Embracing Imperfection: Lessons from Marble and Michelangelo

By Ankie Barnes

At the tender age of 26, Michelangelo took on the daunting challenge of carving the “David” statue from a massive block of Carrara marble that had been selected and quarried by others. It had lain on its side, exposed to the elements in Florence’s Opera del Duomo, for 25 years after two other sculptors had tried and failed to execute the commission due to the presence of too many “taroli,” or imperfections, which could have threatened the stability of such a huge statue.

Some are surprised that he agreed to take over the job and use this stone at all. Marble gets more brittle the longer it’s exposed. It was also an irregular block and very narrow at one end, having been quarried for another figure altogether. Furthermore, despite its elegant white color, it was “inferior” marble, filled with small fissures. Today, these flaws in the heavily stressed right ankle are reportedly only one earthquake away from collapse. Michelangelo knew marble so well that he would have realized all these challenges. Yet he created what many regard at the most “perfect” sculpture ever carved. He accepted and embraced the challenges, aimed high, worked incredibly hard, in a temporary shed for three years, and the final result is magnificent.

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We have recently been lucky enough to be working with the same stone from the same Carrara quarries in Tuscany for a project currently under construction. While recently visiting the quarry workshop to see the almost-complete project, I was struck by the humbling realities working with this beautiful but fickle material brings to our work.

Solid marble blocks can be whittled away to create beautiful, sculptural shapes, but it’s fraught with challenges. Control is critical; one can of course only remove—not add—material to craft these shapes. Unlike slab-marble work where decorative inclusions and veining can be a prized quality, sculptural shapes carved from monolithic blocks look their best when the marble’s characteristics are subtle and do not detract from natural light’s ability to reveal the sculpted form. And because it’s inherently brittle, the paradox of marble’s solidity and vulnerability make the resulting pieces all the more beautiful.

 

Block-selection when planning monolithic projects is a real skill, and the quarry masters will help look for purer veins in the quarry, less marred by too much “character.”

When the design’s outline is being planned, inclusions and veins are reviewed and “mapped” to the extent possible, and the designer or architect tries to draw the shapes among them, accepting some inclusions and avoiding others. The results of this never-perfect art highlight the beauty of working with the material: it can never be “perfect”—that would be boring.

Michelangelo worked through the challenges: He crafted an off-center body posture for David that could be carved from the block’s narrow shape. Some gray veining appears in the surface of the marble in various (possibly inconvenient) locations; under the right eyebrow and on the right leg and hand for example, yet they don’t detract. On the contrary, the veins remind us of the solidity of the block they’ve so carefully been carved from, and reinforce their tension with the stone’s surface. Michelangelo works around these imperfections by introducing elegant, nearby distractions like the intense gaze of the eyes:

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and the raised vein on the right hand:

By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The final David can’t be called a compromise—far from it, it’s a triumph of artistic endeavor with all its beautiful “imperfections.”

Like many architects, I’ve long considered perfection in design as the ideal to achieve on behalf of our clients. Yet seeing what Michelangelo achieved with the David despite the challenges he faced makes me now think that this approach is a seductive but unattainable trap. Rather, we can reach an extraordinary level of finesse and beauty in design by navigating the imperfections —avoiding some, embracing some — while relentlessly pursuing the core direction of the desired result.