How did the ancients sculpt marble? And what techniques do we use today?

Michelangelo's David. Photo Sean Robertson via Unsplash

There sculpture it is one of the oldest art forms, with evidence of its existence as far back as Prehistory. There are many materials that can be sculpted and worked to create sculptures: wood, ivory, bronze, and so on. However, among the materials most appreciated by artists of every era there is certainly the marble, a metamorphic rock, that is, which has undergone a series of transformations during different geological eras due to the pressure and high temperature to which it has been subjected. But how do you go from marble to sculpture? And how have they changed, if they have? processing techniques? Let's see it.

The marble manufacturing process

First the marble is extracted in the quarries (open-air, underground or underground, unlike the location), detaching more or less large blocks from the rock with mines or levers. In the modern era, they have been progressively used helical wire, water jet and then diamond wire cutting machines.

Before starting the carving on the stone block, whose dimensions must be much larger than the work you want to create, a clay model (or in soft stone) to evaluate proportions and dimensions without risking ruining the precious (and expensive) marble. This was especially true in ancient times, given the greater difficulty of extraction, the lower precision of the tools and the large number of people who (in addition to the artist) worked the stone block.

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marble quarry cutting

How is marble extracted from quarries? Excavation and cutting techniques from antiquity to today

Cupid and Psyche by Canova. Photo Santiago Yáñez via Unsplash

After tracing with square and compass the baselines of the figure that you want to “extract” from the marble, you go through abrasion to “take off”. What is done (unlike other types of sculpture, such as bronze) is essentially removing pieces of marble through percussion And drilling with appropriate tools, until you obtain one sketched figure. As you may have understood, marble is a material that requires a lot of physical strength and patience to work with!

These tools, over time, have gone from simple hammer and chisel (already used in ancient Egypt, Greece or the Roman Empire) to more technologically advanced tools: corner cutters, drills And blades first in steel and then diamond. Once rough-hewn, the marble is subjected to rasping And filingto then get to the final step with the sandpaper. It is this series of operations that gives the sculptures the shiny appearance we know.

Let's consider that these are general rules: they exist different artistic techniques to create a work – give it crushed (a “crushed bas-relief”) al all round – and then to decorate it, for example with engravings ol'inlay. There are still different techniques that can be applied if you want to create some copies: the Romans were already able to make plaster duplicates of marble works, for example Greek ones, by covering the sculptures with a protective substance and placing them in a formwork and then pouring plaster over them, or by making wax models (a very ancient technique, which gave life, for example, to the Riace Bronzes). Today for copies we use, more easily, the silicone.

Tor Art

As you can see, there are many variations, especially in tools and materials, that have changed the sculptor's work over the millennia. But not only that: there is a branch of sculptors who no longer even work by hand. In fact, there are companies, such as Tor Art of Carrara, which instead of sculpting the stone by hand, shape it with laser starting from a three-dimensional model: this is how artists and architects like Zaha Hadid, Maurizio Cattelan And Jeff Koons they create their own works.

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