When I’m stuck I often think of Michelangelo’s Captives – the four unfinished sculptures lining the Hall of Prisoners at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. They writhe and grimace within their marble prisons as they lead visitors towards Michelangelo’s more famous “David”. And then there he is, at the end of the hall under a circle of light – one of the most celebrated pieces of art of all time. To me, that hallway and the placement of those marble-bound slaves depict the struggle that ultimately gives way to a masterpiece.
Now I love the “David” as much as any art lover. My intrigue, however, lies with those four captives. The Atlas – aka “Bound” – is my favorite. For me, he symbolizes the struggle of birthing a new idea, a new manuscript, an entire project that lies deep within, waiting for a deft hand to bring it forth. Every time I see the Atlas – whether in print or in person – I swear I can see his head stuck inside that solid marble block. The veins in his neck bulge. His eyes squeeze tight with strain. His tousled hair drips with the sweat of herculean effort. Finished or not, the man’s head is in there. All you need is a bit of imagination. And belief.
No one knows for certain why Michelangelo left his four captives non-finito. Some claim their unfinished state represents the eternal struggle of mankind trying to free itself from the material trappings of this world. Others say they serve as an allegory of the soul imprisoned in the flesh, slave to human weakness. The Accademia’s literature claims the captives ‘evoke the enormous strength of the creative concept as they try to free themselves from the bonds and physical weight of the marble’. Whatever Michelangelo’s intent, he saw art within each solid chuck of marble. What he freed always reignites my own imagination.