Poked eyeballs. Though we find some old Greek statues with painted eyes or even gem eyes (semi-precious stones implanted in the eye-sockets), most of them had smooth hemispheres for eyeballs. There was no attempt at showing a glance, a look, except as could be inferred from the direction of the hemispheres, which were really drop-shaped, with the bulge where the pupils lay. That was in keeping with the Greek aim of showing only the outside of the body. You were supposed to look at it as a beautiful natural object, not as an individual personality with its fleeting moods. Though there is nothing in animated “real life” as moving as some looks are, those old marble statues weren’t meant to give you any.
At first Michelangelo either didn’t understand or didn’t accept that old Greek aim. Precisely because all he saw around him were sleepy or praying saints with their eyes closed or other statues with empty, blindman’s stares, he thought he would try to do something novel with the eyes of one of his first statues, the St. Proculus. Maybe they could be made to show some fire, some anger, some energy.
Sometimes in the past sculptors had drilled a little hole in the stone eyeballs of their statues just where, in a real eyeball, the pupil would be. This was an outright misrepresentation of the shape of the eyeball. A pupil (or rather, the lens) stands out—it is a little hill on the hemisphere of the eyeball, not a hole. Seen from the side, the poked eyeball looked sliced off right where it should bump. But those sculptors considered that this little lie might produce virtuous results if the shadows from the holes they drilled looked like black pupils.
The results were usually of a very discreet virtue, or none, or going toward actual vice. Depending on how the light shone on the figure, the holes looked good or bad. When they were bad, they spoiled the face altogether; when good, they got a five out of ten. After drilling the holes, the sculptor often couldn’t resist the temptation to scratch circles around them to represent the irises too. This was his second sculptural outrage. Iris circumferences aren’t round scratches on an eyeball.
When his Proculus was carved, Michelangelo, probably against the advice of his old teachers, drilled holes in its eyes with a gimlet. He must first have made many trial drillings on clay and wax models, just to see the effects. He can’t have liked them completely but he went ahead: he was courageous.
But were those the last gimlet holes Michelangelo drilled into the eyes of his statues? No. He didn’t give up on the trick until he had made it crown his work, not detract from it. He was brave enough—seeing the results who can any longer say “foolhardy enough”?—to drill the eyes of his colossal David. That was one of the riskiest things he ever did. No one could say how the eyes would look from below or from a distance, with the ever-shifting light of day upon them. By poking those eyes Michelangelo might easily have ruined his statue—very easily. It is anyway hard to imagine how he carved the big figure without being able to stand back every now and then to have a look at it. But his biographer Vasari states that Michelangelo built a scaffold around the stone and then covered it all with a tarp, so no one could see what he was doing. This meant that he himself was not able to stand back, say, twenty yards to check his carving. He had to trust absolutely in his model (where was that? how large was it?) and its gimlet-hole pupils.
Notice that the holes are not simply round bores. They are heart-shaped: there are two to an eye, and they tunnel upward. There are no rules for making these holes. You try one kind of hole, step back if you can, and see how it looks from the front and the sides. Michelangelo thought he had done reasonably well on his Proculus with this butterfly or Valentine bore and staked the success of his big David on one like it. And he won—it was right, it worked. David looks anxious, just as he is supposed to as he prepares to whip that pebble at Goliath.
Yet on his next poked-eye figure, the Bacchus, he gave up the gimlet and tried a more subtle treatment of the eye. See Michelangelo’s Statue of a Drunk.
After that he gave up making holes or depressions in the eyes. Except for one figure—and I hesitate to mention it, to draw attention to it, because it is one of his greatest. It is one of the greatest figures any sculptor ever carved anywhere. It is so awe-inspiring that few ever see and fewer admit through their piety that they are seeing a terrible flaw when they look squarely at it. The statue is the Moses and the flaw is the eyes. Judge for yourself:
The pupil rings are too small—beady. The holes are rough, awkward digs without concern for the shadows they throw. In fact, they stop short—they are not deep enough, so that you see the flat wall down inside where they stop, which destroys the whole illusion. In a word, they are graceless, which is a most un-Michelangelo-like quality. I would like to believe that he didn’t make those holes but I lack any authority to do that. The Moses was put in place while he was still alive—he must have given it his final approval. It is hard to understand how a man who had given so much study to the problem and had invented so many ingenious solutions to it, could finally, in this figure of his maturity, have given up and simply drilled (or goughed out) those pupil-holes and scratched (actually: carved with a flat chisel) circles around them without experimenting first to see the results. Perhaps it was a case of overconfidence. He had (nearly) always been right. His eye was the best in the world.
(In this unfinished Victory Michelangelo finished only the right eye. Why ?)