The Pieta

The Pieta at the Fair


"Pieta" means "pity" or "compassion." Michelangelo sculptured the Pieta at the request of Cardinal Jean de Bilheres de Lagraulas, who, at the time, represented the King of France at the Papal Court. Michelangelo, a youth of twenty-four at the time, completed the sculpture within one year as his contract required. In 1499, it was placed in the old Basilica of St. Peter.

It is said that a few evenings after the sculpture had been placed in the Basilica, Michelangelo returned to admire it and heard a group of strangers praising it but attributing its artistry to others. Michelangelo said nothing but a night or two later shut himself in the chapel and by lamp light chiseled his signature on the band across the Virgin's chest: MICHAEL ANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTINUS FACIEBAT (Michelangelo Bounarroti of Florence made this). The Pieta is the only signed work of the master sculptor.

The Pieta at the Fair


As part of the preparations for the journey of the Pieta to New York, a plaster base added many years ago, was removed. As presented in the Pavilion, the Pieta has been placed as nearly as possible to the position intended by Michelangelo.

The dark blue, flickering votive lights number more than 400 and are arranged in forty-eight vertical strings -- twenty-four on each side of the Pieta area. The 13,000-pound marble base for the statue was quarried in Italy and brought to New York for Pavilion display. The statue itself is 68" high, measures 63" by 39" at the base and weighs 6,6000 pounds.

The bullet-proof, ceiling-to-floor plexiglas screen through which the Pieta is viewed is comprised of seven huge sheets weighing seven hundred pounds each. The shield is but one of a network of protective devices counted upon to assure the safety of the statue.

The exquisitely beautiful Pieta of Michelangelo, so graciously loaned for display in the Vatican Pavilion, soon become the Crown Jewel of the Fair itself.

Overwhelmingly popular in its setting of blue, the Pieta was viewed by millions of Pavilion visitors as they were moved slowly across the special exhibit theatre by means of three mobile walks set at various heights. Tens of thousands of Pavilion guests desirous of studying the sculpture at greater length, utilized the rear stationary walkway provided for that purpose.

Moving walkways at various heights, enabled millions to view the Vatican's magnificent sculpture
Moving Viewing Walkways

Shortly before the close of the New York World's Fair, the Vatican Commission on Fine Arts announced that numerous requests from many lands had made it necessary to prohibit henceforth the loan or removal from Vatican City of Vatican-owned art.


X-raying the Pieta before movingThe story of the Pieta's coming to America began in the fall of 1962, when His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellman asked Pope John XXIII to permit Michelangelo's magnificent sculpture to be placed on exhibit in the proposed Vatican Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. Good Pope John agreed to the request and added that he would also loan, for the same purpose, as a gesture of appreciation for all America had done for the rest of the world, the ancient statue of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Pope Paul VI confirmed the actions of his predecessor and on the night of April 2, 1964, Pieta packed for voyagecarefully packed to withstand the rigors of a long land and sea voyage, the Pieta left the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City for the first time since Michelangelo placed it there.

Cushioned within a sturdy wooden case by the most modern materials science has devised and further secured inside a waterproof metal container, the Pieta spent its first night outside the Basilica in a courtyard of Vatican City.

Removing the Pieta from the BasilicaEarly on Sunday morning, April 5th, at the request of those to whom the safety of the statues had been entrusted, the TN CRISTFORO COLOMBO, flag ship of the Italian Line, moved slowly -- not into its regular passenger pier berth -- but into the Floating Dry-dock in the port of Naples served by the only derrick able to place the statues in the location aboard ship selected to provide the greatest possible protection for them.Loading the Pieta for journey to Naples

Within an hour both the Pieta and the Good Shepherd were aboard the COLOMBO and, after returning to its regular berth and taking on its passengers, the pride of the Italian Line sailed for New York with its precious cargo.

The plans formulated for the transport of the two Vatican treasures were as detailed and complete as months of careful preparation and study could make them. The Good Shepherd, packed in two concentric wooden cases each containing its own layer of cushioning material and wrapped in an asbestos blanket to protect it from fire, was placed in a separate compartment in the hold of the ship. The lashings and condition of the statue were inspected daily by a ship's officer and a member of the Pieta Transport Committee.

The Pieta on the deck of the CHRISTFORO COLOMBO The Pieta, its exterior case painted white with shipping marks of blue and topped in brilliant international orange, the color most discernible at sea, traveled lashed to steel deck shoes placed in position a few days earlier while the COLOMBO was in Genoa. Steel guy wires equipped with hydrostatic releases able to fee the entire package from its confining cables, should it sink below the surface of the sea, held the Pieta case to its deck fittings. As an added safety measure, a signaling light buoy ready to go into operation at a moment's notice was placed nearby so that if the necessity arose it would signal over the international radio distress frequency the location of the Pieta and would power a flashing beacon visible fifteen miles at sea level and fifty miles at air search height. Throughout the voyage two seamen guarded the precious cargo. (The Pieta was insured for six million dollars; the Good Shepherd for two million dollars.)

Eight days later, the port of New York welcomed the COLOMBO and its distinguished cargo as tug boat horns blared and banners streamed in the early morning breeze.

Moments after the COLOMBO eased into its berth at its Hudson River pier, the Pieta and the Good Shepherd were removed from the ship by the waiting derrick-barge "Challenger." Arriving at Hudson River Pier in New YorkTo avoid the heavy Monday morning East River traffic and the danger of bringing the statues through Hell Gate at the river's race rather than at slack tide, it was decided to hold the statues on the derrick-barge at the pier overnight.

The following morning, April 14th, the statues began their second voyage as two solicitous tugs carefully guided the barge down the Hudson River around Manhattan Island, and up the East River to Flushing Bay.

Arriving at Whitestone Parkway Bridge over Flushing Inlet in the same kind of heavy downpour that had plagued their lorry trip from Rome to Naples, the statues were promptly hoisted to trucks already in position on the bridge forty feet overhead. A few minutes later, their long 4,500 mile journey ended as the truck carrying them rolled to a stop alongside the Vatican Pavilion in the World's Fair grounds.

On Thursday, April 16th the Pieta and the Good Shepherd were placed on their respective pedestals within the Pavilion. On Sunday, April 19th, in the presence of several hundred distinguished visitors, the Pieta was unveiled by His Eminence Paul Cardinal Marella, Legate of Pope Paul VI.

Source: Official Guide Book, Vatican Pavilion, New York World's Fair 1964-1965 and the book Vatican Pavilion New York World's Fair 1964-1965 A Chronicle


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