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.
“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 figure in the round, a treacherous example for sculptors, who often err in just this way.
The least finished of Michelangelo’s statues, the ones that should therefore tell us most about his carving technique, are the most mysterious. They are the so-called “Giants”, now exhibited in the Accademia in Florence, left and right of the broad hall that leads to the David. They represent slaves and they writhe and twist to get free—free from their condition as slaves but also, it looks, from the rock that imprisons them. Michelangelo started carving all of them from one side, the same as he had done the St. Matthew, as if he were doing a relief instead of a round figure. He goes very far toward finishing one half while leaving the rest, the other side, in the rock—a very unadvisable proceeding.
What is new in the “Giants”, and downright baffling, is the presence of so much excess stone. The “yawning” slave, the one called “The Awakening Giant” has almost stretched himself out of the block. Why doesn’t Michelangelo give him some hip room now that he has given him elbow room? Why doesn’t Michelangelo give himself, the sculptor, room to work? What’s that long wall of rock doing beside the giant, now that he’s free of it and it will have no part in the finished statue? It only gets in the way. Try to carve anything at the bottom of a ten-inch canyon of stone and see how you like it.
The slave called “Atlas” is even worse. The meaningless wall of marble runs all along the one side and the original mountain is still there in the middle. So Michelangelo has had to gouge out the leg, to dig it out of a rut in some places twelve or fifteen inches deep. There was room enough for a chisel but barely enough for his hand way down there! What is the point of cramping himself so? Why doesn’t he eliminate all the stone left and right—the canyon walls—if only for his own comfort?
Beginners always get themselves into fixes. The master comes along and finds them twisted into the oddest positions while polishing or carving. They are actually hurting themselves, often without discovering it until the day is over and they ache at night. “What are you doing?” asks the master with stagy exasperation. “Stop a minute. Stand up straight. Move your figure this way. Put it like this. Do you see it’s better now and you can work easier? I’ll bet your neck is going to keep you awake tonight. You have to learn to buscar las mañas, as we say—look for the tricks, the easiest and most comfortable way to work. Carving is hard enough, there’s no point in making it even harder.”
Once more Michelangelo looks like the blundering novice. He’s worked himself into a hole.
But who is the master here and who’s the student? The fact is, this was the method that produced (if a method can produce) some of the greatest statues ever carved. It might be argued that they could have been made using the traditional carving method and that this doing-it-as-if-it-were-a-relief approach was just another of Michelangelo’s eccentricities. But it is better to argue that the execution and the achievement go together, that just as in painting, the how is inseparable from the final what.
Michelangelo’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, himself a professional artist, says he knows how the master carved his figures.
He says Michelangelo laid his model into a little box like a coffin. He filled the box with water until the figure was submerged. Then he slowly let the water run out of the box or dipped some out. The first parts of the figure to emerge from the water like islands were the parts Michelangelo had to cut out first on his stone block. Of a face, for example, he would first do the nose, then the brow, then the moustache, the chin, the eye-lids, and so on.
Now this is a fine way to illustrate the carving of a figure but as a working technique it has real drawbacks. Was it really Michelangelo’s working procedure or only a practical example, an illustration for Vasari’s general reader, of how a statue is cut out of the stone? What’s wrong with it?
One, the actual measuring of the depth of each figure as it comes out of the water seems very complicated and inexact. You could color the water to make a greater contrast with the figure but the water-line might not always be easy to determine where the prominences are vaguer, such as the gentle hills of a torso. Water surface tension would also cause you trouble. The water would cling to the sides of the emerging bulge and register higher up than it should.
Another drawback would be the model. To make accurate measurements you would have to use a finished or far-along model. Even if it were substantially smaller than your projected marble statue, its modelling would take a long time and this would mean that the actual creation goes on not in the marble but in the clay.
But these practical difficulties could all no doubt be overcome. What is really unbelievable is that the master would be the slave to such a mindless system. Maybe the mummies were for the workshop helpers. But no artist could put up with the endless measuring as if he were a sort of animated mechanical device, reproducing an object which happens to be his own statue. All his aesthetic discernment is disengaged with such a method. His judgments all have to do with numbers and distances—with geometry—the accidence of a miniature earth. The prominences he carves lose their coherence, their meaning. They are no more than rocky islands sticking out of the sea. You might know that the half-centimeter you must cut out next is a knuckle or the tip of a nose but the method wouldn´t let you do the whole nose or knuckle until the water-level falls in the coffin.
In fact, Vasari never saw Michelangelo carve. Michelangelo made sure of that. He hated to be watched while he worked, not only because idlers as well as critics made him nervous but because he liked to keep his carving technique a secret. Once, when he was working at night, candles on his hat, his friend Vasari came unexpectedly to bring him a gift. When Michelangelo saw him at the door, realizing that Vasari could see his statue, he snuffed out the candles, leaving the room in the dark. Vasari thought that was funny. Michelangelo’s very first biographer Paolo Giovio wasn’t so amused. “Although princes implored him to do so, [Michelangelo] never let himself be persuaded to be the master of anyone or even to allow anybody in his workshop as an observer.”
A painter rather than a sculptor?
The French artist Eugene Delacroix said this about Michelangelo’s statues: “I often thought of him more as of a painter than sculptor, even if he may have said otherwise. Unlike the ancients, he did not work with masses in his sculptures. They always look as if he had drawn an ideal outline of them first, like a painter does. One might say his figures and groups show themselves from a single angle only – that’s where we have the painter…Michelangelo astonishes us, stirs and fills us with a certain bewildered admiration, but soon one discovers those disturbing irregularities that stem from a work done in too much haste due to the impetuosity with which he went at it, or it was sheer exhaustion that befell him at the end of a work that turned out to be impossible to finish. The latter often shows in an undeniable way.”
Nearly all his statues were intended to be shown with their backs to the wall and the unexhibited back-side of many was never sculpted. So Michelangelo conceived and treated them as reliefs and worked on their good side, bringing it to near completion, before dealing with what would not be shown.
And, however implausible it seems, the high marble walls of the Boboli “Giants” do seem to exemplify a carving method as explained by Vasari. They could only have been used to measure depth, apparently with reference to a model and… the walls of its coffin.
Benvenuto Cellini, a goldsmith and sculptor who knew Michelangelo, says he saw life-size clay models of the figures in the Medici Chapel. He doesn’t mention any boxes enclosing them but the existence of such large models proves that Michelangelo copied them in marble, somehow.
Actual relief sculpture differs from sculpture in the round in that, since it is fixed to a slab of marble, it must create an illusion of depth by superimposed planes. In that sense, Michelangelo’s figures were not reliefs.