Duccio’s block

It was badly damaged, ploughed deeply into its left side, smashed heavily in all corners, chiselled harshly in its base and then left in mud for several decades. All who touched it claimed stone was faulty, had veins that made it impossible to carve without breaking it, that there is no figure inside worth searching for, unveiling, admiring. A bad piece of marble, expensively paid for and transported to Florence from faraway quarries of the picturesque Carrara. Whispers had it such a gargantuan effort was futile from the beginning: luck wasn’t favouring Florence. Many believed it. Why shouldn’t they? — battle drums were thundering in the distance.

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FLORENCE, LATE 15TH CENTURY

Florentine’s famed sculptor Donatello and his assistant Agostino di Duccio tried the marble first, and later artist Antonio Rossellino was commissioned as well to complete what they had started. Yet all of them had abandoned it roughly cut. Nothing was visibly emerging from the stone yet and nothing promised to anyone. In 1501 the members of the Wool Guild and The Boards of Works of Cathedral (Duomo) of Florence have decided to do something with the marble block lying down in the backyard of the cathedral. The huge slab of weathered pure white marble was known then as “The Giant.” They say it was over 5m tall, but unusually narrow, wide, badly proportioned for a decent figure, weighing well over a ton, lying in the dirt exposed to rain, hail, tramontanas (northern winds of Tuscany) and snow, scorching Julys and many frosty Decembers.

Some have advised it should be cut in two because it was already seriously damaged (it looked like a big, deformed letter ‘K’ after Antonio Rossellino has finished with it), and then used for something else rather than a sculpture. A tombstone perchance? If it was not good for the living, it is better apt for the dead. Or perhaps it was good for two smaller, life-sized figures, some well draped apostles or saints tucked in the niche of some little church? The Boards were resolute — something should be done with it, and they have advertised the opportunity, calling artists for commitment and submissions of ideas.

Many, including famed Leonardo da Vinci who has returned from Milan, waived at the opportunity. Who cares about such a grotesque rock? Too much scuff on it! And stone chiselling was not up to Leonardo’s taste; too dirty, and “all educated people knew sculpture was a lower art” .. unlike, ah, painting. Nonetheless, the Boards have received a sketch from one sculptor that was promising something bold. The sculptor swore it will keep the marble in one piece and carve the sculpture worth of Florence. During this time, the city-state was occupied in numerous wars, and the people needed encouragement, a paragon to reinvigorate their spirits.

The sketch was submitted by a 26 year old Michelangelo Buonarotti, then almost unknown Florentine sculptor, a young artist who did not even have his own studio. Unquestionably too valiant attempt for someone with no fame, public endorsement or recognition. He had just arrived from Rome, where he had finished his marble piece ‘Pieta’, known only to a few Florentines.

Now, for the first time, he realised that the drawings that had satisfied the Boards were no longer of any use to him. He had outgrown these elementary stages of his thinking. All he knew for sure was that his was to be David he had rediscovered, that he would use the opportunity to create all the poetry, the beauty, the mystery and inherent drama of the human body, the archetype and essence of correlated forms.

The Greeks had carved bodies from their white marble of such perfect proportion and strength that they could never be surpassed; but the figures had been without mind or spirit. His David would be the incarnation of everything Lorenzo de’ Medici had been fighting for, that the Plato Academy had believed was the right heritage of man: not a sinful little creature living only for salvation in the next life, but a glorious creation capable of beauty, strength, courage, wisdom, faith is his own kind, with a brain and will and inner power to fashion a world filled with the fruit of man’s creative intellect.

His David would be Apollo, but considerably more; Hercules, but considerably more; Adam, but considerably more; the most fully realised man the world has yet seen, functioning in a rational and humane world.

— Irving Stone, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’

Almost no other story, or a context, relates to the power of vision and beauty better than this narrative of Michelangelo’s astounding effort, when despite all odds and all the others who have failed in their attempts he has discovered and chiselled out a masterpiece from the abandoned block of marble. That’s the statue of his David, today admired in the whole world as the epitome of the Renaissance endeavour and insight, and it’s a universal symbol of highest of art.

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INDIA, 15TH CENTURY

Another narrative that flows almost parallel with Florentine’s own is from the 15th century India. Indian subcontinent is witnessing an uprise of the bhakti (love) movement inspired and led by Krishna Chaitanya, a God-crazed monk and scholar from west Bengal. A very unusual lad, of Michelangelo’s own age when he had accomplished David, and of abundant inspiration. Under Chaitanya’s influence bhakti movement spreads around the country, everyone talks about it. It changes people’s lives, shifts social tides to be more respective towards oppressed, poor, outcast and women, change people’s expectations from life, hopes and destinies. But what had led to it?

Before Chaitanya, India’s social and religious life — so closely weaved — were deeply influenced and modelled upon philosophies, teachings and resulting worldviews set by two foremost figures from the past: Buddha and Shankaracarya. Little we know about their whereabouts that can be considered factual, but their reach was visible all around and long after them. They have both tried to chisel the marble block of the reality and society with their vision and reach, but what have they accomplished?

Born in a royal family in northern India (or perhaps Nepal) in either 5th or 6th century BC according to sources, prince Siddharta (later to become Buddha, or wise) very much gives up on the world permeated with misery, despotisms, social injustice, unsatisfied emotions, cruelty, famine and death. And he hits the marble with a few strokes of hammer just to show us there’s no real substance in it: marble is faulty and we should withdraw inside instead, keeping ourselves away from sculpture. We can’t make it better or different — if we think we can, we will only fall in deeper into the webs of entanglement, and thus more misery. Chisel through no chiselling, says he. He drops the tools, puts on mendicant’s clothes and leaves the block in the mud of the paradox of life. We can compare Buddha and consequent teachings with Agostino di Duccio.

One thousand and a few hundred years after the Buddha, Shankaracarya comes under the limelight with his chisel and tries to make a few extra strokes to that same marble of reality Buddha had started to carve and then abandoned. Shankaracarya drives his thrust deeply into one side on the slab as he talks to the audience, smashing it severely and pointing to all to see that marble dust and chips scattered are simply a block transformed; they don’t actually exist. An unusual twist he does: There’s no reason to carve anything at all, says he. Everything is perfect already just as one giant, undefined slab. Any attempt to differentiate a form within it, to make anything out of it, is futile and is a second rate venture. It’s no less than an illusion. He never asks himself how come the reality has already created itself up to this stage. He waives at the opportunity to think deeper, then glues back all the chips, spits on the dust, forms it into a mud and glazes the stone with it. He leaves the gnarled, deformed block further weathering in the hot Indian sun and monsoon rains. Shankaracarya is our Antonio Rossellino.

Many centuries later, and after some others who have glanced upon the stone, Krishna Caitanya decides to take up the task of making something substantial out of the weathered block. Society crumbles apart in lack of meaning and cohesion, women are denigrated, outcast left in dirt and disease. So called wise rule, but just to help themselves live better at the expense of others. What idea is there to add, or to subtract? Isn’t it futile to do anything? Is it possible to carve anything out of it now? Chaitanya promises he won’t break the block — he’ll make one figure, but composed of two. They’ll be same and different, but beautiful and intertwined. He chisels out an amazingly handsome figure of God-dess Radha-Krishna: the ideal of both human and divine virtues and beauty in the Indian aesthetics. Both female and male divine, reflecting best of human values, embraced in ecstasy of love. And we’re together with them too, never separated, ready to carve out ever new joys and divine sports from the reality that never replenishes itself. Stone is suddenly transformed into a meaning, and stone chips and dust fall into the environment apt for that meaning to be observed and understood. Suddenly we have a reality that arches over everything accomplished and imaginable in the past.

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We cannot but be stunned by two approaches of Indian Duccio and Rossellino; the whole of their lives they’ve spend suggesting chiselling is a futile act, and thus have restrained themselves from any creativity or action. One wonders what they and generations of their followers could accomplish if they have devoted just a fraction of lamentation and inertia to actual sculpting? But they had no vision and have persuaded millions this life is a fail to no better avail.

However, in the same manner as master Michelangelo, Krishna Chaitanya unveils us the ultimate alchemy of life through divine creativity, love that is visible as the creative force all around us. Reality and life is to be sculpted with love, passion and vision, not left abandoned in dust. If it’s not cared for, it will be carried away by despots, vile and all the uninspired minds who will make other people’s lives a living hell. Being inactive and uninspired in life leads to neglect, misery, social collapse, enabling tyrants to rise and rule. Divine calls innumerable hands and hearts — inseparable parts of itself — to dwell and dare to unveil their own form, the embodiment of love. Don’t be afraid to better yourself and to imagine a better reality, overwhelmingly beautiful, the message is of both Michelangelo and Chaitanya.

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POST-MODERN WORLD

In the manner of Michelangelo and Chaitanya, Universalist Radha-Krishnaism sees its purpose, course, and inspiration in the post-modern world. To discover the true potential in reality around, inside the society and its culture’s often undeveloped capacity many others don’t care about, have lost their interest in, or are blind to see anything new beyond the old, or the most obvious: that the world is a weathered, neglected stone bereft of meaning, very close to breaking apart.

But as long there are free men that breathe and can imagine a better life for all, there’s still hope.


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