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In Italy, Michelangelo’s Marble Is Being Sculpted By Robots



The northern Italian city of Carrara is famed for its marble quarries. Its white stone with blue-grey veins is prized for its luster, quality and suitability for carving. It has featured in architecture and sculpture since Ancient Roman times and was the favored material of Renaissance master Michelangelo. Now, however, a very different type of sculptor is manipulating the famed Carrara marble. One company has developed specialized robots to chip away at the precious stone, and they say it is the vision of Italy’s artistic future. 

Robot Sculptors Enter The Scene

Carrara-based Robotor is the company behind the sculpting robots. The group writes that with its products, “quarried material can now be transformed, even in extreme conditions, into complex works in a way that was once considered unimaginable”. Originally the company bought its machines from a local manufacturer. Now, however, it produces its own robots and software to cater to the increasingly ambitious commissions it is receiving. 

The robot sculptors mill the hard marble and can be programmed to execute even the most precise and minute designs. The company receives commissions from artists and designers, including some of the most renowned names in the business. Although many wish to keep their identity a secret, previous clients include Jeff Koons, Zaha Hadid and Marc Quinn. Artists send over their 3D files or send drawings which the team at Robotor transforms into a digital model. 

It’s not surprising that artists are reluctant to admit their masterful stone creations are actually the work of a machine. But Robotor considers the era of toiling away with a chisel before a stone block now relegated to the past. “We are entering a new era of sculpture, which no longer consists of broken stones, chisels and dust, but of scanning, point clouds and design,” the company writes. “Robotor’s technology adds value by doing work that would be strenuous, risky and dangerous for humans, and by making life as easy as possible.” While the creative ideas still stem from the artists, the manual labor is contracted out to a robotic assistant. 

An Artist’s Assistant

It may seem unlikely that Italy would be ready to embrace this new “artist” considering the country’s prowess and reputation built from centuries of human artistic production. But drafting in a helper to perform some of the manual work isn’t new in the history of art. In artistic workshops in the Renaissance era, behind every great master was a studio of apprentices and artisans contributing to works then signed with a single signature.  

One undeniable advantage of having robot sculptors as assistants is cutting production time. Where artists like Bernini and Canova would have ground away at the gleaming marble block for months or even years, the robots need a matter of hours. In the first stage, the machine carves out contour lines shaping the block. These are gradually refined and reduced. The last tenth of a millimeter, however, is completed by (human) hand. This, for now, still produces a more attractive and subtle finish than a robot.  

There are also important benefits in terms of safety. Beyond the strain of chiseling the marble by hand, health risks also come in the form of dust or injuries. In fact, the availability of robot sculptors means more artists may take an interest in the material, which fell out of favor after the Neo-classical period because of both the labor involved and the health issues. 

Made In Italy

Italy prides itself on artisanal, handmade products from leather to Murano glass. Visitors flock to the country to buy hand-stitched bags, custom-made leather shoes or hand-painted ceramics. The same products made in a factory by machines are deemed inferior or fakes. So will robot sculptors be accepted into the canon of Italy’s artistic tradition? 

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