The Angel in the Marble
Modern Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Sculptor
I edit books for a living. Actually, that’s not true. I edit manuscripts. When I am done (and they are formatted), then they are books. Before they get to me, most manuscripts are essentially a collection of strong ideas and great stories that have been suffocated by authorial self-doubt, insecurity, and bias. My job, as the editor, is to clear all of that away and expose the greater truths that sit at the core of these stories. I shape the words around the mold created by their intent so that the ideas may come to life like they already do in the minds of their creators. The process is very much like a sculptor’s—an artist in an artisan’s body, chipping away at the rock diligently and purposefully until the image reveals itself.
Michelangelo, perhaps history’s greatest sculptor, understood this concept to his bones. Two of his more famous quotes speak directly to it:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
For Michelangelo, the idea was already there, inside the hunk of stone, whether by divine providence or his own imagination. His eyes and hands were merely the vessels by which that idea—the art—was brought forth into the physical world as he or God (or both) originally intended.
The greatest artist has no conception
Which a single block of marble does not
Potentially contain within its mass,
But only a hand obedient to the mind
Can penetrate to this image.
In this sense, one might consider Michelangelo not just history’s greatest sculptor, but history’s greatest editor. Both disciplines are about “relief” after all. And removing the heavy, burdensome excess around an object struggling to emerge is the means by which that relief is created. Michelangelo, a man who sculpted something as perfect and powerful as the Statue of David out of a 20-foot slab of Carrara marble and then turned around only a few years later to paint massive, highly detailed, ornate frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is clearly someone who knows when to add and when to take away.
As an editor, I have always been captivated by Michelangelo’s sculptures. Recently my fascination has extended to his commentary on sculpture as a form; particularly his discussion of painting versus sculpture. For much of his adult life, despite producing two of the great painted masterworks of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo held painting in low esteem:
There is as much difference between painting and sculpture as between shadow and truth.
If a room were adorned with tapestries woven with gold, and in another room there were only one beautiful statue, the latter room would appear to be adorned royally and would make the first look like a nun’s cell.
This near-contempt was partly to be expected—sculpture was considered the noblest of the forms at the time—and partly the result of natural bias, as he considered himself a sculptor first and foremost. He identified with the profession so strongly, in fact, that he even signed a receipt acknowledging payment for the Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1508 as “Michelangelo Buonarroti, sculptor.”
Eventually, in correspondence with the famed Italian humanist Benedetto Varchi, Michelangelo came around to the idea that sculpture and painting deserved the same level of respect. But this did little to slow his preoccupation with the differences between the two art forms.
By sculpture I mean that which is fashioned by the effort of cutting away, that which is fashioned by the method of building up being like unto painting.
It was this statement, in a 1547 letter to Varchi, that stopped me in my tracks the other day. In one sentence, Michelangelo not only summed up the critical distinction between sculpture and painting, but he pinpointed the essence of the editing process in the context of the written word. Sculpture, like editing, is about chiseling away at the unnecessary, at the external, in pursuit of the truth and beauty within. Painting, like writing, is the process of adding layer upon layer to a flat surface until there is something where before there was nothing. Michelangelo’s words spoke to something else, though. Something that has been gnawing at me for a while and that I was unable to put my finger on until I sat with his words for several days.
There is, it seems, an indefatigable thirst these days for books that deal with the misery of leading a cluttered, confused life and the fear of an ultimately meaningless existence. They are guides — each issuing its own call to action — to shedding the dead weight and silencing the noise. To choosing yourself. Living your truth. Tidying up. Going minimal.
We live in an age inundated with ways to connect, things to watch and stuff to buy. Our mantra has become “bigger, faster, more.” Of course none of this brings us closer to our fellow human or nearer to truth. More often than not, it does the opposite — it alienates. You can message only so many strangers and buy only so much crap with a single click before you grow numb to everything but the cold empty space next to you in bed. More and more people are starting to realize that and they are desperate for a way to stop it, to cut through the clutter. They want simpler, more meaningful lives filled with people and experiences they actually care about.
What books with messages like these offer is precisely what Michelangelo lights upon when he talks about his highest and most noble art: A sculpted form of life. Relief. “That which is fashioned by the effort of cutting away.” A big fat global edit.
We could all use this kind of wisdom in our lives at some point, at some level. Some of us need to stop adding layer upon layer hoping to create something where we feel like there is nothing. Others among us should quit trifling in the shadows and strike out in search of truth. It won’t be easy, but to diligently cut away at the heavy, burdensome excess is ultimately what will allow the angel in the marble to emerge.
Nils Parker is a multi-New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, ghostwriter and editor. He is a partner at the creative consultancy, Brass Check.