If you have spent any time in art museums, you may have noticed that some of the Greek and Roman statues are not anatomically correct. Limbs and heads are sometimes missing, and male nudes have been — ouch! — neutered. Some of that is perhaps due to careless handling over the centuries (“Whoops, dropped Dionysus down the staircase. Oh, well.”), but some absent body parts resulted from deliberate acts of destruction.
Conquering soldiers or enforcers of public modesty have been the culprits in many instances, but damaged artwork is due to other kinds of damaged people as well.
Rembrandt’s monumental painting “Night Watch” was attacked three different times in the 20th century. The first assailant, in 1911, was an unemployed cook who claimed he did it to call atttention to his inability to find work. The job offers didn’t exactly pour in after that, incidentally. In 1975, Wilhelmus de Rijk slashed it with a bread knife, later explaining that he was on a divine mission. The most recent attack was in 1990; sulfuric acid was sprayed on it, the New York Times reported, “by a man who was believed to be mentally disturbed.” Oh.
The Mona Lisa has been victimized more than once, but in one instance (1956) a homeless man threw a rock at it; he said he hoped to be put in jail because he was cold and had no place to go. He got his wish, and La Gioconda sustained no significant damage.
“The Pietà” by Michelangelo was not as fortunate when a man named Laszlo Toth produced a hammer and began whacking away at one of the world’s most beautiful sculptures in 1972. The face and neck of Mary were chipped; her forearm fell to the floor, which caused fingers to break off. Toth hit the statue 15 times while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” During subsequent questioning by police, he also said he was Michelangelo. Neither of those claims proved to be true.
A painting by Diego Velázaquez that is known as “The Rokeby Venus” was attacked in 1914 at the National Gallery in London. The perpetrator was a suffragette named Mary Richardson, who said that she took a meat cleaver to the painting as retaliation for the arrest of her colleague Emmeline Pankhurst on the previous day. At her trial, she said that it was a protest against the British government for “destroying Mrs. Pankhurst”. In an interview decades later, though, Mary Richardson said she slashed the painting of a relatively discreet nude woman because she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”
The only art vandal who may have had some justification for his act was the man who began smashing a Michelangelo sculpture called “The Deposition”, also known as “The Florentine Pietà” (see photo). The attacker was Michelangelo himself, who was still working on it at the time.
Possibly a flaw in the marble caused it to break — Christ’s left leg is missing. Or perhaps Michelangelo was simply dissatisfied with how it was taking shape; whatever the reason, he flailed at it in frustration.
A servant stopped him before he could destroy it completely, and it was eventually finished by another artist. To his credit, Michelangelo did not try to shift the blame by claiming to be Laszlo Toth.