||The making of objects in the round or in relief has been practised since prehistory. Current evidence suggests that Australian aborigines were carving designs into rock-faces at least 45,000 years: ago an estimated 13,000 years before such art appeared in Europe, and 19,000 years before the first paintings on rock. Whether bas-relief sculptures were made in the estimated 15,000 years between the arrival of humans in Australia and such petroglyphs is not yet known.
The purposes of prehistoric sculpture are difficult to determine with precision, but were perhaps connected with magic and ritual, as well as with aspects of society and perhaps politics and â€˜artâ€™ as well. The subject-matter of sculpture has, until the past century, been remarkably consistent, in a balance established by the ancient Egyptians and confirmed by the Greeks and Romans. Decorative work, iconic or aniconic depending on religious and cultural preferences, must always have filled the largest part of most sculptors\' days. The largest proportion of sophisticated and surviving work is dedicated to funerary sculpture connected with mortals, with the stelai, statues, bas reliefs and even complete tombs and funerary temples surviving in enormous quantities. Less populous, but more important, are representations of the lives, images and deeds of gods, goddesses and heroes, and heroized monarchs as well, often focused in mythological stories. Next comes portraiture, much used in funerary work, and an anchor for the modeller of coins, which are of course the widest-spread of all sculptural creations, often of very high quality, and demonstrably the most influential as well, not only for their â€˜originalâ€™ artwork, but also for their valuable role in spreading knowledge of large-scale works. An important nexus in the history of sculpture is between works for public and those for private display. While the prestige lies frequently with imposing public displays, the often smaller works for private consumption should not be forgotten: statuettes as religious offerings or for table decoration, jewellery and other personal adornment. A constant theme is of utilitarian items raised to the status of art by their materials and craftsmanship, from Cellini\'s famous saltcellar to complete table-settings in silver, gold or porcelain.
A continuing thread in the historiography of sculpture is the lifelike nature of the statue: according to Greek legend, Pygmalion fell in love with the ivory statue of a maiden he had made, and implored the gods to give it life. Similarly, legends abound of miraculous statues of the Virgin or of saints: some cry real tears, or drip blood; others walk around their domain at night. The legend lives today in stories of computerized robots.
Depending on the material employed, the sculpting process is subtractive or additive: the sculptor carves away unwanted marble, stone or wood with appropriate chisels or knives; or models (with the hands) wax, clay or plaster. Beautification may be needed to enhance poor-quality or unsuitable materials: wood and stone may be painted after covering with gesso to ensure a smooth surface. Support and protection may also be required: large-scale works in clay, a common and useful material, require an internal armature for support, and protection if they are to withstand the weather (hence the popularity of Della-Robbia, a technique for enamelling terracotta developed by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia in the 15th century). Wood has probably always been the most popular (if far from the most prestigious) material for sculptors, but large quantities have been lost through decay and disaster. Today, even marble cannot often withstand our polluted atmosphere, and the surface detail crumbles away. Wax and plaster are usually intermediates, the former for delicate surface modelling of work to be translated into bronze, the latter for making casts. Frequently, small-scale models are produced by the master, and transferred to full-size (in a different material, usually marble) by an assistant. The master then adds the finishing touches. Sheet materials (such as gold, silver, brass, copper or bronze) are often employed to cover a cheaper armature, and given detail by being worked from behind (repoussÃ©); to these may be added ivory, useful because it approximates both to the tint and the â€˜depthâ€™ of flesh.
Available materials have naturally influenced the complexion of production, with marble traditionally restricted to the Mediterranean basin, and other centres using stone of varying quality: granite and sandstone for the ancient Egyptians, and volcanic tufo for Borobodur (Java, Indonesia). Working methodsâ€”abrasives, rasps, chisels, punches and malletsâ€”have changed little over the centuries, although some scholars ascribe the stylistic caesura in Greece of about 500 Â BCE to newly available steel and iron tools, both sharper and more robust than the bronze ones they replaced.
Unlike marble, the use of bronze is widespread, from China and other parts of Asia to Africa and Europe; an unrepresentative selection of works probably survives, because the material is so useful, being easily recast. Bronze is an alloy largely or exclusively of copper and tin, used since about 2000 Â BCE. Because of its lower melting point, it is easier to cast (using some kind of mould or supporting core) than copper, and also wears better because it is harder. Hence it was early recognized as an ideal material for sculpture: lighter than marble, able to be duplicated (not to mention repaired), and sturdy enough to survive outdoors. Just as attractive to sculptors was the material\'s ability to take fine detail. Casting was a specialized business, sometimes experimented with by the adventurous (such as Donatello), but often left to professionals, such as bell-casters. Sculptures would usually be made around a core (apparently wooden in archaic Greece), and this might be left in place in the case of small statuettes or even lifesize pieces; larger sculptures would have the core removed, and then be given a skeleton (â€˜armatureâ€™) so that the metal could be cast suitably thin and therefore not cost too much. Colossal statues, like their smaller fellows, would conveniently be cast in sections, and then fitted together, with drapery or armour perhaps concealing the joins. Bronzes could therefore be more adventurous than marble: better suited, for example, to large-scale equestrian statues, or to figures in energetic action with wide-flung limbs. The very finest bronzes employed the lost-wax technique, employed in the Mediterranean since at least archaic Greek times, and long before by the Chinese; it is known throughout the world. Ordinary casting can be a copying process, often for transferring work in one medium into another. Taking a mould of an existing bronze is possible, and this has the advantage that the original is not damaged; the disadvantage, however, is that the surface modelling cannot fully be reproduced. Lost-wax casting entails making the sculpture in wax, supported by some central core or armature. The wax makes possible very fine modelling, faithfully taking every hint of the artist\'s hand. The finished work is bundled up in a fine plaster package, suitably adorned with vent-holes, and heated. The wax escapes, leaving its negative impression on the plaster. Molten bronze is then poured in, taking the place of the wax, and faithfully adopting all its surface features. The technique is, as it were, a mirror image of moulding: although the quality is excellent, the original wax model is perforce destroyed in the process itself.
Such a luxurious medium has always been popular, and statuettes especially so, not just among collectors, but also with artists, for whom they provided portable models, as it were. Ghiberti, for example, probably had antique statuettes in bronze and terracotta to inspire his work on the Gates of Paradise (the bronze doors of the baptistry of Florence Cathedral). Renaissance collectors avidly sought not only the antique statuettes themselves, but also modern versions and imitations inspired by the antique. Large-scale bronzes suffered when fashion changed, especially when war came, for their material was intrinsically precious and they were easily melted down.
Marble (metamorphized limestone) occurs in many varieties, some single-colour, others striated. Characteristics can include large or small crystals; no apparent â€˜grainâ€™; opacity, translucency and luminosity in varying degrees; ability to take a polish which â€˜deepensâ€™ the surface effect; ability to stand slicing into thin veneeers, or excavating into truly large blocks; and, very importantly, the ability to withstand ordinary atmospheric conditions and retain its surface detailing. Not all countries have marble: the UK has none, whereas fine marbles are to be found in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and North Africa. Having suitable marbles locally did not prevent the importing of others: whereas the classical Greeks were content with nearby supplies, the Romans had a vigorous import trade, especially with North Africa and Asia Minor. Indeed, the beautification of ancient Rome (and that of innumerable cities, corporations and private individuals since) is often dependent upon the prestige and rarity of the marbles used.
In the Mediterranean basin, the material has been prized since the second millenium Â BCE for small-scale sculpture, then for pieces of increasing size; and since Hellenistic times the colour ranges and luminosity of the stone have made marble a luxury furnishing material for floors, walls and columnsâ€”and an index of quality and luxury, so much so that in centuries when quarries were closed (for instance, during much of the Middle Ages) make-and-mend and reuse of existing veneers, sarcophagi, etc. was rife. In Greek and Roman times, it is not unusual to find whole buildings (and their associated sculptures) made out of marble: a notable example is the Parthenon.
Marble has been the primary sculpting material in the West from Greek times through to the Renaissance and into the 19th century. If it cannot usually mimic flesh tones, it can approximate to the luminosity and â€˜depthâ€™ of skin, especially when tinted. The different colours available allow whole multicolour statues to be pieced togetherâ€”white marble for the head and other flesh parts, perhaps grey for some clothes and black for others. Few other materials possess the same beauty, revealed through detailing and polishing; and the possibility of quarrying very large blocks adds monumentality to the list of its attributes. Although wooden statues were surely made in far larger numbers, marble assigns â€˜aristocracyâ€™ to the artist, in much the same way as true fresco painting did (as compared to panel painting) in the Italian Renaissance.
A medium especially useful for flesh tones is bone. Objects for ritual, domestic and decorative use have been made of bone since prehistoric times, for bone is readily available in large quantities, sufficiently hard even to make needles, is white or whitish, and takes detail well. Elephant ivory has the same qualities, together with the cachet of being a luxury item, traded at high cost from as early as the second millenium Â BCE, and avidly used by Persians as well as Greeks. The cost and quality of ivory, as well as the restricted dimensions of tusks, made it suitable for small works, especially statuettes, jewel or cosmetic caskets, tablets of various kinds, or as coverings for furniture. During the Middle Ages, it was especially popular for statuettes of the Virgin and Child, or for portable altars. Islam, being closer to the areas of production and trade, captured part of the market, and caskets of ivory, sometimes with classical friezes of putti and/or vine scrolls, found a ready market in medieval southern Europe.
Since Greek times, ivory had been used in small plaques to plate wooden furniture, its best-known Christian counterpart being the â€˜Chair of St Peterâ€™ in St Peter\'s basilica, an ivory chair possibly made in the 9th century, and subsequently encased in a shrine by Bernini. Another use was the late-antique Consular Diptych, two panels of ivory with scenes indicative of the power of the Consul, sent out throughout the Empire from the 5th century Â CE, which much later was sometimes included in Church treasuries and even used for calendars. Ivory carving was at its height during the Middle Ages in East and West, with some influence from former to latter. It survived as a luxury item during the Northern Renaissance, especially in Germany.
Relief sculpture, where the designs or figures are anchored to a determinable planar surface (a door, wall, or piece of furniture) exists in bronze, marble, stone and wood. It is often modest in scale (in the West, it is sometimes the work of goldsmiths), although the Egyptians covered large walls with â€˜inverse reliefâ€™, where the designs are incised rather than standing proud. In marble low relief, sensitive atmospheric effects and a suave delicacy may be achieved; high relief is equally skilful, as the nearly-3D figures (which are sometimes given metal accoutrements to increase verisimilitude) must be carefully worked if they are to remain intact. Relief sculpture is a mainstay of architectural decoration (cf. the Parthenon, or Borobudur), but sometimes the figures are worked separately and then attached to the marble, bronze or stone backing.
An important aspect of sculpture in East and West is a fascination with large-scale works: colossal statues sometimes many times human scale. Usually representing gods, kings and heroes, these are frequently in relief, using whole rock-faces for support. When free-standing, they are sometimes pieced together from various materials over an armature. The genre was adopted during the Middle Ages in the West for architectural sculpture (which would have seemed insignificant if placed high in a cathedral at only lifesize); and antique horizons reopened with a vengeance during the Renaissance, when the colossal manner was widely adopted. Indeed, it became (as a visit to Italy or Korea will indicate) a mode as important for sculptural credibility as, perhaps, fresco work for a painter.
The great majority of all sculpture, worldwide, is and always has been polychromatic: that is, painted in many colours, usually to enhance lifelikeness. (Real hair, ivory teeth, pearl eyes, and so forth were not unusual.) Sculpture in wood (the cheapest and most readily available material) was usually painted on top of a coating of plaster, which helped fill in the grain. Greek sculpture, even in marble (such as the Elgin Marbles), was routinely painted, and this tradition continues down into the Middle Ages, so that the great portals of the Gothic cathedrals might to our chaste Renaissance-influenced taste have seemed garish if not vulgar with their multicoloured stone figures. Plenty of traces remain from all periods: see, for example, the tympanum of the Puerta de la Gloria at Santiago de Compostella, or Sluter\'s Well of Moses in Dijon. Polychromatic multifigure wooden altarpieces, often gilded, adorned Spanish and northern altars until well into the 17th century, when canvases usually took their place. It seems to have been a misunderstanding by the Renaissance of Roman sculpture which encouraged them to promote plain marble for their works. In other words, the Roman material they studied had long since lost its colour, or perhaps they chose to ignore it.
The Renaissance taste for â€˜pureâ€™ marble sculpture was broken virtually completely by Bernini, who observed and wished to imitate the Roman use of different coloured stones and marbles to produce composite busts or even complete groups, as can be seen from his funerary monuments in St Peter\'s.
The Renaissance â€˜interludeâ€™ was, however, reconfirmed in the 18th century, when the neoclassical quest for purity came up against incontrovertible proof of polychromy amongst the admired ancients and yet won. There are a few dry examples of the technique in the 19th century, especially in the various revivals; but a renewed interest in the natural beauty of materials meant that our century has not been well disposed to hiding it under layers of polychromy. MG PD
Further reading Rudolf Wittkower, Sculpture: Processes and Principles.