo’s work might be attributed to not only another artist, but one who was not even Tuscan, was horrifying, leaving aside the improbability of the artist Cristoforo Solari, who they named “il Gobbo” (the Hunchback). The “Pietà” was claimed by these Lombard visitors as a product of one of “their” artists. If anything could offend a Tuscan artist, it would be the Lombards claiming the “Pietà” for one of their artists. Not only Michelangelo’s reputation, but all of Tuscany’s, was at stake. As a result, Vasari claimed, the artist stayed behind after St. Peter’s was locked for the night, and carved his signature in the work. In the honor-driven world of early modern Rome, this would have been perfectly understood.

The artist’s signature on a cast of “Pietà” at the Opera del Duomo Museum: “MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLOREN[TINUS] FACIEBA[T]” (“Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this”) (photo by Dennis H. Cremin, used with permission)

Let’s go back in time a little. This representation of the Virgin Mary holding the body of her crucified son was commissioned in 1497 by a French cardinal, Jean de Bilhères, probably for his tomb chapel, which was nowhere near the “Pietà”’s present-day location. It stood in the huge round chapel of St. Petronilla, which was actually a late imperial mausoleum constructed for the emperor Honorius sometime before 408 CE and attached to the left transept of the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter’s. This chapel was dedicated to the kings of France, and was a natural place for the French cardinal to be buried. Its former identity had been lost over the centuries and Vasari describes it as a “temple of Mars.” It was demolished in the long process of building the new complex of St. Peter’s, in which Michelangelo was involved as an architect, later in his life.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was just 22, and had only been in Rome for a year, when the cardinal gave him this important commission. He was so confident that it would bring him commissions from other wealthy and powerful people that he ordered several additional blocks of the Carrara marble used for the “Pietà.” This confidence derived from a strong, and justified, sense of his own self worth, but it was unusual among an artist class that was entirely dependent on commissions. Thus careerism as well as honor motivated his desire to sign his work. 

Vasari, whose artist biographies, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550; expanded 1568), is still a canonical text, played fast and loose with the truth when it suited him. As a result, we may ask: Did this episode even happen? Various art historians have pointed out that the sash across Mary’s chest, on which the artist carved MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLOREN[TINUS] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this), seems to have no other purpose than providing a space for the artist’s signature. Moreover, at the beginning of his career the artist would have had a hard time getting permission to perform some on-site last-minute editing of the sculpture, or eluding the guards at closing time. So there is good reason to doubt Vasari’s claim that the signature was added after the sculpture was completed. Yet the signature is there. Why would he invent the story of the Lombards? Perhaps because he had some residual embarrassment that his hero lacked humility.

Tiberio Alfarano’s plan of Old St. Peters (1595). The “Pietà” was originally in the upper rotunda, dedicated to Saint Petronilla, attached to the left-hand transept, labeled “d” in the plan, probably in the chapel labeled “158” at the top. A prominent place for a statue, this would be hard for Michelangelo to work on secretly without guards noticing. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Artists had been signing their works well before Michelangelo chiseled his name onto the Virgin’s sash. Far more significant in terms of his self-confidence is that he ordered more Carrara marble before receiving more commissions. Michelangelo rarely made art for his own pleasure (though late in his life he did enjoy making presentation drawings for his friends); like most of his contemporaries, he worked within the context of a patron-client relationship. However, his strong personality and assertiveness did much to establish an independent identity; eventually he was in a position to pick and choose commissions. Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence. 

But the most important figure in the story is the storyteller. Giorgio Vasari was the first modern art historian, recounting the lives of artists (most, unsurprisingly, Tuscan) who pushed the boundaries of art. Vasari’s chronological anthology culminated in the “divine Michelangelo.” Describing the life, works, and deaths of his chosen artists, he presented his subjects as secular saints. In doing so, he brought into being the concept of the artist as a separate category from the jobbing artisan: the artist was touched by genius, and deserved the tribute of a biography. After 1568, when the second, more complete edition of his Lives was published, to huge and enduring success, it no longer really mattered whether Michelangelo had been busy signing his name at night in St. Peter’s. His identity, and the identity of the artist as a special category, had already been crystallized.

Anthony Majanlahti is the author of the bestseller The Families who Made Rome: a history and a guide and other books about Rome. He is currently writing a single-volume urban history of Rome from its foundation...