Perhaps my favorite room in the Louvre is the Italian sculptures on the ground floor of the Denon wing. At the end of the hall, stand two of the museum’s most superb Renaissance sculptures: Michelangelo’s two unfinished slaves, The Rebellious Slave(1513-1515) and The Dying Slave (1513-1516). Apparently they were commissioned for the tomb of Pope Julius II in 1505, but Michelangelo didn’t start working on them till 1513 and then abandoned them in 1516. But standing before them, their history, even their apparently rich iconography, seem irrelevant. For these passionate figures are irresistible, leaving us breathless before their beauty.
There were six of them altogether: the Louvre slaves had four fellow prisoners who now line the walls of the Accademia in Florence – slaves that most tourists walk straight past because they are so intent on reaching the most beautiful of all, Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504). The other four are tragic, devastating because they are deformed, still emerging from the marble as if in the process of being born, inseparable from the raw material. The Rebellious Slave and The Dying Slave are unfinished, but nearly independent of the marble, and this makes them sensuous, erotic, mysterious, almost divine. When I suggested to my friend that we lean over the rope and touch the powerful muscles of the angry Rebellious Slave’s legs, she looked at me in horror. My fear that I was being disrespectful were quickly allayed when she exclaimed – “touch them? I want to sleep with them”.
(Image: Michelangelo, Rebellious Slave (left), The Dying Slave (right)
The desire stirred by these figures comes from somewhere intangible, deep within the veins of their near perfect marble. I say near perfect because it is said that Michelangelo stopped working on them at the point where he found them to be trapped inside their marble blocks, at that moment where the marble that incarcerates them triumphs. The fiery Rebellious Slave’s struggle with the marble thus becomes echoed in Michelangelo’s tireless fight with a material he discovers to be flawed. And he abandons them, leaves them to eternal imprisonment at the moment when the marble reveals its imperfection. And as if in a gesture of revenge on the marble that will not let him liberate the figures, Michelangelo leaves the traces of his battle: the chisel and hammer marks almost deface the rough hewn stone from which The Rebellious Slave cannot break loose.The Dying Slave is of a different temperament altogether. He is younger, more beautiful than his sibling, his body smooth and polished. He looks to be sleeping rather than dying, peacefully slumbering in the safety of the marble. And he is not burdened by the stone in the same way as is The Rebellious Slave, but rather, seems supported by it, content in its enveloping of his body.
In spite of the flaws of their material, and the unfinishedness of their form, for me the Slaves are the most perfect of all Michelangelo’s work. Because in these deeply emotional sculptures, one in intense and violent motion, the other in peaceful reverie, we see Michelangelo, the artist at work. He is given a block of marble and his task is to find the figure trapped within it. He chisels and chips away, until suddenly he finds what he knows all along is hidden inside. He knows it’s there because that’s his privilege as the artist, the one whose calling it is to find and give form to a beauty the rest of us know and recognize, but are unable to express. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the slaves are finished or not. The divine beauty of the two figures is in the line of The Rebellious Slave’s legs, the languishing flow of The Dying Slave’s body, the tilt of their heads, the tensing or relaxing of muscles. That is, the dignity and spiritual perfection of being human that Michelangelo has already found and set free from the resolute marble, makes these two figures complete in every way.