Marble Sculpture
Characteristics, Types, Carving Technique, History, Famous Statues.

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The Kiss (1885-95) Auguste Rodin

Marble Sculpture (c.600 BCE - present)


Characteristics of Marble as a Sculptural Material
What Are the Main Types of Marble?
How to Carve a Sculpture out of Marble?
Finishing Off
Problem of Copying Clay Models
History of Marble Sculpture
Famous Marble Statues and Reliefs

Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE)
Marble Statue, Musee du Louvre.
See Pergamene school of
Greek sculpture.


Probably the most popular material used in sculpture, marble's translucency and durability has made it the medium of choice for all the greatest sculptors, including Greek artists like Phidias, Myron, Polykleitos, and Praxiteles, as well as their successors Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova, and Rodin. Marble has been used equally for relief sculpture and friezes, as well as the free-standing statue. In fact, ever since the invention of metal tools during the Bronze Age, marble stone has been highly prized by sculptors and architects alike. During the Renaissance, Michelangelo (1475-1564) famously described stone sculpture as the slow release of a form as it emerged out of the block. He said that it was his role as an artist to liberate the human form trapped inside the block by gradually chipping away at the stone surface. Famous examples of marble sculpture include masterpieces like: the Parthenon Reliefs (446-430 BCE), The Apollo Belvedere (330 BCE), Venus de Milo (100 BCE), Trajan's Column reliefs (113 CE), David by Michelangelo (1501-4), Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3), Canova's Apollo Crowning Himself (1781), Rodin's The Kiss (1888-9) and Daniel Chester French's Statue of Lincoln (1922).


Characteristics of Marble as a Sculptural Material

The stone we call marble is a metamorphic rock (mostly composed of calcite, a type of calcium carbonate) formed as a result of changes brought about in the structure of sedimentary or igneous rocks by extreme pressure or heat. Sculptors like marble because, while relatively soft and easy to work when first quarried, it becomes extremely hard and dense with age, and is also available in a variety of shades and patterns. White marbles are especially prized for fine art sculpture because of their relative isotropy and homogeneity, and resistance to shattering. In addition, the low refractory index of refraction of calcite permits light to penetrate into the stone (as it does the human skin), resulting in the typical "waxy" look which gives the stone a human appearance. Marble can also be highly polished, making it ideal for decorative work. Compared to the next best alternative stone, limestone, marble possesses a much finer grain, which makes it much easier for the sculptor to render minute detail. Marble is also more weather resistant.

There are drawbacks, however. Marble is rarer, therefore more expensive than several other types of rock used in stone sculpture. It is also extremely heavy, making transportation difficult. Also, compared to bronze, marble has a lower tensile strength and is vulnerable to cracking when extended (ballet-style) poses are attempted. It is significantly less weather-resistant than granite, and does not handle well as it absorbs skin oils, causing staining.



What Are the Main Types of Marble?

The most popular types of marble stone employed in sculpture are Pentelic, Parian and Carrara marble. During Classical Antiquity, the most famous type was the close-grained, golden-toned Pentelic variety, quarried at Mount Pentelicon in Attica. The fragments of High Classical Greek sculpture obtained by the Earl of Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens, in 1801-3, known as the Elgin Marbles, were carved in Pentelic. Another popular variety was Parian marble, a coarser-grained but translucent white stone obtained from the Aegean islands of Naxos and Paros. This type was used to create the renowned Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. A third type, used for the masterpiece Apollo Belvedere (c.330 BCE), was the pure white Carrara marble, found at Carrara and Pietra Santa in Tuscany. It was a popular material in Italian Renaissance sculpture and the favourite of the Florentine artist Michelangelo.

Marble differs from one variety to another, usually because of colour, texture, weathering, and chemical composition. Although famous for its pure white surface, this look was actually avoided by Greek sculptors because it made it difficult to see the gentle curves of a body's muscles. The most typical colour seen in Greek sculpture is actually an off-white.

See also: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

How to Carve a Sculpture out of Marble?

The creation of a large-scale marble statue, which on average took a Greek sculptor roughly 12 months to complete - involves a number of steps:

Step 1.
First, the artist typically makes a small maquette in wax or clay, over an armature or frame. From this initial model, a full-size model is developed, into which tacks are inserted at key reference points. A measuring frame is then placed over the model which records the locations of the tacks.

Step 2.
The locations of the tacks are then transferred to the raw marble block, in a process known as pointing.

Step 3.
Now begins the traditional "hammer and point work" - the basic technique used in all stone sculpture, since the time of Daedalic Greek sculpture, in 650 BCE. This involves knocking off sizeable chunks of unwanted stone, using a mallet and either a long point chisel, or a wedge-shaped pitching chisel.

Step 4.
Once the general shape of the statue has emerged from the block, the carver uses other tools to create the precise characteristics of the figure, including toothed or claw chisels, rasps, and rifflers. Of course 20th-century sculptors now have an armoury of power tools, including stone-cutters, drills and other instruments, at their disposal.

Step 5.
After the carving is completed, the rough surface of the statue must be finished off. This can be done by abrading the surface with another stone called emery, or else sandpaper. Power tools can also be used to polish the marble. All this abrading and polishing brings out the colour of the stone, and adds a sheen known as a patina. Sometimes, tin and iron oxides or sealing compounds are applied to the surface to give it a highly reflective glowing exterior.

Finishing Off

From the era of Early Classical Greek sculpture onwards (480-450), no statue was complete until it was painted and decorated. Such painting was a specialist task performed by expert painter. Colour schemes varied, but as a general rule, statues or reliefs that were located high up and whose details were less visible to observers - like the Parthenon frieze - were decorated with brighter, more non-naturalistic colour pigments: hair, for instance, might be painted orange. Whereas those sculptures positioned nearer to the ground - like those on the Alexander Sarcophagus - were painted with more realistic colours. Sometimes the skin was painted, sometimes not; but eyes, eyebrows, eyelids, and eyelashes were invariably coloured, as was the hair. In the case of important figurative sculptures, eyes might be inset with coloured enamel or glass, while copper might be applied to the nipples of the chest. For more details, see: Classical Colour Palette.

Problem of Copying Clay Models

Successful sculptors were rarely involved in all the 5 steps outlined above. Usually, all they did was to create the initial clay/wax model, after which they relied on their workshop assistants to copy the clay design onto the marble. This procedure worked well during the era of early Greek sculpture (c.650-500 BCE), when the rigid Egyptian-style kore and kouros figures were designed according to an unvarying system of proportions, which was easily copyable from clay to marble. But as the shape of statues became more complex and naturalistic, the system of proportions was rendered obsolete and the whole process of replicating the original clay design in marble became more difficult. In due course, a grid system was adopted, which lasted beyond the era of Hellenistic Greek sculpture, whereby a number of "points" on the original clay model would be measured, then multiplied in size according to the rate of enlargement. These new measurements would then be marked on the marble block, and carefully followed during the carving process. The scheme remained problematical, however, and led frequently to marble statues being produced that were noticeably inferior to the clay originals.

History of Marble Sculpture

Prior to Classical Antiquity, stone sculpture was generally made from limestone, sandstone, gypsum, alabaster, jade or clay. Only from the era of Greek Archaic sculpture (c.650-480 BCE) onwards, was marble used on a regular basis - initially to make the standing nude male (kouros) and the standing draped female (kore). During Classical Greek sculpture (c.480-323), which witnessed the glorious reliefs of the Parthenon, bronze sculpture became equally important. Marble was also important in Roman sculpture - especially Roman relief sculpture. The discovery and proximity of marble stone quarries (for Pentelic, Carrara and Parian varieties of the stone) was also an important factor in its use for sculptural purposes, as was its cost: two reasons why it was not generally used to decorate the hundreds of cathedrals, abbeys and churches that were built during the era of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture.

On the other hand, Renaissance sculptors had more money to spend, thus Michelangelo used marble to create his masterpiece David (1501-4, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence), as well as his Pieta (1497-9) for St Peter's Basilica.

It is worth remembering that most original Greek bronzes were melted down or lost, but also, that the Romans made numerous marble copies of bronzes they knew about. As a result, Greek and Roman sculpture became strongly associated with marble, which was another reason why Renaissance artists - fired with a desire to rejuvenate the art of Classical Antiquity - preferred it to ordinary stone. Furthermore, after the Renaissance, marble remained the material of choice for all exponents of classicism, from Bernini and Algardi from the era of 17th century Baroque sculpture, to Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen of the school of Neoclassical sculpture (1750-1850). The superiority of marble was propagated throughout all the European academies of art, until the beginning of the 20th century.

Famous Marble Statues and Reliefs

Famous marble statuary and friezes can be seen in a number of the world's best art museums and sculpture gardens. Masterpieces include:

Neolithic Marble Sculptures

- Female Figurine (c.4250 BCE) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Female Figurine (c.3500) National Archeological Museum, Cagliari.
- Cycladic Figurine (c.2600 BCE) Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.

Archaic Greek Marble Sculpture

- Kleobis and Biton (610-580 BCE) Archeological Museum of Delphi.
- Sounion Kouros (600) National Archeological Museum of Athens.
- Kouros (c.600) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Moschophoros or Calf-bearer (c.570) Acropolis Museum, Athens.
- "Peplos Kore" (530) Acropolis Museum, Athens.
- The Anavysos Kouros (525) National Archeological Museum of Athens.
- "Kritios Boy" (480) Acropolis Museum, Athens.

Classical Greek Marble Sculpture

- Leda and the Swan (500-450) Capitoline Museum. By Timotheus.
- The Farnese Heracles (5th Century) Archeological Museum, Naples.
- The Tyrannicides Hamodius Aristogeiton (477) Naples. By Critios.
- "The Apollo Parnopius" (450) State Museum, Kassel. By Phidias.
- Parthenon Reliefs/statuary (446-430), Museums in Athens, London, Paris.
- Wounded Amazon (440-430) Capitoline Museum. By Polykleitos.
- Temple of Apollo Epikourios, East Frieze (420) British Museum.
- Aphrodite of Knidos (350-40) Museo Pio Clementino. By Praxiteles.
- Hermes tying his Sandal (4th century) Louvre, Paris. By Lysippos.
- Mausoleum of Harlicarnassus, Amazon Frieze (350), British Museum.
- Apollo Belvedere (330) Museo Pio Clementino. By Leochares.

Hellenistic Greek Marble Sculpture

- Dying Gaul (240) Bronze copy, Capitoline Museum. By Epigonus.
- The Barberini Faun (220) Glyptothek, Munich.
- Nike of Samothrace (220-190) Louvre, Paris.
- "The Farnese Bull" (2nd Century) Naples. By Apollonius of Tralles.
- The Three Graces (2nd Century) Louvre.
- Pergamon Altar Frieze (166-156), Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
- "The Medici Venus" (150-100) Uffizi, Florence. By unknown artist.
- Venus de Milo (100) Louvre. By Andros of Antioch.
- Borghese Gladiator (100 BCE) Louvre, Paris.

Roman Marbles

- Portrait Bust of Julius Caesar (c.25 BCE) Vatican Museums.
- Ara Pacis Augustae Frieze (13-9 BCE), Ara Pacis Museum, Rome.
- Statue of Claudius as Jupiter (41-54 CE) Vatican Museums.
- Trajan's Column (113 CE) Relief Sculpture, Rome.
- Arch of Constantine (c.312 CE), Rome.
- Colossal Head of Constantine (c.320 CE) Capitoline Museum.

Renaissance Marble Sculpture

- Fonte Gaia (1414-19) Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. By Jacopo della Quercia.
- Il Zuccone (1423–35) Florence. By Donatello.
- Pieta (1497-9) Saint Peters Basilica. By Michelangelo.
- David (1501-4) Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence. By Michelangelo.
- Dying Slave (1513-16) Louvre. By Michelangelo.
- Tomb of Pope Julius II (1505-45) Rome. By Michelangelo.

Mannerist/Baroque Marbles

- The Rape of the Sabine (1581-3) Florence. By Giambologna.
- Pluto and Proserpina (1621-2) Galleria Borghese, Rome. By Bernini.
- Apollo and Daphne (1622-5) Galleria Borghese, Rome. By Bernini.
- Tomb of Pope Leo XI (1634-44) St Peter's Rome. By Algardi.
- The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52) Capella Cornaro. By Bernini.
- Milo of Crotona (1671-82) Louvre. By Pierre Puget.

Neoclassical Marble Sculpture

- Apollo (1715) State Art Collection, Dresden. By Balthasar Permoser.
- "The Marly Horse" (1739-45) Louvre. By Guillaume Coustou.
- Venus (1773) J Paul Getty Museum, LA. By Joseph Nollekens.
- Portrait of Voltaire, seated (1781) Paris. By Jean-Antoine Houdon.
- Apollo Crowning Himself (1781) Getty Museum, LA. By Antonio Canova.
- Psyche Awakened by Eros (1787-93) Louvre. By Antonio Canova.
- Jason with the Golden Fleece (1803-28) Copenhagen. By Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Modern Marble Sculpture

- Tarcisius, Christian Martyr (1868) Musee d'Orsay. By Falguiere.
- Despair (1869) Musee d'Orsay. By Jean-Joseph Perraud.
- The Kiss (1888-9) Paris. By Auguste Rodin.
- Statue of Lincoln (1922) Lincoln Memorial. By Daniel Chester French.
- Bird in Space (1925-31) Kunsthaus, Zurich. By Constantin Brancusi.
- Female Torso (1953) Museum Ludwig, Cologne. By Hans Arp.

• For more about marble sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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