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Over five-hundred years ago, carrying pages of drawings in multiple sets that detailed the length, width, and breadth of marble blocks needed for sculptures that he had been commissioned to create, –
Michelangelo; Sketch specifying size and shape of the marble block needed to sculpt David; Galleria Pietro Bazzamti & Figlio, Florence, Italy
Michelangelo climbed high into the marble quarries of Tuscany to meet with marble excavators, quarry cutters, carvers, hewers, and squarers of blocks (squadratori) who would cut the blocks out of the mountain.
Today, marble blocks are cut and extracted by diamond tipped wires, saws, and heavy equipment.
Hundreds of years ago, however, quarries were mined by hand with hammers, picks, and chisels that were made from stone, bronze, or iron.
In his notes, Michelangelo described an extraction method in which blocks were first cut from a vein by chiseling a groove into a fault in the marble. Olive wood wedges were inserted and then water was poured on them. The expansion of the wedges split the stone along the line of the fault.
Once the block was extracted, he checked for impurities (the ideal marble should be “of compact grain, homogeneous, crystalline, and reminiscent of sugar,” he wrote) and removed any large unneeded segments in order to lighten the load.
Single blocks were dragged out of quarries manually on sleds that slid along greased or soaped poles that had been laid like railroad ties. To ease the marble down the slope, men wrapped ropes around poles rooted along the path. Records show that the massively thick, heavy, long rope alone cost almost one-fifth of the total transportation cost.
As the block passed by a set of poles, men picked up the poles and moved them farther down the route. Rope men kept the rope taut around the posts until they ran out of rope and had to move it to the next post.
Once the block reached the road, waiting oxcarts, which were sometimes crushed by the weight of the marble, carried the blocks several miles to the sea.
To load the block onto a boat, a trench was dug to lower the boat and then the marble was heaved up a ramp and onto the ship with a three-legged hoist. The ship sailed to its destination, the block was unloaded with another hoist and then delivered to Michelangelo’s studio.
Back in his studio, Michelangelo typically made a charcoal outline of the figure on the marble block and then,
using a mallet (hammer with a wide head), struck either a point chisel (pointed at one end, broad striking surface at the other) or a pitching tool (splits the block) that was positioned at a 90-degree angle to remove the pitch (unwanted pieces) from the large block. The tools were turned rhythmically with each blow so that the unneeded marble was removed evenly.
Next, the figure was slowly roughed out with various types of chisels.
Claw chisels have serrated edges that result in the rapid but controlled removal of material.
Flat chisels achieve finer results and are used as a surface finishing tool.
A flat chisel struck at an angle of 45 degrees (the ‘mason’s stroke’) leaves a ridged channel. The resulting edges can be used to define lines.
Master stone carvers know how to manipulate the chisels precisely – the exact angle, amount of applied pressure, and the sound of the perfect pitch from the hammer’s blow.
Giorgio Vasari – painter, architect, author, friend, and confidant of Michelangelo – described a technique that Michelangelo used that involved taking a wax figure, laying it in a vessel of water, and then gradually reducing the amount of water so that the highest parts were the first to slowly emerge. With this as a guide, Michelangelo began the long process of removing marble to release his figures.
Michelangelo’s unfinished works are a physical record of the challenges he faced during the carving process. The figures have also been interpreted as symbols of the immense power of the creative process freeing itself from the bondages of the material.
Michelangelo; Atlas, c. 1519-23; Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
In every block of marble, I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it. – Michelangelo
Files, rasps, and rifflers (metal tools with rough surfaces), sand, and emery (stone grit) further smoothed the surface, eradicated chisel marks, and created fine details, such as clothing folds and hair.
Finally, the entire sculpture was sanded (depending on the time period, the best available product may have been marble dust from the workshop floor) and polished to reveal the colors, textures, and patterns and to create a matte or shiny surface. If a glassy surface was desired, an additional round of polishing with tin and iron oxides would be completed. The entire process could take months or years.
While still in his twenties, from blocks of marble that were billions of years old, Michelangelo “freed” –
David (1501-1504; Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence), the biblical hero who, in the moments before his battle against Goliath, eyes his opponent and carries a sling over his left shoulder and a rock in his right hand,
and the Pietà (1498-99; St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City), which, even without the religious connections, is an exceptionally emotional image of a mourning mother holding the body of her dead son across her lap. Imagine looking at these figures as they were first seen hundreds of years ago in a dark chapel by flickering candlelight.
The technique of direct (or subtractive) carving, that is, carving into stone by selectively removing what is not essential, is as old as the first stone tools that were carved over three million years ago. In addition to marble, the method has been used with many other types of rock; carvers have adapted their technique to each material’s unique properties.
Soapstone, which contains talc, feels slippery like soap. It’s so soft that it can be carved with a knife, holds detail, and can be highly polished.
Artist/maker unknown, Chinese; Shoulao, God of Longevity, 1700s-1800s; Soapstone; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Legend holds that Shoulao began as a star in Argo, a constellation in the southern sky. Jovial and smiling, he can be recognized by his oversized forehead, which represents wisdom, and by the scroll or peach of longevity that he carries in his right hand. His chest-length beard and staff symbolize a long life.
Alabaster is soft, delicate, almost transparent, scratches and bruises easily, and can split into sections, slivers, and flakes along fault lines that can be difficult to detect unless the alabaster is emerged in water. It can be polished to a high glossy shine.
Artist/maker unknown, English; The Tree of Jesse: The Maternal Ancestors of Jesus, with the Virgin and Child in the Upper Branches, 1400s; Alabaster with paint and gilding; Philadelphia Museum of Art
At the time this was carved, artists in Nottingham, England specialized in making alabaster altarpieces. It’s unknown if this small piece (26 × 9 inches; 66 × 22.9 cm) was displayed by itself or if it was part of an altarpiece.
Note the artist’s exceptional skill at undercutting into this soft material to create depth, shape, and space. What began as one solid block of alabaster became a family tree that sprouts from the chest of the reclining figure and branches into detailed layers of three-dimensional figures.
Limestone is easy to carve, takes small detail work well, is suited for outdoor sculpture, and is strong enough to support undercutting (cutting away material to create an overhanging element, such as his pillow). Limestone can easily break along the lines of its definite grain patterns, is less reliable when cut across the grain, and does not hold a polish.
Artist/maker unknown, made in Normandy, France; Tomb Effigy of a Recumbent Knight from the Abbey of Sainte-Marie, La Genevraye, Lower Normandy, 1230-1240; Limestone; Philadelphia Museum of ArtCarved from a single block of limestone, this life-sized sculpture of a knight once decorated the lid of a tomb in a church in medieval France. Above-ground stone tombs usually occupied one of the side chapels that had furnishings and decoration paid for by noble families. Elaborately carved tombs were monuments not only to the person buried beneath them, but also to the wealth, prominence, and religious devotion of the family of the deceased. The sculpture was probably painted when it was first made, but no such decoration remains.
His identity is unknown and the carving is probably not his likeness. It was more important that his clothing and accessories conveyed his social position and accomplishments and that his pose signified a life of piety and reverence. He wears a surcoat (sleeveless robe) over a hooded hauberk (shirt of mail made from interlinked metal rings). A coat-of-arms on a surcoat identified knights during battle when their faces were concealed by helmets.
The six small blackbirds carved on his shield may refer to his name or place of birth.
The knight’s beard is barely suggested by a slightly raised area that begins at the hairline and descends along the cheeks and jaw. His hair, which falls away from his face into curls, and hood drape softly onto the pillow.
Sandstone’s distinct grain allows for easy flake removal. The silica dust that is aerosolized during the cutting process can cause silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. Like sandpaper, carving sandstone dulls tools quickly.
Artist/maker unknown; Made in India; Celestial Woman with Bowl and Bee Sting Hand Gesture, Unfinished ceiling bracket intended for a temple, c. Late 1000s; Sandstone; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Surasundaris, “beautiful women of the gods” – temptresses who attract religious devotees to worship – are often prominent on the projections of the walls of Hindu temples. They represent the eternally feminine power that emanates from within the temple.
This surasundari, whose bun of hair rests on her shoulder, stands in a sinuous, triply bent pose. Her left hand shows the “bee” gesture (an elongated finger touching her breast). The other hand rests on her hip and holds a bowl.
Marble holds fine detail, comes in hundreds of colors, and can be highly polished. Of all the commonly available stones, only marble has a translucency similar to that of human skin. Because marble can be brittle, free-standing figures in active poses are often portrayed with tree trunks or columns attached to their legs in order to provide a stable base. Figures carved to be displayed in niches were often hollowed out to reduce their weight.
Claude Bertin, French; Bust of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, before 1697; Marble; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bertin was a member of the highly trained team that supplied sculptures for Versailles.
After Zenobia became queen of the Syrian city of Palmyra when her husband died, she conquered Egypt and much of Asia Minor before her defeat by the Roman emperor in 272.
Zenobia’s legacy as a great warrior-queen and clever ruler inspired painters, artists, writers, and even Catherine the Great of Russia, who compared herself to Zenobia and her court to that of Palmyra.
Granite can have a very fine or very coarse grain and is the hardest carving stone. It comes in a number of colors, can be highly polished, and lasts outdoors. Modern carvers wear protective masks to avoid inhaling the silica dust that is aerosolized during the cutting process.
Artist/maker unknown, Made in Tamil Nadu, India; Jina Seated in Meditation, 1000s; Granite; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Veneration of the image of a jina, a spiritual teacher of the Jain religion, is based on the ideal of the yogic ascetic. Posed in a state of deep meditation, his faint smile and inward gaze embody spiritual perfection through simplicity and serenity. Figures of jinas are usually sculpted to appear unclothed to equate the acquisition of spiritual wisdom with the pursuit of advanced forms of meditation and withdrawal from material comforts. Imagine the difficulty of carving a figure from granite 1000 years ago and perfectly depicting a smooth chest expanded in the sacred breath of prana.
The long history of direct carving to create sculpture evolved with the times. One thousand years ago, when the Church was the largest patron of the arts, artists worked within monasteries and other religious institutions. During the Middle Ages, the collective formation of skilled workers into guilds by craft (painters, sculptors, masons, cloth makers, dyers, masons, etc.) had a significant impact upon the development of art. Quality was maintained through apprenticeship training programs; to become a master, one had to submit a ‘masterpiece’ to be examined by the guild for approval. Artists from wide regions shared and created new techniques; quality and variety improved; regulations controlled competition, labor, and cost. A new middle class began to have purchasing power.
As the Renaissance progressed, more patrons could afford to commission art for their homes and for the community. For artists in high demand, it was no longer feasible to work alone in their studio without help.
Jean Léon Gérôme; Rembrandt Etching a Plate in His Atelier, 1861; location unknown
Busy artists, including Michelangelo, Rubens, and Rembrandt, ran bottegas (workrooms) where assistant artists learned by painting backgrounds, roughing out sculptures, and other tasks. Similar to a guild, an aspiring young artist entered the workshop as a boy and then graduated from apprentice to journeyman to master in the hope to open their own workshop. When a work was commissioned, contracts specified what part of the work would be done by the master artist and what would be left for assistants; prices were adjusted accordingly.
The founding of art academies in Florence, Rome, London, Paris, and other European cities further transformed how aspiring artists were taught. For example, students at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1648) were required to adhere to an increasingly rigid set of aesthetic rules. The techniques of directly carving weren’t part of the curriculum. Instead, sculpture students were taught the additive technique of modelling by working in wax or clay, which, unlike direct (subtractive) carving, offered the student the freedom and opportunity to rework the sculpture as needed. The final result was cast in plaster. If a patron ordered the sculpture to be made in costly bronze or marble, it was turned over to assistants, each of whom specialized in a different stage of the process. Carving wood, which was considered to be a decorative art, wasn’t taught at all.
The unyielding edicts of the art academy led to a revolution in painting when, in 1863, its jury rejected two-thirds of the artworks that were submitted for exhibition. Napoleon III intervened and allowed the prohibited works to be displayed at an alternative venue. Over one-thousand visitors a day showed up to tour the Salon des Refusés, the Exhibition of Rejects. There was no turning back – the emerging forward-thinking artists, who were rejecting tradition and moving in directions faster than some of the public and critics could understand, had given birth to the Modern Art movement.
What followed was both revolutionary and evolutionary. In the years before World War I, sculpture underwent a transformation that was as equally profound as what had happened in painting. One artist’s vision, which seemed to be the opposite of the Western tradition after Michelangelo, turned to direct carving to capture the “essence” of his subjects and changed the way sculptors thought about space and form throughout next century.
Next month’s article will take a closer look.
Top Image: Right hand of Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, 1501-04; Marble; Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy
– Meighan Maley
Carving Marble with Traditional Tools
The Evolution of the Artist’s Studio
French Academy of Fine Arts http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/french-academy.htm
Guilds; Stokstad; Art History
Jain Sculpture https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jais/hd_jais.htm
Lifting and transporting great stone columns by sea http://arqarqt.revistas.csic.es/index.php/arqarqt/rt/printerFriendly/199/274
Marble Sculpture https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marble_sculpture
Michelangelo Moving Marble
Philadelphia Museum of Art Website https://www.philamuseum.org
Sculpting Techniques http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/sculpture-techniques/