By Roz Hamlett, Media Relations Staff
A stroll through the installation of reproductions of Michelangelo’s renowned ceiling frescoes now on display in the World Trade Center Oculus isn’t quite the same as visiting the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
Minus the cost of a plane ticket to Rome, the exhibition is a contemporary way to engage with one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements, inside one of the world’s most striking architectural achievements.
But the exhibit, on display until July 23, is not the first time Michelangelo’s master works have crossed the Port Authority’s path.
Among other treasured objects of art that were shipped to New York for the 1964/65 World’s Fair was the Pieta, the priceless statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus in death. The statue, irreplaceable and insured for $6 million, made the long journey by ship to the Port of New York without a single scratch.
From St. Peter’s Basilica, the statue was first crated and then encased in a light but highly durable plastic before being enclosed in a specially constructed steel container. The cargo then was trucked 133 miles to the Port of Naples under 24-hour guard to the Italian Line’s Cristoforo Colombo.
A floating crane of sufficient capacity was unavailable, so the ship put in to dry dock for the lift. A pre-tested 25-ton crane raised the 11,500-pound container from the truck and sat it down in an area with the least minimal vibration – the cabin class swimming pool.
The same care that was taken in packing the Pieta was taken to protect the masterpiece from loss in the unlikely event of a sinking. The special packing assured buoyancy so the complete container would float five and half feet out of the water. The top of the container was painted orange to make it more visible from the air and an attached buoy was designed to broadcast a distress signal.
Fortunately, none of these devices were put to the test. The ship arrived on April 13, 1964, a tug towed a floating derrick alongside the ship and longshoremen climbed to the top of the container to rig it for its lift from the deck of the Cristoforo Colombo to a floating crane.
Early the next morning, tugs took the derrick in tow to Flushing Bay, where a truck waited on shore to receive the shipment for the short haul to the World’s Fair grounds. At the Vatican Pavilion, the case was disassembled as meticulously as it had been packed. A vacuum machine slowly sucked out the shipping material that had insulated the Pieta during the trip.
During the next two years, millions visited the fair and viewed Pieta in a specially illuminated chamber inside the Vatican Pavilion. Her trip was made possible with the help of shipping experts, and from the Port of New York.