A technician working with a robot in Carrara, Italy
Dear Commons Community,
For centuries, the massive marble quarries above the Tuscan town of Carrara have provided the raw material for the polished masterpieces of Italian sculptors like Michelangelo, Canova, Bernini and, most recently, ABB2.
Carving with pinpoint precision, and at least some of the artistic flair of its more celebrated (and human) predecessors, ABB2, a 13-foot, zinc-alloy robotic arm, extended its spinning wrist and diamond-coated finger toward a gleaming piece of white marble.
Using the same marble found in Renaissance masterpieces, a team of robots is now accepting commissions. Their owners say tech is essential to Italy’s artistic future. The New York Times has an article this morning describing the transformation of the art of sculpting in this historic place. Here is an excerpt.
“Slowly and steadily, ABB2 milled the slab of stone, leaving the contours of soft cabbage leaves for a sculpture designed and commissioned by a renowned American artist.
ABB2 is hardly a lone robotic genius, toiling away in anthropomorphic solitude. Just a few meters away, in a facility humming with robots, Quantek2 was rubbing away on another marble block, executing a statue envisioned by a British artist who had contracted out the manual labor to a robotic hand.
Since at least the Renaissance, the creative output of Italy’s artistic workshops has been among the country’s best-known and most valued exports. The founders and employees of this robotics lab believe that embracing advanced technology is the only way to ensure the country stays at the artistic forefront.
“We don’t need another Michelangelo,” said Michele Basaldella, 38, a technician who calls himself the robots’ brain. “We already had one.”
One thing that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years is artists’ sensitivity about who gets credit for their work. In Florentine workshops, many artisans worked in obscurity, with a sculpture or painting created by many getting just one master’s signature.
Michele Monfroni, a sculptor, in his studio outside Carrara. “If Michelangelo saw the robots, he would tear out his hair,” he said.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
Now, it is Carrara’s robots who work anonymously. Many of the artists who employ them demand that their identities be kept secret.
“Artists want to perpetuate this idea that they are still chiseling with a hammer,” said Giacomo Massari, one of the founders of Robotor, the company that owns the sculpting robots. “It makes me laugh.”
Standing amid the quarry dust, and wearing sunglasses to block the glare bouncing off the tons of marble transported down from the nearby Apennine Mountains, Mr. Massari, 37, argued that abandoning traditional handmade techniques was the only way to allow Italian marble sculpture to survive and thrive.
Carrara’s prosperity has long depended on the appeal of its marble to artists.
During the town’s Renaissance boom years, Michelangelo roamed the surrounding quarries for weeks to find the perfect piece of marble for his Pietà masterpiece.
In the 18th century, Carrara’s marble was transformed into scores of neo-Classical statues, and dozens of ateliers opened up here.
But among Modern and contemporary artists, Carrara’s marble fell out of favor, the translucent, gray-veined stone becoming more the stuff of bathroom floors, kitchen counters and funerary monuments.
Mr. Massari said that many artists had dismissed marble as a medium because of the months or even years it took to complete a single statue by hand.
And fewer young people in Carrara were up for the crushing work of chiseling stone, not to mention the dust-eating and all the other health risks that came with it. Canova is said to have deformed his sternum by bending his chest on a hammer for hours.
At a warehouse down the mountain, where technicians were testing a gigantic new robot, Mr. Massari pointed at a reproduction of “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss,” a masterpiece of neo-Classical sculpture. “Canova took five years to make this,” he said, “we took 270 hours.”
Mr. Massari and his partner initially bought their robots from local technology companies. But as clients — including, among those who can be named, global stars like Jeff Koons, Zaha Hadid and Vanessa Beecroft — gave them what Mr. Massari called “increasingly crazy” commissions, they started producing their own machines with homemade software and German parts.
Mr. Basaldella, the technician, said many of his former art school classmates were excellent sculptors but did not stand out, because manual dexterity is not new or in demand. But robots can achieve groundbreaking results if they are built “with an artistic sensitivity,” he said, sitting in a control room where he inspected a 3-D marble block scanned into his computer.
“I think our robots are a work of art,” he said.
He has even grown fond of some of his collaborators. He is doing everything he can to save one of the lab’s first, “very tired” models from the scrapyard.
“OK, it doesn’t talk, it does not have a soul,” he said, “but you get attached.”