Sculptors have to deal with the limitations of their stone. It may not be the same size or shape as their design, say. Then they must adjust the design. Michelangelo had to design his colossal David for a block with a hole in the middle.
And what about afterwards? What about when you discover a problem after you have begun to work or, worse, after you have begun to finish? You may have chipped off a centimeter too much in a crucial place—what do you do? The rest of your face or your hand is already carved. You must invent a way out of the problem, perhaps by bending a finger that was straight or moving it over slightly if there is enough stone. There is ever so little margin.
Look closely at Michelangelo’s finished figures and you will see examples everywhere. Here are some from the figures in the Medici tomb:
Giuliano de Medici’s staff. It is a third thicker in Giuliano’s right hand than in his left, though it was surely not meant to taper. Both hands were supposed to be resting on it and the hands were already carved.
Giuliano’s left hand. There wasn’t room for all of it once enough girth was given to the staff. To make that room Michelangelo had to cut into the staff slightly. But no one sees this because, contrary to an old rule that the viewer always seeks out the defects of a figure, when the general impression is of so much power and beauty the defects do go unnoticed.
Lorenzo’s base. It is “warped”. It rises to accommodate his foot.
That “little” irregularity must have horrified the marblers who were in charge of decorating the chapel. The fine little slipper sole under the foot was also cut there to help explain some of the excess stone.
A similar problem showed up when Michelangelo came to Giuliano’s base: his left foot came down higher on the base than his right.
To “solve” this, Michelangelo had to fool the eye by sloping the whole base from back to front; and then, since the plinth (base) was still a little too thick in front, he removed some marble from the bottom side (not visible in my picture–sorry), so the statue “floats” half a centimeter off the floor of the niche.
This post was originally published on November 4, 2007