Art History student wins Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Pierette Kulpa, Ph.D. candidate in art history, has received a Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award. Considered to be among the most prestigious available to Penn State graduate students, the award provides funding to full-time doctoral students who have passed their comprehensive exams and have received approval of their dissertation topics, or to master of fine arts students in their final year. 

Her dissertation, “From Michelangelo to Mussolini: Attribution and Appropriation in the Pietà di Palestrina,” seeks to present a comprehensive history of the multi-figure marble sculpture Pietà di Palestrina, located just across from Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Her interest in this sculpture was sparked in 2010, when she encountered a copy of it in the cathedral of Palestrina, about 25 miles east of Rome.

“I was instantly drawn to this massive grouping — it is about eight feet tall and displayed on a three-foot-tall pedestal,” she explains. “The composition is recognizable but unusual. It shows the dead Christ supported from behind by the Virgin Mary and on the side by an unidentifiable figure, which aids in lifting Christ’s weight.”

Pierette Kulpa in front of 'Pietà di Palestrina'

Pierette Kulpa in front of 'Pietà di Palestrina'

Image: Penn State

According to Kulpa, the Pietà iconography is familiar thanks to Michelangelo’s most famous, and earliest, version of the group of the Virgin mourning Christ in the Vatican, but this one differs greatly because it shows Christ supported from behind by a standing figure. While the familiarity of the sculpture in Palestrina initially attracted her attention, other aspects made her take a closer look. “Not only did the surface detail of the sculpture vary from highly polished to barely roughed out, which read as a deliberate attempt to evoke different stages in the sculpting process, but the work was inscribed as a copy after Michelangelo Buonarroti.”

Kulpa’s dissertation covers the known life of the original (and its copy) from its use in an early modern church dedicated to Santa Rosalia in Palestrina, to its timely “rediscovery” at the height of Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

“My study investigates the attribution and de-attribution of the statue to Michelangelo, since it was formally and internationally removed from the Tuscan sculptor’s oeuvre in 1964, and few have sought to challenge this," she said.

"I also attempt to understand the conditions of its original display in the Palatine church of the noble Barberini family, which had risen to distinction in the beginning of the 17th century, their most well-known family member elected to the Papacy in 1623,” she explains, noting much of her work has been dedicated to the years between the original statue’s installation and removal, roughly 1660-1938.

“I have also focused on understanding the patterns of attribution, most of which optimistically ascribe it to Michelangelo; the politics of possessing and displaying a ‘Michelangelo’ or ‘michelangelesque’ work; and the circumstances that resulted in its removal and re-erection temporarily in Rome at a Fascist exhibition.”

Winners of the 2014 Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award received $5,000 and were recognized at the Graduate School Alumni Society's Recognition Program on April 5. Funds for these awards were made possible by a gift from the Penn State Alumni Association. For more on the award, click here.

Last Updated June 17, 2014