Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
Laszlo Toth, "Jesus Christ," Attacks the Pieta (May 21, 1972)
Today 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 its 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."
Experience the Vatican Pieta:
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