prisoner-atlasWhen 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.


  1. says

    Any relation to mystery author Sue Grafton?

    I don’t love any nude sculpture of a man:P But, I can appreciate the artist’s skill at carving (if such skill was indeed scarce at that time). I prefer more dynamic sculptures, but apparently the guy did these instead of portraits:)

    I’ve never seen any of these in person. I am unaware of the “slaves.”

    If I had to stage a guess, I’d say they weren’t finished because 1) like many artists, they were buds of projects he left to pursue others…and then passed them off as finished works (for bonus bucks) and 2) he was rushed with deadlines for them or other projects.

    If he truly liked them, maybe they were reminders to himself to accept imperfection, “terra cotta” soldiers a battle against perfectionism.

    • says

      No relation. As to your other comment, Michelangelo was “rushed with deadlines and other projects”. He was commissioned by Pope Julius II, in 1505, to create a multi-level tomb, which incorporated 40 life-sized figures. Four of them – later dubbed ‘The Prisoners’ – were to adorn the lower level pillars of the monument. Changes of plan and diversion of funds led ultimately to the Prisoners unfinished state. The Sistine Chapel was one of those additional projects (1508). When the Pope died in 1513, only a fraction of the figures were complete. After Michelangelo’s death, the 4 unfinished prisoners were discovered in his studio and put on display at the Boboli Gardens in Florence. In 1909, they were moved to their current location. As to their naked state – Michelangelo was meticulous about the human body and spent a great deal of time studying it. His sculptures, paintings and sketches all attest to this … Hope this helps.

      • says

        I think I asked you about the relation on a previous post:P It hit me later that I might have recalled seeing your picture before.

        Thanks for the info. Was he punished for not finishing those sculptures/the tomb? I wonder if he ever draped his statues in robes/togas after sculpting the bodies. Maybe the cloths were lost in time. I would be surprised if some religious figures didn’t object to the nudity. After all, you have to be covered to a certain degree before entering places like St. Peter’s Basilica:)

  2. says

    No, Michelangelo was not punished for not completing the project. The Pope assigned him other projects and then died, thus continually changing the priorities. Michelangelo was quite famous during his lifetime (unlike more artists who must die first) and died at age 86 leaving a huge body of work as his legacy. I found a few draped figures here.

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