MICHELANGELO’S PRISONERS ( OR SLAVES)
At the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, you can admire the Prisoners, the four statues created by Michelangelo for the tomb of Julius II, commissioned in 1505 by Pope Della Rovere for his funeral monument in the basilica of San Pietro in Rome. Over time, Buonarroti’s project underwent so many changes that it became “the tragedy of burial.” It was concluded only in 1545, forty years later, with the placement of the tomb in the Roman church of San Pietro in Vincoli.
There are four of them in Florence, near the David, that are clearly “unfinished” and kept at the Galleria dell’ Accademia.
Michelangelo’s first project envisaged a monumental mausoleum to be placed isolated in St. Peter’s. Following the death of Julius II in 1513, Michelangelo drew up a second, less grandiose, and costly project, creating the two Prisoners, which are now in the Louvre, and the Moses, which was then used in the final version of the tomb.
The second project was further reduced in 1516 and then suspended due to the arrival of various new tasks, which Leo X first and Clement VII then entrusted to Buonarroti in Florence. The della Rovere family asked for the money back and interest, and to free himself from the commitment, Michelangelo offered the drawings so that other masters and the money back could make the work.
Buonarroti returned to the monument in 1526 with a fourth project which, however, did not please Francesco Maria della Rovere, and finally, in 1532, with a fifth version that envisaged the construction of the tomb in San Pietro in Vincoli, where it was located, not more isolated but leaning against the wall.
The execution of the four Prisoners found in the Accademia Gallery of Florence dates back to this period, sculpted together with the statue of Victory exhibited in Palazzo Vecchio. In 1542, another definitive contract was signed, which finally gave way to the work completed in 1545. In addition to Moses, Michelangelo supplied five statues that had already been started: the Madonna and Child, the Sibyl, the Prophet, the Active Life, and the Contemplative life, the latter two replacing the two Prisoners.
According to Michelangelo’s project, the burial chamber was to be decorated with sculptures representing figures from the Old and New Testaments and allegories of the Arts and Virtues triumphant over vices. These sculptures, later replaced by allegories of the soul imprisoned in the body – the four Prisoners – remained unfinished in Florence when Michelangelo left the city to go to Rome in 1534. Upon Buonarroti’s death, the statues were donated to Cosimo I de’ Medici and placed by Bernardo Buontalenti in an artificial cave in the Boboli Gardens, where they remained until, in 1909, they were replaced by casts and taken to the Academy.
According to Michelangelo’s project, the burial chamber was to be decorated with sculptures representing figures from the Old and New Testaments and allegories of the Arts and Virtues triumphant over vices. These sculptures, later replaced by allegories of the soul imprisoned in the body – the four Prisoners – remained unfinished in Florence when Michelangelo left the city to go to Rome in 1534.
Upon Buonarroti’s death, the statues were donated to Cosimo I de’ Medici and placed by Bernardo Buontalenti in an artificial cave in the Boboli Gardens, where they remained until, in 1909, they were replaced by casts and taken to the Accademia Gallery.
The iconographic theme of the Prisoners evokes many images and suggestions: they recall the prisoners represented in the triumphal monuments of ancient Rome, a display of the war booty of the emperor, and a celebration of his greatness, but they also symbolize the Platonic reflection on the human soul, burdened by the gravity of the body and enslaved by the force of the passions. Those of Michelangelo are powerful bodies, nevertheless tormented and suffering, in the impression of a strenuous struggle exalted even more by the incompleteness of the works.
Michelangelo’s Prisoners of the Accademia Gallery, in their unfinished state, allow us to understand Buonarroti’s sculptural technique, completely different from that of all the other artists: the usual procedure envisaged establishing the measurements and poses of the figure and progressively roughing out the stone until arriving at a sketch, or at a figure still surrounded by a surplus of material.
This surplus had to be removed cautiously, constantly verifying compliance with the initial design or model. On the other hand, Michelangelo worked to reach an almost finished state for some parts, while others were still enclosed in the block of stone as it had been quarried.
The superhuman ability to imagine the statue inside the stone, and to change the figures even during construction based on the parts already sculpted, was also accompanied by the completely original use of the tools: Michelangelo used the chisel and the harness up to the skin of the sculptures, whereas prudence instead advised everyone to rely on thin tools in order not to risk – with one wrong stroke – irreparably ruining the work.
Of all Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the Atlas emblematically represents Michelangelo’s technique: while the left side of the body and the arm is almost finished, the head and the right side are still incorporated in the stone, which weighs down with its parallelepiped shape, recalling the myth of the god Greek. In the Platonic reflection on the human soul and the search for the absolute truth of art, Buonarroti’s unfinished becomes evidence of a fierce battle with the matter, relentlessly dug to free the idea imprisoned in it.
This tension – and physical duel – is testified by the words with which Michelangelo spoke of his work as a sculptor in Rima 152, where he compared his proceeding to the spiritual elevation of the soul concerning the flesh.
Together with the Prisoners in the Accademia Gallery, you can admire the sculpture of San Matteo, commissioned from Michelangelo in 1503 – when the Master was working on the David – as the first of a series of twelve apostles destined for the Chapels of the Tribuna of the Florence Cathedral: the project it remained unfinished as well as the statue, sculpted only in the front part.
The Prisoners and San Matteo constitute – in the 19th-century setting up of the Accademia Gallery – a sort of guard of honor and prelude to the statue of David, placed at the end of the Gallery, in the center of an exedra of light.
MICHELANGELO’S PRISONERS ( OR SLAVES) at Accademia Gallery in Florence
Book Accademia Gallery Tickets and guided tours
Please note that this page includes affiliate links for third-party products and services
Questions and answers about Michelangelo’s Prisoners
Who are the prisoners of marble?
At the Accademia Gallery in Florence, adjacent to the corridor that leads to the renowned David by Michelangelo, stand four majestic sculptures also created by Michelangelo, known as the “Prisoners” or “Slaves.” These are four partially completed male figures emerging from marble blocks.
What are the unfinished prisoners in the hall?
These sculptures are commonly known as Slaves, Prisoners, or Captives. As depicted in the photos mentioned above, these statues are unfinished representations of male figures initiated by Michelangelo. Originally commissioned for the tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, the project was unfortunately abandoned due to a lack of financial support.