Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method

To see how Michelangelo carved, let’s look at his unfinished statues, especially the ones that are only blocked out. They should tell us, shouldn´t they?

They should but they don´t. They rather keep the mystery. It´s as if the old master, like a sly Merlin, had locked up his secret in them forever. You can´t study them without confusion. Sculptors for five hundred years have not agreed on how Michelangelo proceeded, though they had these enigmatic works right in front of their noses.
Take the St. Matthew.

Michelangelo’s St. Matthew See the enlarged photo here

“Rough as it is”, says Vasari, “this is a perfect work of art which serves to teach other sculptors how to carve a statue out of marble without making any mistakes, perfecting the figure gradually by removing the stone judiciously and being able to alter what has been done as and when necessary.”

It doesn´t teach that at all. The most striking thing about it is that it looks like a RELIEF! Only the front half is carved, as if Michelangelo, like a painter, were interested in only the front view. As if he carved ignorantly away like a beginner without worrying about the depth of the features and how they would look from another angle. As if he could leave the backside of St. Matthew to take care of itself. This is a terrible example of how to carve, a treacherous example for sculptors, who often err in just this way.

Why DID he carve like this?
Easy: he wanted to enjoy himself, the same as the ignorant beginner, the same as the child who draws with his pretty crayons on a sheet of paper. Though he consulted his dusty model on a table near him, and though it was finished in detail, in his mind he went back to the original idea he had had—and started all over again to capture it in stone, for which it was intended.

He was terribly impatient to see the results, to work out the figure. He wanted it right now. He knew it was going to be gloriously good and he couldn´t wait to see it. Chipping out the whole figure little by little in the traditional way took much too long. The hell with the traditional method! He had already seen with his very first stone statue that if he did what they said he would never finish a statue in marble. By the time you got down to the flesh of your figure, you had almost lost your original idea, together with your enthusiasm for it. It took weeks while you measured and measured until you were blue and still couldn´t really see your figure clearly. That was nonsense. He would come up with his own method—a method that would let him have all the fun of drawing. Somehow he would handle the depth thing.
How he did that is unknown.

See how Vasari, his biographer, says Michelangelo carved.

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17 Responses to Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method

  1. wrjones says:

    I watched a show on Bernini and was awestruck. It just doesn’t seem possible to carve stone so well. If I had another life to live I might like to be a sculptor – assuming I could find a sugar mama – or maybe something easier like yacht designer or genetic engineer.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Bernini had a sugar daddy–one that was a master carver and who brought the kid up to be a genius sculptor. He put a little baby hammer and chisel in the crib and gave the little tyke a baby block of marble for a birthday present (at four?). When the lad was a little older he pulled strings and blew his horn for him at the bishop’s palace too. Bernini did fine in life but you wonder whether he ever thought he’d like to be something else in another one. Talk about programmed. But you be careful, Bill: in another life you might be a grasshopper or something.

  3. wrjones says:

    I saw a painting by Jack Hines (an old New York illustrator/painter) depicting a grasshopper on a leaf floating in a stream. Near the leaf was a trout. The title of the painting was “Perilous Journey”.

  4. wpm1955 says:

    I thought this was such an interesting story! Thanks for sharing it, as well asyour thoughts about the method. So, does that mean you think Michaelangelo’s assistant was not telling the truth about his master’s method?

    Madame Monet

  5. 100swallows says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Madame Monet. Thanks for saying so.
    No, I think Vasari was saying what he knew. And for all anyone knows, Michelangelo DID use that coffin method to measure the depth of his figures as he carved (probably without the water, however?). I can think of no other explanation for the wall of stone beside the unfinished ATLAS Giant. The thing is, the whole coffin business is unnecessary. I have carved reliefs and figures in the round, measuring occasionally with compasses, which was the traditional method and, I thought, good enough. Why Michelangelo rejected it, God only knows.

  6. Allison says:

    This was a pretty good website but it didn’t tell anough info….SOOOOOOOO i hated it and now i didn’t get my project done!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. stu says:

    According to an art historian that I met, Michelangelo did carve his statues starting at the very front of the stone, and working back, layer by layer, as if he were carving a relief. A contemporary said, it was like watching a wax model being lifted out of a bath of water. This allowed Michelangelo to maintain control over the composition as the figures slowly emerged to him. (I think some of his earliest works were reliefs – so maybe there was simply a natural transition)

  8. 100swallows says:

    Stu–thanks. That “contemporary” of Michelangelo’s was none other than his friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari, who said just what your historian said he said. That is not the usual way to carve a complex figure because, though you can maintain control over one view of the composition–a front view, say–as you carve, you necessarily neglect or have less control over the others. But it is probably advisable to believe Vasari. Michelangelo’s works LOOK as though he made them that way. See my post on this:
    Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method


  9. Pingback: Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method « The Best Artists

  10. I suspect that his earlier works used a different, more formal method, compared to his later stuff. The later stuff like the 1555 duomo pieta seem more organic and felt out, rather than the calculated earlier works like the 1499 pieta(st peter basilica)

  11. ryanx says:

    great artwork

  12. ryanx says:


  13. shamya says:

    I like the art work

  14. see http://www.corneliussullivan.com/backup/day_one.htm
    for a day to day log, 65 days, of carving a marble Pieta using Michelangelo’s method of carving.

  15. John Fisher says:

    I have posted here somewhere about how I believe he carved. It has to do with what I call profile carving. It was essential for eye protection and allowed for large chips to be removed fast and efficiently.

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