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.

St. Matthew by Michelangelo , 1505-1506 size: 216 cm.

St. Matthew by Michelangelo , 1505-1506 size: 216 cm. Wikimedoia public domain photo

“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.

Boboli Giants

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.

The so-called “Awakening Giant”, by Michelangelo, in the Accademia, Florence wapedia photo here

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.

Vasari’s description

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.

Michelangelo’s secrecy

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.

Boboli Gardens statue called “Atlas”

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.

See Relief As a Skillful Lie


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

30 Responses to Michelangelo’s Mysterious Carving Method

  1. wrjones
    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
    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. Lynne Diligent
    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

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  10. simon shawn andrews – vancouver, bc
    simon shawn andrews says:

    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. 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.

    • MuralForm – Toronto, On – Based in Toronto, Canada, MuralForm produces hand-painted murals and signage in all shapes and sizes. Founder Jason Rouleau boasts over 20 years of experience rendering murals in styles ranging from classical to contemporary. Established in 2014, MuralForm as a business is new but our team is not. From marketing murals and promotional signage, to interior bedroom murals and faux finishing, MuralForm is in firm possession of the two requisite attributes to deliver outstanding works of art; talent and practical knowledge. Find out more about us at http://muralform.com MuralForm 707-50 Cornwall St Toronto, ON M5A 4K5 647-496-6228
      MuralForm says:

      Day 65 is beautiful !

  12. 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.

  13. Great article! I find that Michelangelo’s approach is not just inspirational to other sculptors, but to designers in other competencies. He discovered what was inside the stone rather than forcing his art into existence.

    I also wrote an article comparing Michelangelo’s approach to Einstein’s and what we can learn from both of their processes.
    “Design like Einstein and Michelangelo”

  14. From last Summer carving in the Michelangelo Quarry in Carrara http://www.corneliussullivan.com/carving_by_the_quar.html

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    Adrian says:

    I know nothing about anything you’ve discussed, other than a love of the Pieta piece, and an enthusiasm for the Medici history and renaissance Italy, but this article was a fantastic read. Thank you so much for sharing this in a language that even us “outsiders” can understand and follow along. Fascinating story!

  17. meg white says:

    He found a point in the form and followed it. By doing a nose or a knee he found everything else. He didn’t need a model to follow, he carved direct. He was doing the fun part which is finding the form which can be thrilling. That is why there are large sections of stone left. Removing large areas of stone is fairly boring and difficult. Maybe not, but that’s how I have carved for years. I have only rarely used plaster models for carving, I prefer my eye and, for the most part, my memory. I am certain he did the same thing.

  18. KRDaniel says:

    Remember, I believe Michelangelo had said himself that he could “see the figures in the stone” before he cut. He just removed the stone that needed to be removed to let the figure out. Perhaps he had no more method then that.

    • 100swallows says:

      KRDaniel: There is a sonnet by Michelangelo (XVI)
      “Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto”. Here are the lines translated by Longfellow:
      The Artist
      Nothing the greatest can conceive
      That every marble block doth not confine
      Within itself: and only its design
      The hand that follows intellect can achieve…

  19. Gary says:

    I don’t know how Michelangelo was taught his trade, but perhaps he WASN’T taught. As a child artist I was self-taught, so developed some pretty odd techniques. When copying from a photo my method was put a small dot in the exact center of the photo (portrait or other), then put a small dot in the exact center of my blank sheet of paper. I would then render every minute detail surrounding that dot, expanding outward like a flower, revealing the duplicated image as if through an ever enlarging hole. Enough to make an art teacher pull their hair out, but that was my method – and with some impressive results. But it was also a terrible handicap, which is why I would have benefited greatly from guidance early on. All that to say that my intuition about Michelangelo is that he was self-taught; he found a technique early on that though juvenile and ill-advised, it worked for him (to put it mildly) and he was loath to change his technique later, lest it compromise his success. And apparently he simply had the brilliant mind to pull it off. He really could hold in his mind that beautiful image buried in the stone, and simply set about liberating it, maybe like what Meg White said above. This also makes me think of Mozart (if the stories be true), who crafted his music entirely in his head, able to hold it all in his mind complete, then to merely write the final draft onto paper like dictation. …So, regardless of how “poor” Michelangelo’s technique may have been, he was was such an over-the-top genius that he could push past all that and still blow EVERYBODY away.

  20. Rich says:

    Michelangelo self-taught:
    Made me remember Titian smirked at because of his “lack of drawing skills” at the time: Delacroix made his own remarks in this respect – he had noted a certain “amateurish” way in his works – but at the same time he deeply appreciated the painter’s inherent qualities.

    William Blake condemned Titian: It seems his drawing ideal was Fuseli. According to Blake’s standards Titian was an amateur painter of undeserved fame. As far as I remember, he even put his depreciation in verse. I was dumbfound.

  21. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Here’s what Ruskin had to say about Titian in a lecture (“The Two Paths” Lecture II, paragraph 57):
    “Vandyke is popular, and Rembrandt is popular, but nobody cares much at heart about Titian; only there is a strange undercurrent of everlasting murmur about his name, which means the deep consent of all great men that he is greater than they—the consent of those who, having sat long enough at his feet, have found in that restrained harmony of his strength there are indeed depths of each balanced power more wonderful than all those separate manifestations in inferior painters.”

  22. Rich says:

    Ruskin’s comment here tallies with Delacroix’ entries in his (priceless) diaries: Somewhere he talks about Titian being kind of an “acquired taste”, that “if one lived for 120 years one would prefer Titian to all the others”.
    “He is not the man of the youth”, Delacroix continues, ” he is the least mannered and therefore the most manifold of all painters. Mannered talents are bound to just one way and habit, following their hand’s impulse, not leading it. The most manifold talent is the least mannered – he follows his true feelings and perception. Titian never boasts with his dexterousness and skill – on the contrary, he despises everything which won’t lead to a lively expression of his thoughts and sentiments. Hiding his ways of execution, he seemingly neglects them.”…
    which perhaps led William Blake to such ill-drawn conclusions about Titian as “the evil genius of oil painting”, with his “blotted and blurred” works: A fine example for me how even grand persons can err…
    Saludos cordiales;-)

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