Michelangelo’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, himself a professional artist, tells 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 chin, then the lips, the brows, 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.
Cellini says—or seems to say—that Michelangelo sometimes went to the trouble of making even full-size models, as in the case of the Medici tomb figures. But Cellini doesn´t mention the big coffins they should have lain in.
The so-called “Awakening Giant”, by Michelangelo, in the Accademia, Florence (a wapedia photo here)
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.