Lining the corridor that leads into Michelangelo’s David are the four, incredible, Unfinished Slaves. They were commissioned by Pope Julius as part of a highly elaborate plan for his tomb, in 1505. However, Julius soon died, and the huge project was diminished in funding and scope several times over many years. The plans stopped and started, dragging on and on over the years. Michelangelo worked on the project intermitently, and produced only six figures of what was originally supposed to be thirty. Two more highly finished slaves, from his early work on the tomb, are at the Louvre. The four figures, at the Accademia, dramatically less finished, have been highly influential to legions of sculptors and other artists, because of the unique aesthetic they represent.
On the left as you walk in is the “Awakening Slave.”
This piece is one of the most powerful and expressive works of art I’ve ever seen. The figure feels like it is writhing and straining, and going to imminently explode out of the marble block that holds it. The latent power one feels is extraordinary. Is this a Herculean effort to be born physically from the imprisoning stone, or a titanic struggle to escape the bounds of physical reality and move onto some other plane? I certainly don’t know for sure, but it feels like the business at hand here is cosmic.
Michelangelo is famous for saying that he worked to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He saw his job as simply removing what was extraneous. The endless struggle of man to free himself from his physical constraints and liberate the more enlightened spirit within, was part of the Neo-Platonic philosophy that was in vogue in Florence at this time. The burden of the flesh constrains the soul. This is by far the most dynamic and expressive battleground of these forces I’ver ever encountered. The metaphor is inescapable.
Across from the Awakening Slave is the so called, “Young Slave.” As opposed to the “Awakening Slave,” this one shows no sign of struggle to free himself from the stone, but seems almost bound within himself in a dream like passivity. The contrapposto pose, exaggerated by the narrowness of the block of stone, gives him the air of a fetus curled around itself, writhing gently, waiting to be born. His face, which is just beginning to emerge, seems so youthful by comparison with his musculature. Is he held in check, by the stone, his servitude, shame, innocence or resignation? The metaphoric issues are unclear. There is a beguiing quality to this youth which is highly mysterious.
Down the hallway on the left is the “Atlas Slave.”
He is named after Atlas, who carried the entire world on his shoulders. His head has not emerged from the stone, and the weight of even his own creation presses down upon his shoulders. Indeed, this slave seems to be pushing a weight so heavy, it threatens to compress him back into a solid mass of pre-creation marble. The force of weight pushing down, and that pushing back up,
creates an almost seismic tension. There is no feeling of equilibrium here, only a battle of giant tectonic forces threatening to explode in both directions. I can’t think of any representation of brute physical force or pressure that generates nearly as much implied power.
Across the corridor, is the “Bearded Slave,” the most finished of the four. He is almost free. Only his hands and part of his arm are unfinished. He is bound by the straps around him, not the stone. He is also the least dynamic of the four. He is without mystery, merely a fact. There is no cosmic play of forces here, no arresting drama, or metaphoric jailor. This sculpture, which I think on it’s own, in another context, would feel powerful and majestic, seems almost lifeless compared to the others. This reality gives us a clear sense of how astoundingly powerful the other three are. I find myself thinking how would further completion of these works effect their ability to communicate Michelangelo’s intentions. Would more information really tell you more, or would it dilute their expressive power? I can’t personally imagine how more, would not be less.
Michelangelo’s expressed intention of freeing the forms that exist within the stone is also reflected in his technique. Virtually all other sculptors tend to block out the larger forms of the whole piece first. Michelangelo certainly worked with the whole in mind, but he got there from form to form. As he chiseled away stone he would bring shapes to a relatively high state of finish. Whole sections of form started to appear piece by piece out of the block. The contrast of rough and smooth heightens the effect. It’s as if, once he established the DNA of the composition, it organically grew itself from part to whole, predetermined by it’s original code.
Had the commission for Julius’ Tomb proceeded in an orderly manner, who knows what would have happened to these figures. However, it is hard for me to imagine that Michelangelo, a true genius, did not, or could not, recognize the profound signifcance and effect of what he had created here in these ” Unfinished Slaves.”