La Pietà, ‘Handle With Care’
It is interesting how one story can lead to another.
In my story about two Italian immigrants — now dear neighbors — I wrote how 12-year-old Grace Lasala (now Mrs. Joe Zambito) sailed into “a cold and snowy New York Harbor aboard the S.S. Cristoforo Colombo three days before Christmas 1960.”
In reading about the Cristoforo Colombo, I discovered that, four years later, that same ship would sail into New York Bay, escorted by three red tugboats, with a very precious, very delicate passenger.
An April 14, 1964, New York Times headline put it this way, “The ‘Pieta’ Arrives Here, Ever So Gently”
“La Pietà,” of course, is Michelangelo’s priceless marble masterpiece depicting the frail body of Jesus Christ in death cradled in the arms of His Mother Mary after the crucifixion (below).
The Pietà at St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. (Credit: Alfonso González, flickr.com.)
La Pietà had left the Vatican, and Italy, for the first time in 465 years to be displayed at the World Fair in New York.
The Times describes some of the unprecedented security measures taken to protect the irreplaceable treasure, including using a derrick barge – instead of risking New York traffic— “guarded by the Coast Guard’s Harbor Patrol, the city police and the fair’s special police force” to ferry the Pietà from the Italian Line pier to the New York Fair site.
Additional extraordinary precautions were taken during the offloading of the 11,600 lbs. case containing La Pietà.
According to the Times, the captain of the Cristoforo Colombo appeared visibly relieved when his priceless cargo – insured for $6 million – was safely on the barge.
“There was pride and fear when I heard that I would be in charge of such a cargo,” Captain Soletti said. “Should it be transported at this season of the year? What of the possibility of storm or high seas? In all my 39 years at sea ‘my two reverend guests’ were my most important cargo.”
Captain Soletti’s second “guest” was another, smaller marble sculpture that the Colombo brought in, “The Good Shepherd,” whose maker is unknown.
Fortunately, the Colombo did not encounter storms or other disasters during its 10-day voyage. But even if it had, even if the Colombo had caught fire or had sunk, or both, Pietà had an excellent chance of surviving, hopefully unscathed.
Meticulously packed in a watertight crate, within a crate, within a crate — each with unique properties and a specific purpose — Pietà was lowered onto a rubber base in the ship’s first class swimming pool.
Even if the Italian Line’s Cristoforo Colombo…had sunk, the container would have floated. The top of the container was painted a bright orange, so it could be spotted easily.
And even if the container, through some mischance, had sunk 10 feet below the surface, electronic equipment within the case would have radioed the Pietà’s position.
Even before it was loaded onto the Colombo, painstaking planning and preparations had been ongoing for months in Italy.
In his blog, Andrea Felice describes in detail, using rare photos, the ultracareful planning, preparations and packing of the Pietà: from the moment “technicians, skilled workers, ‘sampietrini‘ (attendants of the basilica) and managers” removed the Pietà from its pedestal in St. Peter’s Basilica, through its road trip to the Colombo (“onboard a small open Italian OM Tigrotto truck,” with very little security) until the precious cargo is placed aboard the Cristoforo Colombo.
[Note: This source states: “The box was not placed in the holds but was placed on the deck to ensure the free float in the event of the ship sinking. It was blocked to the deck with solid tie rods with hydrostatic release….”]
Regardless, La Pietà made it safely to New York and, 19 months later, back to The Vatican.
In the meantime, a plaster cast made earlier by Francesco Mercatali took La Pietà’s place at the Chapel of the Pietà.
At the 1964-1965 New York World Fair, La Pietà (lead image) became one of the Fair’s most popular exhibits with 27 million people visiting the Vatican Pavilion.
It has been called the “crown jewel” of the fair, for good reason.
On the side of the crate containing Pietà was written in large print, “Pietà – from His Holiness Pope Paul VI – to His Eminence – Francis Cardinal Spellman – Vatican Pavilion – New York World’s Fair.”
The only words missing were “Handle with care.” But then, that would have been history’s biggest understatement.
Lead image: Credit Georgia Louise