Michelangelo at the Accademia, Part 2 – The Unfinished Slaves

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.”


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44 Comments on "Michelangelo at the Accademia, Part 2 – The Unfinished Slaves"

  1. Scott Kahn says:

    Wonderful descriptions and insights. Many thanks.

  2. metscan says:

    The thing the interests me most about these statues, is that they are all unfinished. That makes the analyzing interesting. I only wish they were all in one place.

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, the ones at the Louvre are really so much more finished that their almost a different class of thing. All the really unfinished ones, are here, in Florence.

      • Nancy Harradine says:

        Many years ago I was in that corridor. I was struck by a cube of granite with several slaves buried appearing to struggle to be free.
        I’ve been searching for it, is it still there?

  3. i find your comments on these amazing, also amazing how something unfinished after centuries can be so powerful beautiful and strong, thank you for posting these.

  4. thankyou for this wonderfull note!
    i´m a scuptress and work in marble and stone….not all the sculptors who have left work in marble were stonecutters,only very few…and asked trained ans skilled craftsmen, or stonemasons (like they still exist today ) to “pass ” or transport their own sculptures…they didnt even know how do carve stone…Michel Ange is one of the few in history of art to design and carve his own work…but he was unique not only for the beauty of his work, because he even knew where in the mountain was the piece he was looking for (pietrasanta quarry)….his technique was passing through points wich i do myself today…you need a modle to copy and you transfer through a “needle” or “pointing machine” to the stone……there is also a compas technique difficult to explain…. that´s why we know that these slaves werent finished,.even if they are to our modern point of view so extraordinary as you say…. but the track of the tools in the stone show he hadnt yet got to the chissel wich is the final tool…the tools used are heavy points and large tooth chisels and not the flat chisel wich would show the final aproach to the polishing …. what we did is the heavy first part to aproach the model…..probably wanted a rough sketch to have a look of how they would look alltogether….
    he often said..that what really made him proud was to be a stonecutter because of his love for the stone….. as i´m one myself i absolutely agree….. hope this information is helpfull….thankyou for letting me share it with you…

  5. Kathy says:

    Very timely post and coincidental, with the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial. He too, “emerges” from stone, but unfortunately it’s a bit cartoonish.
    I don’t think it works well, coming out of stone, fully clothed and in a solid sort of stance. I’m sure the Chinese sculptor was influenced by the Unfinished Slaves. Too bad the result was not what it should have been. Martin Luther King surely deserved a more dignified memorial. I think it shows how hard it is to imitate something that was meant to be finished, but abandoned, and the power of that, as opposed to a “planned” finished/unfinished sculpture.

    • David Leeds says:

      Perceptive comment, Kathy. Unfortunately, I agree with you completely about the MLK memorial. Sad to see such a great and important opportunity as that be so poorly conceived and executed. I’m at a loss how those responsible approved both the design and the quote on the side.

  6. What an interesting post. I learned so much. I agree that the forms emerging from the stone are very powerful images. Since I am going to Paris soon, I will be looking for the finished slaves in the Louvre. Thanks for letting me know about these pieces, now I have a context for seeing these sculptures in Paris.

    • David Leeds says:

      Sunday, you must go to the Maillol Museum. it’s in the former house of his mistress and model, off the Bl. St Germain. It’s one of favorite places to go there.
      I’m so jealous. As always, thanks for your close reading.

  7. site says:

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  8. Brooks says:

    Thank you for your comments. I found to my amazement that these unfinished slaves to an even more powerful impact on me than the finished David, because they showed the painstaking process. I’ve been looking for a small copy of any of the slaves that I could purchase as a motivational device, but haven’t found anything so far. (Lots of Davids, though).

  9. Judi says:

    I remain eternally grateful for having had the privilege to be in the same space with Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves in Florence. The experience touched me deeply and I have done my best to describe that experience over the years. “Spiritual” always enters the conversation.
    Thank you for your eloquent words.
    During this most profound art experience of my life, I overheard another visitor saying “C’mon, let’s get out of here. These things aren’t even finished.” I guess they weren’t ready.

  10. samane says:

    thanks a lot

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard