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Slaves (marble sculptures)

Michelangelo, The Slaves (commonly referred to as the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave), marble, 2.09 m high, 1513-15 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker Usually considered unfinished, these sculptures were originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. According to the Louvre, the artist gave the marbles to Roberto Strozzi who presented them to the King of France. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Musee du Louvre, and we're looking at Michelangelo's "Two Slaves." These were originally intended for Pope Julius II's tomb, and they date from 1513 to 1515. BETH HARRIS: So Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt his tomb. The original plans were for a very elaborate tomb with more than 40 figures. Michelangelo was pulled off to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then the tomb was redesigned. And there were three figures made for this next version of the tomb-- the two slaves that we see here together with Moses, who is actually on the current version of the tomb, which is in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. These two figures were not needed for that final version, and so here they are in the Louvre. STEVEN ZUCKER: Immediately I start to try to imagine what these figures would look like with the Moses, which is this extraordinarily powerful figure, but interestingly, is seated, whereas these figures are ineffectual, and yet they're standing. They're vertical. BETH HARRIS: The figure known as "The Dying Slave--" and of course, these aren't titles that Michelangelo gave them, but titles-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Right, they're later attributed titles. BETH HARRIS: --that they acquired-- is a very internalized figure. His eyes are closed. He seems to be in a trance-like state. He seems to be in another place, compared to the figure known as "The Bound Slave" that struggles against the ties that bind him and seems to look upward toward God. There's a Neoplatonic interpretation of these figures, struggling to be free from the earthly realm and struggling to be one with God. STEVEN ZUCKER: He does allow those figures to remain bound to the stone, bound to the rock. And this is a really interesting aspect of Michelangelo's sculpture. He's willing to allow the raw stone to remain visible. BETH HARRIS: And Michelangelo talked about how when he looked at a block of marble, he saw a figure struggling to be free from within that marble. The figure of "The Bound Slave" is bound up in himself. His body is really twisted in a serpentine position that's different from "The Dying Slave." STEVEN ZUCKER: It's also that his actual anatomy is heavier. His muscles are larger. He's a more mature figure. BETH HARRIS: That makes that journey to transcend even more powerful. If you look at the muscles of the arms, they're not as athletically perfect. And his proportions are wider. STEVEN ZUCKER: They are. And he's actually distorting his own body. The way that arm that you mentioned just a moment ago actually presses against his side actually sort of pushes it out and creates a kind of distortion. BETH HARRIS: And the face is wider. It's more unfinished. And the head moves in an almost painful way, up and back in the opposite way that the shoulders move. And then the shoulders move in the opposite direction of the hips. If you think about how expressive the body becomes under Michelangelo, this is the best example. STEVEN ZUCKER: Looking at these sculptures for just a moment, even though there's raw stone still attached to them, you begin to forget very quickly that this is something that was once a block of marble. BETH HARRIS: Yeah.