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Marble Sculpture: Tools of the Trade

Marble sculpture is one of the most beautiful creations of antiquity and is still created today. Although some of the tools used to create marble sculpture have evolved along with technology, many of the tools, methods and materials used in marble sculpture remain as they have been for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Marble is actually composed of limestone (calcium carbonate) that has been transformed into calcite by heat within the earth and by the presence of carbonic acid present in rainwater. The resulting mass of crystals is a material that is harder, less porous and able take a higher polish than limestone. Due to the inconsistency in which disposition takes place, marble exists in a variety of colors that are the result of mineral staining. One of the most prized types of marble is Parian marble which has been quarried from the Greek island of Paros. The unique transparency and pure whiteness of Parian marble has been the choice of sculptors for centuries.

Marble is cut from quarries in large blocks, typically weighing 20 tons. The large blocks are then transported to stone mills where they are cut into a variety of sizes with huge diamond-tipped saw blades to be sold.

Once a sculptor has the appropriate size block of marble at hand and an idea of the image that he/she desires to create, there are several ways to proceed. The sculptor can directly begin working the stone intuitively. But to produce a more detailed and higher quality sculpture, the artist will produce a model first in a more pliable medium such as clay or wax and then transfer the design onto the marble. Another possibility is to draw various views of the design on paper or cut out a plastic template and then transfer these designs onto the stone.

If another sculpture is used as a model for the marble sculpture, a device called a pointing machine is often employed. The device consists of a frame with two long, pointed arms that is positioned between the model and the marble block. The arms are positioned with one touching a point on the surface of the model and the other touching the base upon which the model is resting. The arms are then tightened in position and the device is rotated so that the arm that touched the base of the model now touches the base of the marble block. The tip of the other arm will define the desired location of the corresponding point on the marble block. If the block is too thick in this area, the arm, which is designed to telescope inward, will indicate where a hole should be drilled, the bottom of which defines the desired surface of the marble block. In this way, the basic shape of the sculpture can be defined without costly mistakes. Pointing machines are known to have been used as long ago as the days of ancient Greece.

A variety of tools are used to sculpt marble. A mallet is a hammering device that is used to strike a chisel, a device that makes contact with the stone and chips it away. The type of chisel, the angle of the chisel on the stone, and the force of the mallet determine how the stone is removed. Chisels can be made of a single point of various sizes, multiple teeth or have a flat edge. A pitching tool is a large chisel with a blunt end that is used for splitting. Typically, the marble is cut down to a rough size using the pitching tool or the more modern air hammer or angle grinder. From there on, chisels with multiple teeth are used to carve out various angles. Hand drills are also employed at times. Details are worked into the stone with a series of increasingly smaller chisels. Rasps, files, rubbing stones, and sandpaper are used to smooth surfaces. Fine sandpaper or a paste of tin oxide applied with a soft cloth is used to produce lustrous finish on the surface of the marble. Although the tools are simple to use, it takes many years to use them to effectively mold the marble into the desired shape.

World famous marble sculptures include David by Michaelangelo, Apollo and Daphne by Bernini and Nike of Samothrace by an unknown Greek sculptor.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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