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An Unforgettable Act of Vandalism: Laszlo Toth's Attack on Michelangelo's Pietà.

Today, Michelangelo's Pietà is regarded as one of the most beautiful and moving works of art to have ever been created.


However, little do many though that the Renaissance masterpiece was once forever changed by a crazed, Hungarian-born, Australian geologist named Laszlo Toth.


On the 21st of May, 1972 (the Feast of the Pentecost), at the age of 33 (Christ’s traditional age of crucifixion), Toth snuck into St. Peter’s Basilica, climbed over a marble balustrade, and attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà with a geologist’s hammer.


A crowd of astonished worshippers, pilgrims, and visitors, gaped in horror as he vandalised Michelangelo’s creation, all the while screaming: “I am Jesus Christ – risen from the dead.”


With 15 significant blows, Toth broke Mary’s left arm at the elbow, chipped one of her eyelids, and knocked off a significant chunk of her nose.


Toth was restrained by bystanders present at the time, including an Italian fireman, and the American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who recalls jumping up and grabbing Toth by the beard.


Those who were present at the event - and not frozen in shock - took away some of the 100 fragments of marble that had flown off during the attack as souvenirs. Some of those pieces were later returned (included one that arrived anonymously from the United States[1]), but the majority of them were not.


The event led to one of the “most delicate and controversial art restorations” of all time.[2] Some art historians and restorers insisted it remain in its damaged form as a sombre reminder of violent times.[3] Others suggested it be restored with clear marks delineating the damaged parts as a visual historical testament.[4]


Ultimately, the Vatican decided upon an “integral restoration;” namely one that would not leave any visible traces of the intervention.[5] As the director of the Vatican Museums Antonio Paolucci explained: “With any other statue, leaving the wounds (of the attack) visible, however painful, could have been tolerated. But not with the Pietà, not this miracle of art.”[6]


The restoration was carried out with much anxiety and precision in 1972-1973. The restorers scrutinized previous photographs in order to identify all the missing pieces and fragments in order to put them back together inside a makeshift laboratory constructed around the sculpture in its chapel, so as to avoid moving it.[7] The gaps left from the missing fragments were replaced with pieces made from an earlier copy of the sculpture.[8]


Among the many pieces of marble lost was the piece that once constituted Mary’s nose. It was later reconstructed with a piece of marble cut out from her back.


After the event, Toth was questioned by Vatican security officials and Italian police. A Vatican spokesman recalls Toth stating: “If you kill me, so much the better, because I’ll go straight to heaven.”[9]


In light of his evident insanity, Toth was not charged with any criminal charges. Instead, he was hospitalized in an Italian psychiatric hospital for two years, before being deported to Australia.


The work of art is now protected by an impenetrable, bullet-proof, acrylic-glass panel. Although separated from viewers behind the unbreakable screen; Michelangelo’s Pietà continues to silence and move countless of visitors every single day.


To learn all about Michelangelo's Pietà, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3jy7Cq16pA




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1. https://www.italianartsociety.org/2016/05/forty-four-years-ago-on-21-may-1972-michelangelos-pieta-was-vandalized-by-laszlo-toth-an-hungarian-born-australian-geologist/

2. https://www.marmomac.com/en/michelangelo-marble-as-an-expression-of-pieta/

3. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Piet%C3%A0_(Michelangelo)

4. https://www.italianartsociety.org/2016/05/forty-four-years-ago-on-21-may-1972-michelangelos-pieta-was-vandalized-by-laszlo-toth-an-hungarian-born-australian-geologist/

5. https://curiosando708090.altervista.org/pieta-michelangelo-atto-vandalico/

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laszlo_Toth

[1] Philip Pullella, "Vatican marks anniversary of 1972 attack on Michelangelo's Pieta", 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vatican-pieta-idUSBRE94K0KU20130521. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Paul Hofmann, "Pieta Damaged in Hammer Attack", 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/22/archives/pieta-damaged-in-hammer-attack-assailant-with-hammer-damages-the.html.