Michelangelo in the Accademia with Matthew and four slaves
Michelangelo and his Apostle Matthew
In April 1503, a contract was signed in which Michelangelo promised to carve twelve apostles, one every year. Two other drawings by Michelangelo from the same year have been preserved, showing a preliminary study of the figure of Matthew not frontally, but from the side. These drawings were made three years before the discovery of the sculpture of the Laocoon. The statue that the classical writer, Pliny the Elder, had described as the best work of art of Antiquity. Michelangelo was present at this discovery, as already described in the story about Rome. Presumably, this statue of the apostle Matthew, which we now face, was carved in the summer of 1506, after the discovery of the Laocoon. In the drawings, Matthew is depicted quite calmly and rather statically, and this evangelist makes a completely different impression than the final statue.
The way in which the emotions of the priest Laocoon are represented must have left a deep impression on Buonarroti. All you have to do is turn your head around and look at the David in the domed hall and then look again at Matthew. What a world of difference! The David seems to have potential power, but he is standing still. Matthew is different, his movement does not seem calm at all, on the contrary, he seems to wring himself loose or shudder from something that overwhelms him: a divine vision? Matthew’s body revolves around its own axis. Here we see the beginning of what is later called the figura serpentinata.
If we look at Michelangelo’s Palazzo Vecchio, ‘The Victory‘, you will see how Buonarroti has further developed this rotation around a central body axis.
The Matthew: a perfect illustration of Michelangelo’s way of working
The statue of Matthew shows beautifully how Buonarroti worked when he created a statue out of marble.
Vasari described this method, which he highly recommended, as follows: “[…] It is as if one were taking a figure, made of wax or other solid material, a figure which one would then put stretched out in a bowl of water, water which is naturally flat and smooth at the surface, after which one would gradually lift the figure to the surface, so that first the most protruding parts would emerge, while the underlying parts, i.e. the lowest parts, would remain hidden, until the figure came to light in its entirety in this way.” Translated from Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, Deel II 1992, blz. 283 (originele editie 1568).
If you now look at the Matthew from the side, you can see what Vasari meant by the phrase: ‘would gradually lift the figure to the surface’ The sculptor started with his carving on the front of the block and then worked on to the back. He does not move around the block to work on several sides at once. We have seen this method at the Orsanmichele near the recess of the Quattro Coronati. Andrea Pisano also depicts this in one of his reliefs on the Campanile.
This method was already common in medieval workshops for sculptors who carved sculptures for the cathedrals. Such a method entails that the most protruding parts such as a knee or a protruding hand are first to be carved. Three types of chisels were used at that time: the unperforated subbia, the coarse toothed calcagnuolo and the finely toothed gradina, the latter being the most important tool for Michelangelo. Buonarroti carved out the most protruding parts directly by using all three types of chisels, including the gradina. This can be seen at the far protruding left knee of Matthew. If you look closely at Matthew’s head, it is wonderful to see that the part (including the left of the face) that has not yet reached the statue has been carved coarsely.
This coarse manner of carving was not dangerous, because you were still away from the ‘danger zone’ of the statue itself. The large slots with in the middle the print of a tooth of the chisel, the calcagnuolo, are still clearly visible. The problem with sculpting, as mentioned earlier, is that you can hardly repair anything if you carve away too much. Donatello had done this with his marble David, but it is clearly visible. One way for a sculptor to still have some leeway when carving is to simply carve the shapes too large, like the right arm and hand of Matthew hanging down. This gives you a bit of leeway if you want to change the position of a hand or arm.
On December 18, 1505, it was decided to cancel the first contract and of the twelve apostles, only one was chopped and, as you can see, it was never completed.
The four slaves or prisoners of Michelangelo in the Accademia
Pope Julius II (Raphael) commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to create a tomb. Michelangelo made many designs for this grave. Julius II chose a design himself. In April 1505, Buonarroti left for Carrara for eight months to select marble for no less than forty figures for a three-storey tomb with a height of 7.2 by 10.8 metres. This assignment was incredibly important for Michelangelo, but would turn out to be a catastrophe (Wikipedia). Contemporaries called it the ‘tragedy of the tomb.’ No fewer than five contracts were signed. Ultimately, Buonarroti only made three sculptures: Moses, Leah and Rachel. The slaves we are now looking at, in addition to the two seen in the Louvre, were intended for the tomb of Julius II, but have never been completed.
The sculptures were probably carved around 1519. The four slaves stood in the cave of the Boboli garden for a long time, but moved to the Accademia in 1908. Michelangelo himself always referred to these statues with the word ‘prisoners’ and not with the word slaves, as they are usually called.
According to a reconstruction drawing of the grave, according to the first contract, the slaves were meant as figures that had to flank the recesses. Four of them are in this museum. Michelangelo of course also did some preliminary studies and one of these shows, besides a sibille for the Sistine chapel and the cornice for the tomb, six sketches of slaves or prisoners at the bottom (Ashmolean Museum Oxford).
In literature there are roughly two different views on these famous statues of the slaves. The first vision according to Pope-Hennessy (Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Italian High Renaissance& Baroque Sculpture’ Volume III, Phaidon, London 1996 2000 paperback edition p. 95) is the romantic vision and the second the realistic vision. The group that tends towards the first point of view sees how from these statues the creative spirit and working method of the master himself can be distilled. This is so clear to make out because the statues are not complete. The statues show a phase in the artist’s creative process. In this way, you see how the statue emerges from the block like a prisoner trying to get rid of his chains.
The realists note that the majority of the work on these sculptures was not done by Michelangelo, but by his assistants. Only a modest part is the work by Buonarroti himself. This realist view, which is supported by research into the traces left in the marble by the chisels, puts the romantic view very much at odds. A balanced view is quite possible, because Michelangelo has indeed reworked parts himself. For example, in ‘the awakening slave’ at the left hand the shapes are hardly worked out and so rudimentary that Michelangelo did not have a hand in them. This also applies to the calf of this slave which has been given some more shape. The torso of this slave shows clearly however that the chisel of Michelangelo did his job.
Cosimo I donated the four slaves to ‘The Art Accademia’ where we are now and which later became a museum. Because, according to Vasari, ‘it was wonderful didactic material for the artist in training’. He describes the correct method of carving in slightly different words than in the earlier mentioned piece:
“[…] Four unfinished prisoners, who can be instructive for learning to cut marble figures without messing up pieces. The method is as follows: it is as if one takes a figure of wax or other solid material, and immerses it in a basin of water, which because of its nature is flat on the surface and parallel. By gradually pulling the figure out of this plane, the more protruding parts are first revealed and the bottom [as yet] remains hidden, i.e. the rear parts of the figure, so that it is completely revealed at the end. In the same way, one must use the chisel to reveal the figures of marble; first to reveal the protruding parts and, little by little, the rear parts: Michelangelo uses this method in the prisoners mentioned above, which His Excellency [Cosimo I] wanted to use as an example for his Accademics.” Giorgio Vasari Translated and cited from: Kieft, G., ‘Het brein van Michelangelo Kunst, Kunsttheorie en de constructie van het beeld in de Italiaanse Renaissance’, Proefschrift (dissertation) Utrecht 1994 p. 63
In the row of statues in front of the tribune room, a Pietà (Palestrina) is also visible. This one is not from Michelangelo (Wikipedia). We walk to the plaster model of a famous statue of Giambologna, namely the robbery of the Sabine Virgin. Because of the chronology of the story we will not discuss this famous statue here, but at the Loggia dei Lanzi where the statue stands. If you do want to read it here, click here.