Michelangelo and the Obsession with Great Material

I’m studying Michelangelo and I’ve learned an interesting secret about him. It is a secret that we can all take to heart as we work to create our own masterpieces. You may be familiar with the story of how Michelangelo carved his David when he was 29 years old from a huge and yet flawed piece of marble that had been rejected by a previous artist 40 years before. From this “unworkable” piece of stone he created one of world’s greatest works of art, how? Michaelangelos-david It is clear, that besides being a great artist, Michelangelo also understood the importance of great material. It is thought that one of his early building inspirations were the granite columns on the exterior of the Pantheon in Rome. The columns, pictured here, are 50′ tall and made from solid granite which were quarried in Egypt by the Romans. They are colossal! The task of quarrying and shipping them, even today, is an engineering marvel. Yet, they are also defining character pieces and highlight the buildings importance. pantheon-facade   One of Michelangelo’s first great commissions was the Pietà. Currently in the Vatican, it depicts Mary holding Christ’s dead body after he has been brought down from the cross. pieta When Michelangelo first received the commission, he immediately traveled to the marble quarries to find an amazing piece of stone. It is thought that there has NEVER been a more beautiful piece of marble and Michelangelo throughout his life remembered where in the quarry he found this stunning marble. Not surprisingly, Michelangelo spent nearly 4 years of his life in stone quarry’s. 4 years! This is a tremendous amount of time. For David as mentioned above, you may know that he did not choose that block of stone. Instead, it was considered “ruined” because it had set unused for 40 years and would have been dry and brittle. Part of the reason, I believe, Michelangelo was able to bring David to life from this brittle piece of marble is because he was intimately acquainted with the subtleties and grain of marble. His deep understanding of marble gave him the ability to work with material others assumed was lost. The encouragement for Craftsmen today is to learn and become intimately acquainted with wood. Learn the character of its grain, its strength and its weaknesses. Too often power tools cause us to ignore wood grain because we can. Pick up a hand plane and go to flatten out a piece of rough sawn oak. You will quickly learn about its grain and its character. To create master pieces we must be masters of our materials. I’m pretty proud of a kitchen we are doing for a client in Long Leaf Yellow Pine; I’ll claim it is my “Michelangelo example”. In the south, we have a strong building tradition of houses and even furniture made from a unique southern pine called, Long Leaf yellow pine. Long Leaf Pine is a very rare and unique wood that was originally prized for its strength and dense wood grain. It made wonderful beams and strong floors. Today, most of what we are able to find, is through salvaging old buildings. C2 When our client requested a long leaf pine kitchen, I knew finding the right pine and the right character in the wood would be the key to the success of the project. Without carefully culling for quarter and rift sawn material, and patiently choosing boards with the optimum color, it could quickly turn into a mess of loud grain and ugly character. Only because of our years of experience building in Long Leaf Pine did we know where to look and how to find the best wood for this project. Materials matter. We delivered the island to the job today. When we get it finished I’ll share more. -B