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Quarrying and carving marble

Stone carving, a key process in creating sculptures, involves quarrying marble, shaping it, and refining it with various tools. Michelangelo, a famous sculptor, sourced his marble from Carrara, Italy. He visualized his sculptures as figures trapped within the marble, waiting to be freed. This process is labor-intensive, meticulous, and requires great skill. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Harris: We're going to talk about the process of stone carving, which I think is very hard to imagine without power tools and also the process of getting the stone from a quarry. Dr. Drogin: This is one of the marble quarries in Carrara, Italy, which is where most of the finest marble for sculpture, especially in the Renaissance came from and still, as you can see, they do quarry marble from this area. Dr. Harris: And didn't Michelangelo get his marble from Carrara? Dr. Drogin: That's right. This is where Michelangelo liked to get his marble, because of its very pure white qualities. You can see today they do use some power tools and electric things like a bulldozer, but at the time, the way it would work is that the very first step would be to dislodge a block of marble from the marble in the mountain and that would be done by creating cracks in the area that you wanted to get the block from and then inserting wooden wedges that were soaked in water. As the water would cause the wood to expand, that is actually strong enough to crack the marble and it would dislodge a large marble block. Dr. Harris: So you have this wooden peg that's going into a crack and being saturated with water that makes the crack open more. Dr. Drogin: Right, so you put a whole series of pegs along a line and that'll create a large crack that will dislodge the block. Dr. Harris: Then removing that block from the cliff and then somehow getting it to Florence. Dr. Drogin: Actually, some of the first work, in terms of shaping the stone, might actually be done at the quarry. Dr. Harris: Oh. Dr. Drogin: That way you're not transporting extra weight, since it's, of course, very hard to move. You might shape it down, block it down to it's general shape and then you might transport it in that way. Dr. Harris: That makes sense. Dr. Drogin: For this reason, sometimes sculptors, like Michelangelo actually started doing work on the sculpture in the quarry or in the town where the quarry was. Dr. Harris: Was this transported by river? Dr. Drogin: That's right, they usually tried to transport these things by boat. Rivers and canals, because of course, the blocks being so heavy, it's easier to do it that way than over land. Let's talk about the process and some of the tools that would be used. As we said, the first step is you get a block out of the mountain. Then the next step is that you want to shape the block down to the general shape of the sculpture that you're making. Here's the tools. These are modern tools, but they're essentially the same as the tools that were use in the Renaissance. The first step, as I said, is to just get the shape of the figure and for that, you're going to use the tool that looks just like a giant pick, which is this one right here. You're going to use that with a large mallet, a sledgehammer, and all you're doing is cutting away the extra marble that you're not going to use. You're just getting the general shape of the sculpture. Dr. Harris: What would happen if you hacked at it and something cracked in a way and took off a big slice that you didn't want? Dr. Droging: Then generally, you would start again. Dr. Harris: That would be very bad, right? Dr. Drogin: Right, exactly. There's no going backwards with marble carving, since it is a reductive process. You do need to be very, very careful. As I said, you start by getting the general shape and then once you've got the general shape of the figure or whatever it is that you're carving, then you'll switch down to these chisels that have teeth, starting with a larger one, like you see here. That you use with much more delicate taps and a smaller hammer that gives you more control to get the more details that you want from the figure. As you need more and more details, you move to finer and finer a chisel. A very good example of what this looks like, since we already started talking about Michelangelo we can use this example. This is Michelangelo's incomplete figure of the Awakening Slave, one of the figures that was planned for the tomb of Pope Julius the Second. This dates from around 1530. Here you can see the block that the figure is being carved from. What you can see, especially in some details, is that the very large rough area surrounding the figure, that's what Michelangelo had started to chop away. He's just using a pick and a hammer and you can see these marks in here are not made with a refined chisel. He's basically just whacking away at this marble, because he just wants it to go away. Dr. Harris: I imagine Michelangelo had big muscles in his arms from doing this. Dr. Drogin: You have to be very strong to do this kind of thing. Then what's really nice is, especially in this image, if we look at the detail, for instance, in what's the left arm of the figure on the right, you can see here he's shifted to one of those chisels that have teeth, because now he's not just trying to get rid of the marble, he's actually trying to shape it and to give it some kind of form. If you look at the chest, you can see those kinds of teethmarks there, but they're a little fainter and a little smaller, because there he's getting more detail and so he's switched to a chisel with finer teeth. Here's a detail of the face and again, you can see the same different kinds of chisel marks that we were talking about a minute ago. These, which are just made with the pick to get rid of the marble and then here, where it looks like it's been scratched with a fork. Those are the kinds of areas where he's using a chisel with teeth to shape the figure some more. Dr. Harris: I'm reminded of Leonardo saying that sculpture was inferior because you had to get all messy. Dr. Drogin: It is messy. You sweat, you get covered in dust. It's a very sloppy process compared to - Exactly and takes a lot of exertion compared to painting. Dr. Harris: And of course a block of marble was very expensive. Dr. Drogin: Absolutely, that's right and it's important when we're talking about marble, in terms of sculpture, to think that marble costs ten times more than wood, in terms of what the finish product will cost. I also want to look at this detail again, because besides talking about marble carving in general this incomplete figure gives us a window into Michelangelo's particular approach to sculpture, because he said in his writings, he discusses how when he's making a marble figure, he looks at the block as soon as it's come out of the quarry before he's even touched it with any chisel and he visualizes the figure trapped inside the marble. Essentially, he says, "All I'm doing is releasing "the figure from inside the stone. "It's already there, it's pre-existing in the stone itself "and all I'm doing is setting it free, taking away "all the marble that surrounds it." Dr. Harris: So you can see the figure trapped inside. Dr. Drogin: Exactly and this particular example gives us a really good illustration of that idea, because in a way, it looks like the figure is already all there and all he's doing is letting it out. Dr. Harris: Getting rid of all that dead material to let a living figure free. Dr. Drogin: That's right. Now, of course, as we said, this is an incomplete figure. This is not a finished sculpture by Michelangelo, but - Dr. Harris: He did that a lot. Dr. Drogin: There was a lot of sculptures (crosstalk) Dr. Harris: Given the process, why one would leave them incomplete. It's so difficult, they would take so long, and he had patrons making so many demands on him. Dr. Drogin: That's right, but luckily, in a way, we have different sculptures at a lot of different stages of incompletion, so we can really see how he progressed along the way. To switch to a different sculpture, this is the so-called Doni Tondo from about 1505. Here again, you can see the different kinds of chisel marks. For instance, rougher, coarser ones here on the chest, much finer ones on the face where he started to get much more detail. What I really want to emphasize, though, is that when Michelangelo's sculptures were actually complete, in other words when they were signed and on public display, like the famous Pieta in Rome from the 1490s, they had an incredibly high polish. There were no more chisel marks at all, because you progress through the finer and finer chisels but then the last stages are going to be that you've sanded down and then also that you polish it with leather, so it gets this very, very pristine, glossy, smooth finish. When you're looking at something like this, it's hard to imagine even that it was carved with a hammer and tools. Dr. Harris: It is. Dr. Drogin: Look at the flesh or the fabric on her head. It seems to transcend the medium. Dr. Harris: So there are really two kinds of sculpting processes. One is an additive process, right, of sculpting from clay or wax or plaster and this would be a subtractive process of taking away. Dr. Drogin: That's right. These examples that we've looked at have given us a really good idea of how you progress from the mountain to the finished work of art. (jazz music)