Pieta in New York: an incredible loan

by Camila Kieling


| versão em português |

Bringing the Pieta out of the Vatican to cross the Atlantic seems as extraordinary as the conquest of space

Fifty-two years ago, in April 1964, preparations were made for the journey over land and by sea that would bring Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1475-1564) iconic sculpture Pieta (1499) from the St. Peter’s Basilica to the pavilions of the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. Shipped on board the ocean liner Cristoforo Colombo, the priceless cargo roused curiosity, excitement and incredulity around the world. The achievement, which seems improbable today, was only possible thanks to a conducive political environment and minutely detailed logistical planning.

Authorization to loan the Pieta to the United States — the first and only time the piece has left the Vatican since Michelangelo installed it there — was given by Pope John XXIII. Negotiations began in the fall of 1962. October of that year saw the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a meeting at which one of the most widely discussed issues was the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world. Days later, the Cuba missile crisis would mark the apex of Cold War tension between the USA and the USSR.

Having averted imminent nuclear catastrophe, there was nothing better than the fantastic exhibition of the Pieta, the most perfect artistic expression of compassion, to reflect the values of a Fair that adopted the theme of Peace through Understanding and was dedicated to “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe”. The conquest of space seemed to know no boundaries.

In practical terms, it was an exhaustively prepared trip. Travel logs indicate that the Pieta was wrapped in the most high-tech shock-absorbent material and placed in a resistant wooden crate surrounded by a water-proof container. A special safety device ensured that the statue would float were the ship to sink. The test-trip was carried out with a replica, which remained in the United States and is currently located at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, Queens, NY. The press at the time reported that the sculpture was insured for US$6 million.

Pieta was being packaged in a wooden crate.
Pieta was being packaged in a wooden crate.


Crate containing the Pieta leaving the St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.
Crate containing the Pieta leaving the St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.

The Pieta, amidst the splendid pavilions that exalted scientific prowess and the explosion of American consumerism, became the crown jewel of the Fair. The exhibition setting was designed by Golden Age Broadway set designer, Jo Mielziner (1901-1976). The sculpture was positioned on an inclined plane, which made the face of Jesus in the arms of Maria more visible, as Michelangelo originally intended. Against a royal blue backdrop, crowned by a halo of more than 400 lamps and protected by a bullet-proof sheet of plexiglass, the Pieta was admired by thousands of visitors, balletically carried by moving walkways at different speeds to the sound of Gregorian chants.

Moving walkways at various heights enabled millions to view the Michelangelo's sculpture. © Official Guide Book Vatican Pavilion - 1964/ 1965 New York World's Fair.
Moving walkways at various heights enabled millions to view the Michelangelo’s sculpture. © Official Guide Book Vatican Pavilion – 1964/ 1965 New York World’s Fair.

The memorable crossing made an enormous impact and allowed the Church to stake out its place in an increasingly technological world. Since this historical event and despite the formidable feat of logistics, the Pieta has never again left St. Peter’s Basilica. A similar feat, although financially feasible, would probably be impossible today. The experience of the loan of the Pieta revealed the intricate political, economic and technological relations which compose human existence on this planet.

Special thanks to Bill Young.


The logistical challenges of moving a priceless work of art. by Barbara Strongin