Jeremy Angier
May 07, 2001
New York Academy of Art

The Process of Artistic Creation in Terms of the Non-finito

If Michelangelo had not been born, would it have been necessary to invent him? There have been countless times in human history when a "solitary genius," seemingly working in isolation or outside the common run of contemporary society, has derived for posterity a revolutionary mode of being. In limited retrospect, this character has apparently invented out of thin air a solution to the most pressing issues of the day; he has risen to the impasse facing his generation and led human history from darkness into the light. I say 'limited retrospect' because in full retrospect we see that history could have taken no other path than the one it has taken, and in fact the genius with the solution did not really invent anything original, he simply found a means of voicing what was on the tip of everyone's tongue. The voice of history needs a mouthpiece, and when sufficient energy is focused at a point in history, at a cusp of change, then the appropriate mouthpiece will appear. As soon as we see the appearance of "solitary geniuses," we can be sure that history faces a crossroads, and there is always an imminent and immanent solution to be extracted from the air of the time, waiting to be voiced.

I would say that the history of art demanded Michelangelo, in order to resolve certain issues confronting Europe from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, Michelangelo's century. He was one in a series of characters, starting with Giotto and the nascent exploration of perspective, who tackled universal issues beyond their personal sphere. They were instruments of history, channels through which the course of art inevitably ran, and they set the stage for the modern world. Michelangelo was first and foremost a carver of stone, and we may observe through his extant works in stone a distillation of the changes which swept European conventions during his time, and which changed the process of sculptural creation ever after.

One question which occupied artists of the Renaissance was the old Paragone, the question of the relative merits of painting versus sculpture. Previously, in the Gothic period, sculpture and painting were taken to be the same thing; they were a vehicle for the divine. With the Renaissance and the advent of scientific inquiry, humanism and Neo-Platonism, man's place in the cosmos became a central issue. Leonardo considered painting to be superior to sculpture because painting was a science based on intellect, and was therefore a true art, whereas sculpture was merely mechanical reproduction based on physical labor. The more physical effort involved in the creation of an art, the more mechanical it is; and the more mechanical, the less spiritual and noble. Leonardo is said to have derisively pointed to Michelangelo's work clothes, covered with stone dust, and likened him to a baker covered with flour. Leonardo also stated that the "sculptor always takes off from the same block." Painting, for Leonardo, was the noblest and most spiritual of all the arts.

The problem of physical exertion and manual labor took on a new aspect during the time of Leonardo. In 1528 Baldassare Castiglione introduced what he called sprezzatura: gentlemanly deportment and the life of leisure as an ideal virtue. Vasari himself was such a well-bred man, and Vasari presents Raphael as the paragon of this ideal type, as one who embodies "all those rare virtues of mind, accompanied by much grace, study, beauty, modesty, and fine manners as would have sufficed to cover up any flaw, no matter how ugly, or any blemish, no matter how large."(p.303) One may see how the craft of stone cutting would be considered a somewhat lowly occupation, hardly an art in the highest sense of the Renaissance ideal.

Yet Michelangelo insisted upon sculpture as the most noble enterprise. In 1547 Benedetto Varchi tried to settle the Paragone by soliciting the thoughts of the Florentine artistic elite, among them Michelangelo. Michelangelo wrote to him, "By sculpture I mean that which is done by subtracting. That which is done by adding (namely, modeling) resembles painting."(Stone, II, p.216) For Michelangelo, the single block of stone contained all the possibilities for a work of art. He frowned upon the modeler's approach, and regarded the most skilful and truest art to be sculpted or revealed from the marble block. Painting was subordinate to sculpture in that it presented only one view. One of Michelangelo's most famous sonnets, from the years 1538-44, begins with the lines:

Not even the best of artists has any conception that a single block of marble does not contain within its excess, and that is only attained by the hand that obeys the intellect."(Saslow, p.302)
This verse may appear insignificant or matter-of-fact, or even a simple stonecutter's affirmation of his craft. But it contains Michelangelo's Neo-Platonic ideal, that the body and the spirit are separate, and must work in concord and strive for unity with each other and with the divine.

Before Michelangelo, sculptors were confined to the single block or rectilinear solid, and after him they were free to think 'outside the block'. Michelangelo straddles a tension between the single block which potentially contains every conceivable work of art, and the Baroque-style multi-dimensional sculpture which extends beyond the confines of the block, and may employ two or more pieces of stone joined together. Why was Michelangelo so opposed to modeling? Why was he determined to create his art from a single block in the manner of a lowly carver of stone, if the general sentiment of the day was geared towards the life of leisure? Why was Michelangelo not content to take the easy way out, the gentlemanly approach, the path of least resistance, the way of reduced manual labor, the method of modeling and then mechanically transferring into stone or bronze, as had been the traditional way? Michelangelo hated bronze sculpture because it was cast from a modeled original, not sculpted; he was determined to attack giant blocks of stone and release the captive within.

For Michelangelo, the block of stone was a metaphor for the human condition. The body, the material world, the block, was a vehicle or container for the soul, the captive spirit, the idealized conception of the work of art. The mind and the matter were bound together yet separate. The noblest human ambition was therefore to free the spirit, to release the captive within. Michelangelo's approach was to conceive of the captive art within the stone, and then to release it by virtue of the hand driven by the divine spirit or intellect. Never mind that this involved intense physical labor, and went against the grain of Renaissance ideals of leisure and gentlemanly deportment. The endeavor of removing the excess stone away from the contained conception was not so much a manual task as a task of the intellect which drove the hand.

So what does this have to do with Michelangelo in terms of the non-finito in sculpture? Why would Michelangelo leave so many works unfinished, as evidence of his failure to realize the art within the block?

Germain Bazin states that "Michelangelo more and more left his works unfinished, according to the non-finito technique invented by Donatello in his Paduan bronzes."(p.71) Whether Donatello actually invented the non-finito is essentially beside the point. According to Pope-Hennesey it is most likely that the Padua bronzes are in an unfinished state due to Donatello's dissatisfaction and frustration with the conditions of the commission. He left Padua in a huff, having lost his heart for the project, after having dashed off what was necessary to release himself from the obligation. Leonardo never finished anything, as he was so occupied with the meaning of what he saw and the impossibility of finally capturing the scientific principles he extracted from nature. As Vasari says of Leonardo, "…he began many projects but never finished any of them, feeling that his hand could not reach artistic perfection in the works he conceived…" (p.287) And of Michelangelo, "…the works he envisioned were of such a nature that he found it impossible to express such grandiose and awesome conceptions with his hands, and he often abandoned his works, or rather ruined many of them… for fear that he might seem less than perfect."(p.472) Yet time and again in Michelangelo's letters he cites external circumstances and annoying interruptions that prevent him from working. He is beset by financial worries and the logistics of running his household affairs, and frequently blames the current pope or some other benefactor for imposing impossible demands on his time. Yet the main reasons for his non-finito are internal, coming from his own creative spirit. The humanist and Neo-Platonic changes which swept through Italy and Europe during the Renaissance created a new tension between the creation and the execution of a work of art.

Medieval works always remained unfinished for external reasons, but by the time of Leonardo, and perhaps as early as Donatello, apparently the artist leaves works unfinished due to his own internal stresses; his hand cannot fully express his intellect or his creative idea. The mind/body split becomes manifest. This creative tension permeates the later work of Michelangelo, particularly the unfinished Captives which were to decorate the tomb of Julius II. In these works, the soul is the victim of the body, the block is the captor and retainer of the bound spirit. How strangely appropriate that these figures remain encased in their marble blocks, as though Michelangelo had intended the world to witness his own creative torment in bringing his art into being. Never before had works of art so clearly revealed the process that made them, or provided such incontrovertible evidence that the piece was made by the hand of mortal man under the duress of the creative state. These works stand as a physical rendition of the artistic struggle; the creative process permanently preserved in stone. "In the nineteenth century the ghost of Michelangelo was still posing the models in art schools, and compelling would-be realists to see a system of forms invented to express his own troubled emotions."(Clark, p.277) Michelangelo was torn on the cusp of sweeping changes in mentality and art making, walking the razor's edge between polar opposites, which played themselves out over the next five centuries of Western art, until Rodin.

The immediate consequences of this non-finito attitude towards art making can be interpreted in terms of the sketch or bozetti. According to Francisco de Hollanda, Michelangelo said, "I value highly the work done by a great master even though he may have spent little time over it. Works are not to be judged by the amount of useless labor spent on them but by the worth and skill and mastery of their author." (Wittkower, p.151) Vasari states that "…many painters… achieve in the first sketch of their work, as though guided by a sort of fire of inspiration… a certain measure of boldness; but afterwards, in finishing it, the boldness vanishes." Kenneth Clark says that the "revelation of personal sensibility, the quality of the sketch… is overlaid and smothered by labor."(p.303) Michelangelo did indeed place a significant importance on the sketch or preliminary idea for a work. The seventeenth-century biographer of Giovanni Bologna, Baldinucci, relates that Bologna showed Michelangelo a model that Bologna had taken to high completion. Michelangelo took it and squashed it in his hands, then very deftly remade it in a sketchy manner, saying, "First learn to sketch properly, and then to finish."(Wittkower, p.153) After Michelangelo, the sketch comes to be regarded as a collectible work of art in its own right, as an indication of the creative act as a spontaneous flash of inspiration, and we find innumerable sketches in the work of Bologna, Cellini, Bernini and other Baroque sculptors.

Inadvertently, then, Michelangelo's influence on later sculptors was to release them from his sacred block. It is as though the process of sculpture is squeezed through a funnel in the career of Michelangelo: He rejects the traditional method of modeling a piece and transferring it into stone or bronze in favor of carving directly into the block wherein lies the idea of the work, the captive ideal yearning for release. This method leads to an impasse, a state of artistic tension whereby the idealized conception can by definition never come to realization. The hand cannot execute what the intellect conceives. By admitting this state, by leaving works unfinished and half-submerged, the creative tension inherent in the process reaches a sort of breaking point. The emphasis on the sketch in late sixteenth-century sculpture liberated the sculptor to become once again a modeler who could literally hold his idea in his hand in the form of a sketch model, turn it around and view it from all sides, conceive of it 'in the round' before transferring it to the marble. The sculpture of the Baroque is consequently 'multi-facial' and truly multi-dimensional, active and kinetic, presenting many well-composed views, extending into the viewer's space beyond the confines of the single block. The carver who takes away from the block has yielded to the modeler who adds to his sketch.

Michelangelo might have said that "Every work of art is a self portrait." In his work we find an ever-increasing pathos for the human condition as defined by Renaissance thought. His work represents a microcosm of the changes in human thought wrought during his time. He is the unwitting tool of history, channeling the ideas that swirl through the ether of contemporary Europe, resolving the Gothic into the Modern. In a letter dated October 1542 he wrote, "Painting and sculpture, labor and good faith, have been my ruin and I go continually from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me if I set myself to making matches in my youth! I should not be in such distress of mind."(Stone, II, p.164) But he had to be the artist he was, and he had to be in such distress of mind, for it was his historic destiny to reveal the captive spirit of artistic creation.


Bazin, Germain. The History of World Sculpture. Lamplight Publishing, 1968.

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude. Doubleday, 1956.

Gombrich, E.H. On The Renaissance Vol. III: The Heritage of Apelles. Phaidon, 1976.

Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Vol. II. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.

Janson, H.W. History of Art. 4th ed. Abrams, 1991.

Januszczak, Waldemar. Sayonara Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990.

Olson, Roberta. Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Pope-Hennesey, John. Italian Gothic Sculpture: An Introduction to Italian Sculpture. Random House, 1985.

_________________. Donatello. Abbeville Press, 1993.

Saslow, James M. The Poetry of Michelangelo. Yale University, 1991.

Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy. Signet, 1961.

__________ and Jean. I, Michelangelo, Sculptor. Doubleday, 1962.

Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? Penguin, 1995.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Sculpture: Processes and Principles. Penguin, 1991.

_______________. The Sculptor's Workshop: Tradition and Theory from the Renaissance to the Present. Univesity of Glasgow Press, 1974.

Wolfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Dover, 1950.