Sculpture is the art of giving shape to an object starting from a raw material or assembling different materials together. The term sculpture also refers to the final product, which is any three-dimensional object obtained as an expression of artistic inspiration. Like many other terms in the art world, the concept of sculpture has evolved over time.

It is possible to model an object by addition or subtraction, and this depends on the type of material used:

  • in the case of wood or marble, for example, it is subtracted, that is, it is sculpted by carving, engraving or removing with a suitable instrument part of the material;
  • when, on the other hand, clay or a similar material is used, it is done by addition, gradually adding material to the initial one. Similarly, when you weld parts initially divided, such as metal structures joined with a welding process or different materials joined thanks to adhesives.

Materials and sculptural techniques

Sculpture, a very ancient art, born at the same time as painting in prehistoric times, since its origins was understood according to two main aspects: one more related to the modes of sister art, namely relief – from the most elementary form of graffiti on a surface, to the more elaborate techniques of high and bas-relief, up to the pictorial or “crushed” relief -, the other proper and exclusive of sculptural art, namely the creation in the round (statue) of an object free in space, which offers different points of view and can be contemplated from all sides.

From the beginning, different materials were used for sculpture: terracotta, stone, plaster or stucco, wood, metals, ivory and bone, precious stones; in modern and contemporary sculpture, plastic materials, synthetic resins and the whole range of “poor” materials (papier-mâché, cardboard, rags, metal wires, etc.) are widely used.

The process of working in the round involves a series of stages: the creation of a model in plaster or clay, more or less close to the dimensions of the final work; the transposition of the model to the block of stone, fixing the main points of protrusion and indentation; the rough rough hewing of the image; the final working, by means of chisels of various kinds, which does not necessarily imply the finishing phase (think of Michelangelo’s “unfinished”); the finishing of all the most delicate and thin parts, by means of a special drill called violin and rasps of different sizes; the eventual smoothing of the surface by means of thin rasps and abrasion with pumice or sand, sometimes completed with the application of a patina of transparent varnish or wax.

The procedure does not change substantially if the sculptures are made of wood (usually hard and seasoned); often the finished work is covered with a coat of plaster and glue (sometimes even a thin cloth glued), as a support for the polychromy or gilding. Even the most ancient forms of metalworking followed this process: shaping was done by cutting, bending and hammering the metal, with alternating phases of heating and cooling. But already the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia adopted the method of metal casting, which has different techniques.

One of the oldest is the jet, consisting of pouring the liquid metal alloy in the gap left between two symmetrical forms approached, but the most complete technique of fusion is the so-called lost wax, widespread: the definitive model, in refractory material, is covered by a layer of modeled wax, to which a second layer of refractory earth is superimposed; strongly heating the wrapping the melted wax is eliminated through special vents and in the interspace is poured the metallic alloy, obtaining so for cooling the replica of the form modeled in the wax. The process includes careful hand finishing and often patination.

As it is obvious, both the tools and the technical peculiarities of the tutto tondo are also largely valid for the working of different types of relief, in stone or metal, while particular aspects assume the technique of carving, peculiar to artifacts made of wood, ivory or bone, hard stones.

History and origins of sculpture

While there is a copious artistic literature – theoretical and technical treatises and elaborations of aesthetic theory – on painting and architecture, very rarely have organic attempts been made to establish a specific aesthetic or theory of sculpture: since the medieval technical treatises, the distinction of sculpture from the other arts was traced exclusively in the specificity of the technique and the functions of the sculptural object. In this sense, the very factor of the material durability of sculpture – also linked to the value or rarity of the materials used – and its traditional task of handing down a memory, have ended up constituting sculpture as an art beyond time and history, giving it a characteristic of inertia that has very often made it a means poorly suited to formal experimentation.

It is not by chance that the moments in which sculpture is programmatically understood as a guiding art (the early Renaissance, neoclassicism) are those that polemically proposed the recovery of the ancient model. Sculpture was practiced, for religious or ritual reasons, since the most distant prehistory. The magical meaning of the prehistoric representations continued for a long time in the ancient civilizations, since the plastic object assumed the value of “substitute” of the represented subject: wide diffusion had in fact the funerary sculpture.

Since the most ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean (Egypt) and of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Assyrian-Babylonians), the different techniques of sculpture specified their own functions: on the one hand, the relief – used on a large scale as a complement to architecture – with narrative and didactic characters (think of the frequent integration of the image with the written text), on the other hand, the statue-simulacrum, the “idol”, with funerary-commemorative meaning, or of exaltation of earthly power. In this way, the “monumental” value that remained constantly linked to the history of sculptural representation was determined.

The theme of the human figure was masterfully set by Egyptian art (which used granite, basalt and porphyry skillfully polished) where for the first time the articulation of volumes in space allows us to speak of statuary in the proper sense; the same characters of formal perfection and immutable abstraction of reality expressed by the Egyptian civilization informed the great Mesopotamian statuary that the Egyptian cubism preferred more rounded forms.

The birth of monumental statuary in Greece is traditionally linked to the name of Daedalus: dedalic are in fact called the oldest sculptures in stone or marble of the Orientalizing period (sec. VII a. C.) of Crete (Prinias) and the Doric environment of the Peloponnese and Sicily. It was in the art of classical Greece that statuary reached its own autonomy, gradually freeing itself from the exclusive function of magical-functional or celebratory sacredness: the statues of kûroi (standing naked young men) and kórai (cloaked women), common in the art of all Greece until the beginning of the V century B.C., already allow us to follow the evolution of the statues of the ancient Greek gods. C., already allow us to follow the search for an increasingly perfect representation of the human figure, although the same patterns were used for statues of gods (cult or votive), athletes winners or common mortals (funerary statues).

Since the mid-sixth century BC the formation of large bronze statues, obtained with the lost wax casting (which tradition attributes to Reco and Theodore of Samos), allowed to give the figures greater freedom of movement, with a consequent variation of typological patterns that was simultaneously resumed in marble sculpture.

Of the sec. V and IV a. C. are the most famous artists of antiquity, from Phidias to Polyclitus, from Praxiteles to Lysippus; their statues, to which a precise observation of the anatomy allowed to reach a more and more organic insertion in the space, were then copied and reworked in the Hellenistic age, which differed in different artistic schools (Alexandria, Pergamum, Rhodes) and in the Roman age. The Greek sculpture in marble used chisels, rasps, punches (the drill was more used in Roman sculpture) not unlike the tools of today. The marble statues were polished with pumice and painted, through a process called ganosis, those of bronze often ageminate, enlivened with colored enamels in the details or even gilded (especially in Roman times).

Particular techniques required the acroliths, in which the only naked parts (head, hands, feet) were made of marble and the rest of colored wood, and the great chryselephantine statues, such as the Zeus of Olympia and the Athena of Parthenon, covered with sheets of ivory in the naked parts and sheets of gold on the clothes. Etruscan sculpture was essentially clay; the architectural sculptures of the temples (covering slabs, frontonal and acroterial sculptures such as the famous Apollo and the other statues of Veio) were made of brightly painted terracotta; less frequent was the use of local stone (limestone, nenfro, pietra fetida, travertine, alabaster; marble was very rare), especially for tomb sculptures, sarcophagi and urns. Archaic sculptures in local stone are also known in Italic art (Capestrano warrior).

The Etruscans were also exceptional bronzisti and perfect connoisseurs of all the techniques of the fusion and the workmanship (Chimera of Arezzo, Mars of Todi, portraits). In Roman art, which took advantage of all the artistic and technical experiences of the Etruscans and the Greeks, sculpture appears subordinate, more than in other civilizations, to architecture: its most original and important products are in fact the great reliefs that adorn with historical or allegorical scenes triumphal arches or other great monuments, from the Ara Pacis to the historiated columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, in which the continuous style is developed.

From the second century A.D. the use of relief sarcophagi with mythological scenes or inspired by the life of the deceased (weddings, battles) became widespread. The sculpture in the round copied or reworked Greek typological schemes (the majority of copies of famous works of Greek art, used by the Romans to adorn their monuments or as collector’s items) also for honorary statues, in which, however, is often typically Roman dress (toga, armor) and the head is the portrait of the person represented. Portraits of particular realism also presents the funerary sculpture, widely spread throughout the Roman world. In addition to marble enlivened by color and bronze, generally gilded, Roman sculpture also employed colored marble; porphyry was generally reserved, in the late period, for imperial statues.

After the ancient age, sculpture never completely disappeared in western art, even if after the last creations of early Christian art, which was actually a continuation of late antique art, there was a long eclipse of the technique of the round in favor of others, privileged already in Byzantine art (such as the fretwork relief, with extensive use of the drill) and then by the barbarian art, Carolingian and Ottonian, such as carving on stone, wood, ivory, and embossed jewelry.

With Romanesque art, on the other hand, there was the flowering of an extraordinary plastic civilization, characterized by the complexity and variety of solutions in the relationship between figuration and decoration, and by the large-scale revival of stone working. It is not a case that in the common anonymity of the medieval art the first artistic personalities historically identified (think of Wiligelmo) are sculptors. These themes were brought to full maturity in the following Gothic period, when the plastic representation, through the re-proposition of the whole round, regained a specific autonomy. Particularly in Italy the great Gothic sculpture of the XIII century (we can remember only the names of Nicola and G. Pisano) assumed a role of advanced point for the artistic renewal of the following century, with a pre-Renaissance character.

The characteristics of a choral phenomenon, substantially unitary, of medieval sculpture were profoundly changed by the culture of the Renaissance, when the individualistic tendencies of the new bourgeois society led to the conception of art as the personal expression of the individual artist. The process of re-proposing the antique as a historical model found a unifying moment, as is obvious, in the field of sculpture. Significantly, a sculptor, Donatello, anticipated, albeit slightly, architects (F. Brunelleschi) and painters (Masaccio) in the development and proposition already completed at the formal level of the Renaissance themes, paving the way for the rich and varied plastic civilization of the Florentine fifteenth century. On the other hand, in the artistic treatises of the Renaissance, sculpture had little prominence (apart from the treatise De Statua by L. B. Alberti, ca. 1464, dedicated above all to the identification of the perfect proportions of the human body) and even in the sixteenth-century controversy on the “primacy of the arts” it appears in a subordinate role to painting, precisely because of its characteristics of “manual ability” that still seemed to bind it to the ancient condition of “mechanical” art, of less intellectual height.

Only in some dazzling expressions of Michelangelo is traceable a theory of sculpture as material equivalent of the idea, of the “concept” of the artist, brought to light, extracted from the block of marble “by force of lifting”. The perfect mastery of the techniques (including bronze casting), the creation of a rich typology of plastic forms, the prestige of the artists up to the “divine” Michelangelo, imposed in the XVI century the Italian Renaissance sculpture at European level, with the creation of a cosmopolitan, courtly and monumental language, prerogative of the prestige of the absolutist monarchies, whose continuity was not substantially altered, but only emphasized and exasperated by the scenographic and theatrical taste of the Baroque experience.

The tendency to unify the arts under the sign of the “grand theater” made Baroque sculpture an indispensable and very rich complement to architecture (think of the great diffusion of plastic decoration in stucco), bringing it to levels of exasperated formal and technical refinement, even through the combination of the most disparate materials (white, veined, colored marble; imitation marble; bronze; gilding, coloring, pictorial interventions), following the example of a master at European level such as G. L. Bernini. The peculiarity of the expressive medium of sculpture prevented the formation of alternative expressions to the official academic trends, as it happened for the painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (genre painting, landscape painting, still life), so that from the Renaissance to neoclassicism the process seems to close circularly on itself, from the ancient as an inspiration (Donatello) to the ancient as a canonical model (A. Canova). And the propositional force of such a model, together with the traditional inertia to renewal typical of sculptural expression, give reason for the substantial extraneousness of sculpture to the most innovative movements of the nineteenth century – except for sporadic cases such as France, which gave romanticism for example a “heroic” version susceptible to sculptural rendering – at least until the verismo of the end of the century.

Only the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century (above all futurism with the dynamic sculptures of U. Boccioni), by definitively subverting the perspective-spatial vision of Renaissance heritage, opened the way to anti-classical expressions also in the field of sculpture, according to two fundamental directions: on the one hand, the assumption of the volumetric datum in its pure state (from Cubism to abstraction), which did not exclude greater or lesser degrees of figurative allusiveness; on the other hand, the investigation of the relationship between the sculptural object and space (for example in Russian Constructivism, with the works of V. Tatlin, among others), which through different interrelationships came to the relationship between the object and the space. Tatlin, among others), which, through different meanings of interrelation, reached the mobility of forms in real space (A. Calder’s mobiles).

In Dadaism, then, the artists did not try to create a new sculptural (and pictorial) style, but simply presented as works of art objects removed from everyday life, assembled together and exposed to the public. It is to M. Duchamp that we owe the most significant operations in this sense, with the sculptures Bicycle Wheel (1913-1964; Cologne, Ludwig Museum) and Fountain (1917, Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art), in which a urinal is signed as a real creation. But the heady rush of the avant-garde was held back by the need for a recovery of completed forms, following the horrors of the Great War. In the course of the Twenties, therefore, we could witness the adherence to new instances on the part of artists, with regard to the representation of human figures that were no longer fragmented and broken up but full-bodied and clear.

In the field of sculpture, H. Moore was the one who, in this period, gave his statues the strength and roughness of archaic idols, inspired by pre-Columbian statuary and the vigor of Renaissance art. As a new world conflict flared up, traces of violence, anguish, and intense loneliness were found in the art of the period. In sculpture A. Giacometti, with his works of surrealist ascendancy, rendered that sense of indefinite malaise, of total extraneousness to the human condition, in which the figures, exasperatingly thin, tended almost to cancel themselves in the surrounding air.

Around the fifties, then, was the time of informal art, and sculpture also experienced this trend, especially in the abstract works of C. Brâncusi, H. Arp and, in Italy, in the bumpy epidermis with deep cuts like wounds that characterize the sculptures of A. Pomodoro. In the following tendencies, which often go back to the experiences of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, the death of the plastic object has been totally consummated, at most re-proposed in an ironic and demystifying way (think of A. Warhol’s detergent containers or of G. Segal’s casts immobilized in the greyness of plaster), also through the use of non-traditional materials (plastic, expanded resins).

From the Seventies onwards, there has been an increasing blurring of boundaries between artistic fields and between sectors of application of the figurative arts: the Americans combined theater, painting and sculpture, just as body art or video art brought together a way of making cinema with a new conception of the plastic arts that was to influence all the artistic movements born at the end of the century. It will be precisely in this sense that artists will look for new materials with which to act and virgin spaces of research: living sculptures or any objects (chairs, empty containers), recycled materials (rags, raw wood, wool) or even sculptures made in desolate lands, with spirals of earth (R. Smithson), born in symbiosis with the natural environment are only the strongest artistic trends of the end of the century, which gave a strong innovative imprint to the field of sculpture.

In opposition to this dematerialization of the artistic object, the 1980s witnessed a resurgence in the neo-pop direction of sculpture, a return to and recycling in artists such as Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley. The former in fact, like the pop artists, uses his works to reflect on the capitalist dynamics of the contemporary world, on Western society dominated by the desire for narcissistic images and for the boundless kitch world of goods. His works are colorful sculptures, made of plastic, inflatable and often colossal in size.

The sculptural scene of the nineties saw the establishment of the English scene on the art market with artists such as Tony Cragg, Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley, Robert Gober, Rachel Whiteread. At the same time, in the last years of the century, new artistic researches have been started to experiment the confluence of traditional arts, among which sculpture, with the new dominant means (think of the huge sculptures with architectural dimensions of the video installations or of the videosculptures that dominated at the Venice Biennales) up to the three-dimensional images elaborated by computer, real and proper virtual sculptures.

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