Michelangelo's Slaves: The Story Behind These Unfinished Sculptures

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

In 1505, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to design his huge, free-standing tomb. The artist went straight to work, traveling to the marble quarries of Carrara — in central Italy — to hand select the pieces that he would use to create statues for the tomb. 

Choosing the stone for his sculptures was very important to the artist because he envisioned the statue as already existing within the marble.

He saw it as his job to set the statue free.

In 1506, work on the tomb was put on hold when Julius insisted that Michelangelo work on painting the Sistine Chapel instead, and started diverting funds, meant for the tomb, to building St Peter’s.

At the time of the Pope’s death in 1513, the tomb was still unfinished and was never completed to the original specifications

There were over 40 statues planned for the original tomb, and 16 of them were meant to be slaves. The meaning behind the slaves is unknown, but scholars speculate that they may have represented captured enemies, captured territories, or the liberal arts.

Though Michelangelo continued to work on them over the years, out of the planned 16 statues, only 2 were almost completed, while 4 exist in various stages of completion.

The two completed slaves have a home in the Louvre in Paris, while the unfinished keep the David — also by Michelangelo — company in the Galleria dell’ Academia in Florence. What makes these unfinished pieces so interesting is that they give us a rare look at how the artist worked. They are essentially 3-D sketches, where all mistakes and the artist’s process are exposed.

You can see what the artist meant when he said it was his job to ‘set the sculptures free’, as the forms seem to be trying to pull themselves out of the stone with their torso’s straining and muscles bulging. Despite a lack of finished detail, the works command a sense of mass and movement.

The time that Michelangelo lived in was ruled by the Catholic Church, which did not believe in regular autopsies or studying corpses for science. Therefore, there was very little known about human anatomy at the time (autopsies were not widely performed until the late 1600s).

It has been surmised that artists, like Michelangelo, used to sneak into morgues and look at the bodies, (sometimes even performing their own autopsies), in order to get a better understanding of how the muscular system looked under the surface.

Click here to see photos of the unfinished slaves. 

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What's So Special About The Mona Lisa? The Real Story Behind da Vinci's Famous Painting

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Mona Lisa, 1503-1506       Leonardo Da Vinci

When my sister recently came home from a trip to Paris she seemed impressed with everything that she had seen — except for the Mona Lisa.

One of the most recognized works of art in the world, reproductions of it usually come in poster sized prints while the original, hung behind thick, bullet proof glass and guarded by a velvet rope is miniature in comparison. 

She commented that in a museum filled with huge, wall-sized works of art, why should she care about something so small that she couldn’t even get close to?

This is a very good question and one that I am sure A LOT of visitors to the Louvre end up asking.

What's so special about the Mona Lisa?

The Renaissance era that Leonardo da Vinci lived in was a time of arts patronage, and artists usually only painted epic works at the request of a wealthy patron (basically someone who requested a certain type of painting and then paid for it).

Patrons valued these artists and usually gave generous commissions, but this meant that the artist had little freedom in what they were creating. Most works from this period were biblical or classical in nature and the patrons themselves were only painted if they were added into the scene. Unless you were a pope, a Medici (an influential family in Florence) or someone equally wealthy, there was little chance of there being a painting done only of you. 

And then there is Mona.

She is painted without a stitch of jewelry (unheard of for women of the era) — not even a wedding ring — and her look is contemporary, not drawing from any classical or biblical references. Women, at the time, were painted to look demure and would never be directly gazing at the viewer. Mona not only stares you down but does so with a smile on her face. It is almost like she is challenging those who dare to look at her. 

For someone like da Vinci, the painter of such revered biblical works like The Last Supper, this is a huge digression from the norm.

To make it all even more mysterious, the real identity of the woman is not known. There is speculation that she was Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, but there is no direct evidence of this. Many have guessed that the women and the artist were involved in some sort of love affair, but for all we know, the woman in this painting was his housemaid.

Something about her or the painting must have moved him, however, because once it was finished he kept it with him for the rest of his life. 

So, why should you care?

It is not so much the painting itself, but the history behind it that makes the Mona Lisa so special. In a time when the majority of art created was for someone else to appreciate, Leonardo da Vinci created something that was only for himself.

Though tame to us, the style that he painted Mona Lisa in was scandalous for his time and if there is anything to love more than a mystery, it’s a scandal. 

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What's So Special About The Mona Lisa?