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Laszlo Toth, "Jesus Christ," Attacks the Pieta (May 21, 1972)

Vatican PietaToday in Odd History, Laszlo Toth, a 33-year-old Australian geologist, slipped into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, part of the crowd attending the Whitsunday Mass. As the faithful waited for the Pope's blessing, Toth dashed past the guards, vaulted a marble balustrade, and attacked Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta with a sledgehammer, shouting "I am Jesus Christ!" With fifteen blows (one for each minute of his fame?), he removed the Virgin's arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.

Although art historians wept over the damage, and the media decried Toth as a cultural terrorist, radicals hailed his "gentle hammer" with cries of "No more masterpieces!" Toth was, briefly, a sensation. But whatever he meant to say by mutilating the Pieta, he has been silenced by art-restorationist Deoclecio Redig de Campos and his pots of marble dust and glue. In just a few months, de Campos and his team reattached the Virgin's arm, smoothed over her eyelid, and rebuilt her nose. She looks the same now as she ever did, gazing down at the cold marble flesh of her beloved son, a sheet of bullet-proof glass the only reminder of Toth's assault.

The Vatican Pieta, in fact, fared rather better under Toth's hammer than itsFlorentine Pieta Florentine counterpart did under Michelangelo's. In 1555, Michelangelo destroyed parts of the Florentine Pieta, a massive installation which he had apparently intended to adorn his tomb. Although Tiberio Calcagni, one of the master's students, attempted to repair the mutilated statue, his patches are apparent, and the left leg of the Christ figure is still missing. Scholars have advanced a number of explanations for Michelangelo's seemingly irrational attack--he was disappointed with the leg's appearance, and broke it off, intending to sculpt another, but then was seized by a fit of self-loathing and grabbed a hammer; he was forced to sculpt the leg from a separate piece of marble, and it simply fell off on its own; he saw how Christ's leg was draped across the Virgin's thigh, and the sexual symbolism so disturbed him that he tried to obliterate it--but his true motive is no clearer than Toth's.

Toth was apprehended, and charged with crimes that would have brought a nine-year prison sentence, had he been convicted. In the end, though, the court found him insane. After two years in an Italian asylum, the Hungarian-born Toth was deported back to Australia, where he faded into obscurity. His name lives on, though. Don Novello, better known for creating Father Guido Sarducci, one of Saturday Night Live's most enduring characters, appropriated the moniker for the mad American author of The Lazlo Letters, although he insists it was because he liked the sound of it, not because he admired the character's namesake. Ken Friedman, an American composer, is reportedly writing an oratorio about Toth. And the Laszlo Toth School of Art, founded by Richard B. Fredette and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, celebrates the "Artist of the Hammer," who, they say, "remodeled certain popular Michelangelo sculptures to a more modern sensibility."

The Vatican Pieta is from The Gay Heroes Michelangelo Sculpture Gallery
The Florentine Pieta is from The Pieta Project

The Daily Bleed: A Calendar Better than Boiled Coffee!
No More Masterpieces Manifesto, by Karen Eliot
Jeremy Bentham, the Pieta, and a Precious Few Grayling, by David Quammen, Audubon, May 1982
The Pieta Project
On the Mutilation of Michelangelo's Pietas
The Guardian Unlimited: Notes and Queries. Whatever happened to Laszlo Toth?
Laszlo Toth School of Art
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Richard B. Fredette

Experience the Vatican Pieta:
coverMichelangelo: Pieta, by Robert Hupka. More than 100 photographs of the Vatican Pieta, from dozens of different angles. taken as the sculpture was being crated for a world tour. Also discusses the mutilation and subsequent restoration of the piece.


Discover Michelangelo:
The Agony and the EcstasyThe Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone
A fictional account of Michelangelo's life, from his incredible drive to create, to his power struggles with the popes and prince of Renaissance Italy. The novel was also adapted into a film starring Charlton Heston.


Michelangelo: Artist and ManMichelangelo: Artist and Man

Examine the broad canvas of Michelangelo's life and legacy to probe the very soul of the artist who was recognized as a genius in his own lifetime.





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