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Unfinished business—Michelangelo and the Pope

Michelangelo, Bearded Slave, Atlas, Awakening Slave, and Young Slave, 1520s (Accademia, Florence) A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Academy in Florence, and what everybody does when they walk in is to walk down the great hallway and face Michelangelo's "David." - [Beth] But on either side are these amazing unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo. - [Steven] Most of these figures are called either the slaves or the captives. - [Beth] And they made for the tomb of Pope Julius II, a project Michelangelo's biographer referred to as the "tragedy of the tomb." - [Stephen] This was a project that began as one of the grandest schemes in the history of art. - [Beth] More than 40 figures, three stories high, a free-standing tomb meant for the new St. Peter's. - [Stephen] All of the highest quality marble. This was to be a sculptural monument, the likes of which the world has never seen. This project can be seen in three different phases. The first contract is 1505, and Michelangelo goes to Carrara, spends months trying to find really great quality marble. - [Beth] Sometime around 1505, 1506, there's a falling out between the Pope and Michelangelo, and Michelangelo just says, "You know what, I'm going back to Florence." - [Stephen] Julius II, the pope, issues an order that Michelangelo better get back to Rome. - [Beth] So the government of Florence has to get involved, and so Michelangelo does reconcile with the pope. - [Stephen] We think of the pope very much as a spiritual figure, but Julius was a general, he was a warrior, but Michelangelo wasn't interested in the wars. He was interested in his sculpture, and he couldn't understand why the pope wasn't paying attention. - [Beth] So he gets back to Rome, but the pope says, "What I really want you to do is this project that I've had in mind for a while, which is painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel." So that occupies Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. - [Stephen] The problem is the pope dies very soon afterwards. - [Beth] And so Pope Julius' heirs sign a new contract with Michelangelo, asking him to complete a scaled-down version of the project. - [Stephen] This is phase 2. - [Beth] He finishes Moses, and also two very emotional and very beautiful figures that are today in the Louvre, the "Dying Slave" and the "Rebellious Slave." - [Stephen] The problem is is that phase 2 is still wildly ambitious, and ultimately, things will get toned down in phase 3. - [Beth] And that's when these four figures in the Academy in Florence date to. - [Stephen] But what's so interesting is that the four figures are unfinished. We can still see the actual block of stone from which it was carved. We can see the roughest of the chisel cuts, and then we can see the figures emerging. - [Beth] There's been different readings of what they mean, something about the death of the liberal arts, perhaps, from one of Michelangelo's early biographers. - [Stephen] It could be a kind of allegorical representation of the lands that Julius II had recaptured. - [Beth] Michelangelo doesn't help us. He doesn't make it clear who these are. - [Stephen] The fact that the subject matter is so ambiguous seems to be so fitting with the way in which the figures are still so encased in stone. - [Beth] In a way, they are captives, but captives of the physicality of the stone, and that has led to some readings that these figures represent the struggle of the soul to be free from the physical confines of the body. And there is a sense of struggle here against the materiality of the stone. - [Stephen] One of the cliches that is so often voiced is the idea that he saw the figures waiting to be freed from the excess stone that he simply had to remove, and you can see why that description is so seductive, because these slaves make evident Michelangelo's technique. You can see movement from rough tools to much finer tools. - [Beth] It's true that the stone seems to be part of the idea of the sculpture. - [Stephen] And this has led art historians and critics to really think about whether or not leaving the stone was in fact an act that was intentional. These sculptures have had such an influence. If you look at the work of Rodin, of Brancusi, of Isamu Noguchi, all of these sculptors are taking this idea of the form emerging from the natural stone. So looking at that stone, it feels to me solid, but it also feels like atmosphere somehow made physical. - [Beth] It does remind me of Leonardo's sfumato, the way that Leonardo creates an atmosphere around the figures that blurs the edges so that the figures become part of the darkness around them. - [Stephen] This tradition of the heroic male nude is coming out of the Greek tradition, but it has come so far. - [Beth] We can look just down the hall at the "David," or we can think about all the "Ignudi," the male nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And of course, it all goes back to ancient Greece. And right around this time, one of the great ancient Greek nudes was discovered, the "Laocoon." - [Stephen] And we know that this had a profound impact on Michelangelo, 'cause it's hard to look at this sculpture and through its twisting and turning intense emotionalism of the body, it's hard not to see that antique sculpture. - [Beth] It's that intense emotionalism represented in the forms of the body and the way they turn and move and fold. - [Stephen] We don't need a face to do it. We don't need hands to do it. It's the body's movement that is expressive. (jazz piano music)