Reproductions In A Time Of The Culture Of Originality

An exhibition looking at the remarkable friendship and artistic collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano sheds light on important questions concerning original art and copies, says Alva Noë.
Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Source: Peter Scholey

The first time I laid eyes on Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, I let out a sob.

I don't know why. I was surrounded by a dense crowd of tourists; the sculpture was set back behind a thick Plexiglas panel. Whatever view I was able to enjoy was punctuated by the lights of auto-focus cameras reflected in the intervening panel.

Despite the noise and distraction, or maybe because of it, I felt the power of the figure — the frail, boyish body of the dead Jesus limp across the lap of his powerful (indeed, disproportionately large), grief-stricken mother.

I didn't have that sort of emotional reaction when I got to see the the Pietà again a few days ago in London, where it is on display as part of the excellent Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery. This time, I could get right up to the work and examine it in all its striking detail for as long as I

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