If anyone was indentured by the sculpting of the slave series it was Michelangelo himself.
Originally commissioned in 1505 for the tomb of Pope Julius II, the slaves fell by the wayside when the plans became a far more pedestrian affair thanks to a rather surly Medici pope taking over after Julius was reduced to naught but a few wisps of black smoke over the Vatican.
Since the tomb planning went through a variety of changes over the decades from its commissioning in 1505
, to what is charitably referred to as its reconstruction in 1513
, to its rather anticlimactic completion in 1547
, Michelangelo worked on the slaves in fits and starts, ultimately coming close to finishing only 2 out of the originally planned 16, and leaving 4 others in various stages of completion. The 2 nearly finished ones are in the Louvre, while the unfinished ones line the hallway leading to Michelangelo's David in the Galleria in Florence.
The slaves mark a real turning point in Renaissance sculpture, the revival of the Hellenistic sense of form and movement. The late 15th century had seen some extraordinary realistic sculpture inspired by the works of Greece and Rome, a marked departure from the flat, stylized conventions of even the late Medieval period (Nicola Pisano, Fortitude
), but even so, most of the statuary was still posed and static (Donatello, Judith and Holofernes
Compared to his contemporaries, Michelangelo's figures exploded out of the marble.
The Laocoon Group
(Greek, 1st century BCE) had been unearthed in 1506 in Rome and was displayed in the Vatican. Michelangelo was profoundly affected by this masterpiece of captured movement. The two slaves in the Louvre, the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave, twist in counterpoint to each other much like Laocoon's sons.
(Recent scholarship hypothesizes that the Laocoon group may actually have been sculpted by Michelangelo himself and then pawned off as an antiquity. See this fascinating article
for arguments for and against the forgery hypothesis.)
Michelangelo said that he didnít sculpt figures into marble: he liberated them out of it. He quarried his own marble in Carrara, seeing the figures in the living rock before driving in the first nail that would split it off the rockface. The unfinished slaves are deeply compelling examples of how Michelangelo chipped away the marble enclosure, gradually exposing more and more the sculpture trapped inside.