CARRARE, Italy – For centuries the huge marble quarries above the Tuscan town of Carrara have provided the raw material for polished masterpieces by Italian sculptors like Michelangelo, Canova, Bernini and, more recently, ABB2.
Sculpting with pinpoint precision, and at least some of the artistic flair of its most famous (and human) predecessors, ABB2, a 13ft zinc alloy robotic arm, extended its rotating wrist and diamond coated finger towards a shiny piece of white marble.
Slowly and steadily, ABB2 milled the stone slab, leaving the contours of tender cabbage leaves for a sculpture designed and commissioned by a renowned American artist.
ABB2 is not a lonely robotic genius, working painfully in anthropomorphic solitude. A few yards away, in a buzzing robot installation, Quantek2 was rubbing against another block of marble, performing a statue imagined by a British artist who had outsourced manual labor to a robotic hand.
Since at least the Renaissance, the creative output of Italian artistic workshops has been among the country’s best known and most appreciated exports. The founders and employees of this robotics lab believe that adopting cutting-edge technology is the only way to ensure that the country remains at the artistic forefront.
“We don’t need another Michelangelo,” said Michele Basaldella, 38, a technician who calls himself the brains of robots. “We already had one.”
One thing that has not changed for hundreds of years is the sensitivity of artists as to who is credited with their work. In the Florentine workshops, many craftsmen worked in the dark, a sculpture or a painting created by several obtaining only one master signature.
Now it is Carrara’s robots that work anonymously. Many artists who employ them demand that their identities be kept a secret.
“Artists want to perpetuate this idea that they always chisel with a hammer,” said Giacomo Massari, one of the founders of Robotor, the company that owns the robot sculptors. “That makes me laugh.”
Standing amid the quarry dust and wearing sunglasses to block the glare bouncing off the tons of marble carried from the nearby Apennines, Mr Massari, 37, argued that the abandonment of traditional techniques made by hand was the only way to allow Italian marble sculpture to survive. and thrive.
Carrara’s prosperity has long depended on the attractiveness of its marble to artists.
During the city’s Renaissance boom years, Michelangelo roamed the surrounding quarries for weeks to find the perfect piece of marble for his masterpiece Pietà.
In the 18th century, Carrara marble was transformed into a multitude of neoclassical statues, and dozens of workshops opened here.
But among modern and contemporary artists, Carrara marble fallen out of favor, the translucent gray veined stone increasingly becoming the material for the floors of bathrooms, kitchen counters and funeral monuments.
Mr Massari said many artists rejected marble as a medium because of the months, if not years, it took to finish a single statue by hand.
And fewer young people in Carrara were ready for the job of crushing chisel stone, not to mention the consumption of dust and all the other health risks that came with it. Canova is said to have deformed her breastbone by bending her chest on a hammer for hours.
In a warehouse down the mountain, where technicians were testing a gigantic new robot, Mr. Massari pointed to a reproduction of “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, a masterpiece of neoclassical sculpture. “It took Canova five years to do it,” he said, “we took 270 hours.
Mr. Massari and his partner first bought their robots from local tech companies. But as clients – including, among those who may 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 in-house 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 artistic sensibility,” he said, sitting in a control room where he inspected a block of 3D marble scanned in his computer.
“I think our robots are a work of art,” he said.
He even got attached to some of his collaborators. He does everything he can to save one of the lab’s “very tired” early models from scrapping.
“OK, it doesn’t talk, it doesn’t have a soul,” he said, “but we get attached.”
Robots are fast and precise, but not perfect. When we dug a deep crack from the forehead to the knee of a “Sleeping hermaphroditeReproduction for the American sculptor Barry X Ball, Mr. Basaldella almost passed out. The best-known version of this ancient sculpture sleeps in the Louvre on a marble mattress sculpted by Bernini.
While Mr. Basaldella cares enough about his robots to begin to set a horoscope for one, not everyone around Carrara shows the same level of empathy.
“If Michelangelo saw the robots, he would pull his hair out,” said Michele Monfroni, 49, in his workshop in the mountains near Carrara, where he hand carves reproductions of Hercules, cherubs and sometimes the police crest. “Robots are business, sculpture is a passion.”
Mr Monfroni picked up his first hammer at age 7 and hardly ever put it down, refusing to use machines, convinced that pulling a statue out of a block of marble from scratch with his hands is what defines the sculpture.
Far from saving the country’s artistic heritage, he said, Italian art risks losing its international appeal if it abandons its artisanal tradition.
He walked over to a life-size marble portrait of a topless woman – a gift from the model’s husband for their swimming pool – and began smoothing her cheek with a pumice stone. “The sculpture is something that you have inside,” he said. “If you use a robot, you also become a machine yourself. “
Marco Ciampolini, art historian and director of a local museum, doesn’t see the use of robots as a complete break with the past, as many of history’s greatest artists, including Michelangelo, have delegated much of their work.
“The idea of the artist working alone is a romantic concept created in the 19th century,” he said. He added that while he praised the technological advancements that made the sculptor’s work easier, he still believed that a human touch was needed to preserve artistic merit.
“Only a human knows when to stop,” he said.
In the Robotor workshop, Mr. Massari said he did not disagree with this assessment. The human touch, he said, is only 1% of the work, but is essential.
In an adjoining room, a dozen young human sculptors hunched over some of the unfinished robot statues, including one designed by the mischievous Italian artist. Maurizio Cattelan – fine-tune the last details and correct the inevitable imperfections left even by a smart machine.
“The good thing about robots is that they can’t do everything,” said Emanuele Soldati, 26, a former sculpture student, smoothing out some details of a marble cabbage.
“In three or four years, they can do it,” said colleague Lorenzo Perrucci, 23, as he traced holes in a marble sea sponge. “And I’ll do something else. Maybe program a robot.