How Michelangelo Carved His Statues

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.

See Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method

This entry was posted in art, art history, Michelangelo, sculpture, stone carving and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to How Michelangelo Carved His Statues

  1. peggi says:

    This was a fascinating article to me. Imagining Michaelangelo measuring every centimeter and angle as he went, all left-brain execution. There’s one part of me that just wants to enjoy the art as an experience of emotion and beauty and another part of me that wants to break it down and examine exactly how it was achieved.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Peggi.
    I’m like you (but not nearly as skilled in painting). Mike seems to have figured out his carving technique, whatever it was, very early, that lucky dog.

  3. Ion Danu says:

    I thing that if M. used the water method mentinned by Vasari he would use it only to get the general feeling of his models… I’m almost sure he didn’t reproduced exactly the chosen models (the model being more in his mind) and that he didn’t do any actual measurements other than the eye-measurement…. A genius like him would have had a very developped capacity to intuitively GET the proportions right etc. It is, maybe, a false dilema, G….

    By the way, I found among my books another biography of Michelangelo, by Marcel Brion… I’m just beginning to read it… It’s from 1948-49, I think…

  4. 100swallows says:

    It’s not only a question of the little mummies, Danu. Wait–I ‘ll put in a couple more posts on this subject.

  5. Pingback: Michelangelo’s Mysterious Giants | The Best Artists

  6. vala says:

    i really want to learn more on this. im a 4th generation tiler and solid plasterer with a rich etruscan background. im fascinated in michelangelo, but more so his awesome statues and methods of carving.

  7. goran k king says:

    I don’t believe for a second that M bothered with all that measuring. It is not necessary at all. The submerging model idea is ingenious. I helps you maintain perspective over the entire piece. after you rough it out top to bottom, Lie the model on its back and drain fluid from front to rear of model and then side to side etc. After it is all ruffed out, start again and fine tune your piece. I find the method exciting and very satisfying.

    • 100swallows says:

      Goran: Thanks. You’re the first person I know who actually uses the method. Of course one would need a submergible model–an unfired clay one wouldn’t do. Michelangelo didn’t first rough out the entire piece. Notice the wall of marble he left standing in those Boboli Giants–left standing though it would seem to be in his way! I enjoyed seeing your sculpture.

  8. gorankking says:

    !00 swallows: Please don’t use unfired clay. unless you work really fast because clay will reconstitute and collapse within hrs.. Oil clay is fine. The piece seen as my avatar is a model that I made of clay and fired then decided that I wanted a 3-4′ piece so I the above method but I am using a block of clay. I will post picks on Again I only use this method to maintain perspective, no measuring…no grueling math…just immersion in your craft…

    • 100swallows says:

      Goran: Thanks again. No worry that I’d dunk a clay model in water. Though it was a while ago, I too did a lot of sculpture and have worked in most materials. I now wonder why I never actually tried the Michelangelo method–I guess because as I say in the post, it seemed to imply endless measuring (your “grueling math”). Now I’ll go have a look at your King’s Gallery photos. Un saludo.

  9. John Fisher says:

    I lived and carved in Italy for many years and believe there is another exclamation of how M worked. For thousands of years stone workers carved before there were safety glasses. Loss of an eye was unacceptable. With all the building and carved work to be done they could not afford to loose workmen to eye injury. The chisel when it is in contact with the stone is held at an angel such as you can say it has a leading edge and a trailing edge to the cutting surface. If you look at the front cutting leading edge you will quickly go blind. Wher as if you look at the underneath trailing edge of the chisel you can carve all day and never get anything in your eye. It is said M could cleave off massive chips several inches thick. He would have sent those chips flying safely away from him not wanting to risk his eye sight. In order to look behind and underneath your chisel and to cleave off the largest pieces possible with each blow he had to carve only the extreme edge of the block, carving the profile of his figure. In such a way as the point of the chisel slip behind the block and out of view with every blow. The chip is sent flying away. M was a draftsman so line was extremely important. He knew the figure from every point of view. The edge of the drawn figure is its profile. The profile of whatever you are carving is where the edge of sculpture and background. If anyone knows how to draw and you say from this point of view the profile of what I am carving is here. Draw the line. Now all the stone that is on the other side of the line must be removed. Put your chisel on the line and blast away. When that profile is the way you want it, move 5% and new profiles will present themselves. One never carves the material in front of you but only the material on the very edge of whatever you are making.

    • 100swallows says:

      John Fisher: Thanks,John. Your works are very impressive and I’ve been to your blog several times today to look and re-look at them. The interview too was good and just hearing how you drive yourself makes the reader (me) want to do the same. Bravo!
      I wonder whether you have made too much of how the Renaissance stone workers worried about their eyes. I wear glasses but other men I worked with did not and their eyes were forever full of tiny stone chips. Tears washed them away. Sometimes they would wipe them away with a hanky but I can’t remember any serious problem (there were a few at the grindstone, however).
      I understand your idea of profile carving but you know that at the edge where the stone is unsupported behind and underneath the chip is not very predictable: a bigger one might break off than you had intended. And anyway, getting right the profile of a work is only a part of the job. Think of all the topography of the torso and abdomen. Those Michelangelo combed over very delicately with a fine fork chisel and didn’t “blast away”. Perhaps you would say that all the shapes have profiles or “lines” and your theory still goes. But I wonder if that is the best way to describe the carving. One more thing: What do you make of the high wall of stone he left on the other side of the profile of some of those Boboli Giants?

      • John Fisher says:

        Thanks for the kind words. Let me try to convince you further.
        Before carving in 3D M as well as others carved in relief, even deep relief like M’s second sculpture, “The Battle of the Centaurs.” The high wall would have eventually been remove.. I see people also carve without eye protection and for the most part they do get away with it but I do not want that risk and I still think anyone who makes his living from stone, his eyes are his most valued tool.
        Take a pitching tool or a point and place it on that back edge and blast away. The bend down and retrieve the chip and hold it up to the stone to see the break. I see that surface as a plane. If that break was on a true profile then the plane of the break is tangent to the profile of the sculpture, it does not cut into need material. Most of the figure is round so the profile slips away from you. My experience is one of chasing profiles.
        Especially good crisp Italian marble will break very predictably, always on a plane. I believe everyone carved profile not just M. until the 1700’s, when the pointing machine made carving an industrial affaire. The only reason I have come up with for it not being written down is that it was so common that no one conceived it would be forgotten. Notice we never write down how to use a pencil. Everyone just assumes that it is understood. If you know how to draw, you know all your profiles and carving could not be easier. By carving in deep relief before cutting off the back the whole work is way stronger for storage and moving around. Sighting down an arm or leg shows other kinds of profiles.
        Now take a bite out of an apple. If you look at the bite from the front, you can not tell actually how deep the bite is. But when you turn the apple so the bite is on the profile you see exactly how deep you bit. So for safety sake and to better see how deep you are cutting carve profile. There is an old saying,” Cut from the weak towards the strong.” This is a small piece of the issue but does not cover the whole of profile carving.

      • John Fisher says:

        When you say that the unsupported edge breaks easier, I say “Good” stone carving is hard enough. By carving profile you are removing stone easily all day, shearing off large unsupported chunks or average sized chips. Good Marble or limestone will break on a plane tangent to the form in the direction of the blow.

        • 100swallows says:

          John Fisher: Thanks for going on with this. I am trying to get it clear and need to re-read you some more. I wish I’d have had you around as a teacher when I was sculpting. I learned to point and also to use compasses to enlarge. But looking back, I was most successful with the little figures I carved free-hand, though I didn’t “profile carve” and it sounds good. You were in Italy and I was in Spain.

          • John Fisher says:

            I do teach now days. I watch people carve everywhere I go and no one carves profile which is so weird as I think for centuries it was the other way around. I you ever come to CA plan on stopping by. I never pointed although I understand both that and compasses. But I never wanted to do it. If one starts with a model then that is all you can expect to get. When you start with no model or idea you open yourself up to a myriad of potential forms. Fear of failure pulls out the best in me. I do not get to see the sculpture until it is done keeping my enthusiasm and excitement at a high level. Good carving!

            • John Fisher says:

              When I teach I ask my students to stand behind me and sight right over my shoulder so they see what I see. It is suddenly obvious which stone needs to removed. I once heard that it was said that Bernini would get into one position and make marks all around him. I do the same thing. Say I put myself on my knees and lean into my figure, then freeze. From that position examine all the profile extreme edges of the sculpture. Every profile line is in relation to every other line so that all must be in agreement. The outside of an arm relates to the inside of the arm. Those two profile lines must remain in harmony while you move your head around the arm. The profile lines change as you move. But while carving one only need to concern yourself with one line at a time. From what ever point of view that I take I am confronted with many profiles. By attending to them one at a time I bring that point of view into harmony. Then I move to another position dancing around the stone, climbing up to look from above and getting on my knees to look up. The figure blossoms out of the block. If you are working around the block and you get back to a position you were in before, most of it should already be correct, perhaps a few adjustments, but by and bye everything falls into place and the carving experience just gets more fun. As I start to do delicate modeling I can look at the front of the chisel as I am removing only tiny chips and dust. At that point surface is important and you can not see that on profile. Instead you must consider the stone directly in front of you. Regardless at this point eye protection is no longer an issue.

      • John Fisher says:

        That wall of stone is a perfect place to draw your profile. The image above of the prisoner at the Acadamia with the raised arm has a wall above and below the arm. M has driven his chisel into that profile. Once he gets that right he knows that all that stone above and below needs to go. Look at the Profile line running down from his clavicle over the breast, the rib cage, down over the hip and on down the leg. That line is so important that until he has established that line he doesn’t have a sculpture. Everything from that point of view hinges on that line. Having establishes that line he now begins the opposite line of the torso. Remember M was a superb draftsman, line was his heart’s song. What I see in that photo is all his lines carefully drawn in.
        I tell my students to give me any piece of the figure and I can push my profiles and uncover the rest of the body. From the tip of a finger I can find the hand. Drawing is King. When I teach sculpture I also teach drawing.

        • 100swallows says:

          John Fisher: If I could I’d go out there right now and try out your theory of carving. It’s been years since I held a chisel. You can get an idea from these posts of where I was and what I was doing while you were in Italy. Alas, I had to stop because of a severe back problem.

          • John Fisher says:

            I am on a break myself recovering from a torn rotary cuff. It will still be 3 months before I can use a hammer. I know the kind of shop you worked in as I saw plenty of them in Italy. As I said before that never interested me. I also knew the artisans and they like Fernando were incapable of making their own work. I know others who like you trained in a shop so they could point their own work. they were so lousy as artist that even if they did a good job pointing the sculpture was still lifeless. Thus I began searching for a new way to work. I figured that most of the work being done. the finished product was at least half the weight of the original black and often less. A David copy is done every year in Pietrasanta. they start with a block weighing 27 tons with the finish product well under 10 tons. My idea was to drop 30% of the weight of the block often in the first day of work. While taking off the 30% I was concentrating solely on the abstract qualities to the composition, creating large small and medium sized form with undercuts to add shadows. At a certain point I begin to see images much like one sees images in a cloud. The brain only considers the remaining material as the stone that was removed is gone. When you see an image in the clouds some parts are clearer than others. So I start there and begin profile carving. Using this method I can carve a life-size figure and finish it down to sandpaper in 3 weeks. The speed factor allows for bigger margin for profit and freedom in pricing as you really only have a little time in a major work. come visit any time….. be well

          • John Fisher says:

            Today March 6th is Michelangelo’s birthday. I usually carve but this year I can’t. Are you still able to carve small work? I am working hard at my physical therapy. I am hoping that by the time I am able to get back to work I will have made progress through the pondering of the creative process. In a book I am reading about Micky’s life the author pointed out how he was taken off projects for which he was the most qualified, to do things he was unqualified to do, and thus expanded the range of things he became master of, sculpture, foundry casting, fresco painting, road building, quarry master, and architect. What a guy and yet just a man. He had a good long life and left us all a lot to think about. Diversify, learn many skills and work hard. I think he had moments of great joy, but it seems he suffered a great deal of his life. He was enslaved by popes and caught up in tumultuous times. He risked his life in the quarries and caring for his brother during the plaque. He remains for me a measure of what a man can do.

            • 100swallows says:

              John: That’s right–I forgot that it was Mike’s birthday. It’s incredible that he should still be “present” all these centuries later. Which book are you reading? I ordered Michael Hirst’s a few days ago. Have to keep up on the latest scholarship.
              Like you, I can’t admire Michelangelo enough. He was a real superman. People say a genius can do anything but that isn’t usually true. I read an old bullfighter years ago who said, “If you were born to be a bullfighter you won’t do anything else well.” I don’t know what Mike’s secret was–ambition isn’t enough to explain it. You know that a sculptor has to learn to work in all kinds of materials: besides stone carving there is wax (and chisels)for the foundry, plaster, polyester, casting–and each requires long hours to handle well. I used to complain to myself about all the materials involved. I was always clumsy at all these but I saw people who handled them all with a natural ease. Maybe you are one. Still, that’s only sculpture, and Mike became an expert painter too, which includes a fine use of color.
              No, I don’t carve any more. I’ve taken to painting.
              Good luck on your therapy. It must be hard to have to stop doing what you love. I bet great ideas occur to you now.

              • John Fisher says:

                The Life of Michrlangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds It is an old book. The gguy from Seattle who wrote,” Michelangelo’s Mountain,” just missed me while he was in Carrara doing his research for his book. Most or practically all writers are not carvers so ultimately they don’t know what they are talking about. An interesting historical fantasy is Sidney Alexander’s “Michelangelo the Florentine,” and “The Hand of Michelangelo.” I really enjoyed Ross King’s, “The Pope’s Ceiling,” who also wrote “Bruneleschi’s Dome.” It is all fun. To me the discussion of Profile Carving and it’s relation to how Michelangelo worked, has never been dealt with in anything I’ve read. There is not enough to write a book about, but I am on a crusade to get the message out. I saw my surgeon today and he feels the repair was well done and that I will live to carve again. It is all good news on this the birthday of the big M..

  10. John Fisher says:

    I call this “Profile Carving”

    • John Fisher says:

      When you look at the front of the chisel, you are looking at the material you are removing and so it goes in your face. When you look at the back of the chisel, you are looking at the material you are leaving, the sculpture itself, so you are exactly controlling the form. When you look at the front of the chisel, the force of the blow is actually bruising the stone which will bee your form, your sculpture. When you look at the back of he chisel and are carving profile, the blow of the chisel gives only a glancing bruise to your sculpture. The angle of the chisel is tangent to the form. so the energy of each blow is put into removing waste material while only tangentially licking the outside of your sculpture with no risk of breakage.

  11. will says:

    Swallows, John,
    May I tell you how much I enjoyed reading your experts discussion about carving. I knew nothing about your art, and I have been always marvelling at how one could work in 3D a block of stone into a statue. With an engineering background, I could not just figure out how you artists can drive your hands in space, fighting the stone with tools, with such accuracy and even more such artistic sensitivity, without guidance nor programming, not even blueprints!
    I have read you excellent post, Swallows, about sculptors vs. draughtsmen/painters. I believe the superiority of the first ones can be seen in a straightforward manner by saying that they can do the others’ job, while the contrary is just unthinkable in most cases (these latter guys would be just lost when deprived of their secure 2D plane…).
    Not even mentionning Michelangelo and his Renaissance colleagues, I love Rodin’s sketches, or Barye’s paintings for example.
    Thank you so much for this.
    Also, may I join you in celebrating ‘Mike’s’ birthday. It looks strange to me that such an extraordinary genius of mankind is not honored publicly every year in gratitude.

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thanks. John is the expert and a fine artist and he’s the man to listen to. I see that Barye did some lively horses and there’s at least one by John on his webpage, so he’s studied them too. My first figures in stone were Spanish fighting bulls, which I could see and draw in corrals just outside Madrid, where they were brought in from the farms for the Madrid fair. I learned to observe them first in the bullring, where, contrary to what many think, they are the heroes, as Goya showed them. Looking back, I think I stylized my figures too soon before thorough study–the temptation of our time. To this day I haven’t decided just how much priority to allow expression over anatomical correctness. I know the artist of genius doesn’t wonder about that.
      A toast to Michelangelo, the greatest of them all!

  12. Pingback: 5 Ways to Become 1% More Mindful Every Day

  13. Peter says:

    unbelievable fascinating discussion. As an architect, i have learned so much thank you John for your insights. I knew about the coffin method using milk but carving in a series of profiles has unlocked for me knowledge that will give even greater enjoyment and appreciation for M’s work. I feel dare i say it closer to the artist knowing a little more of these trade secrets..

    • John Fisher says:

      I always carve on Michelangelo’s birthday. It is an honor to continue in his legacy of work, searching for the best methods, and leaving a body of work to inspire others.

Leave a Reply