The Danish sculptor, Thorwaldsen, who was considered the rival of Canova, is chiefly commended for his works in basso relievo, which are altogether in the antique taste, and for the great simplicity of his colossal statues; but his Graces, though executed subsequently, are inferior to those of Canova.
Thorwaldsen was originally in Denmark a ship builder. He studied at Rome to become an artist with singular assiduity, although contending with the most distressing poverty, till the age of thirty. His practice at the academy was to draw from the life only those parts of the figure which chanced to please him. He modeled in clay numerous spirited compositions which he was obliged to destroy for want of the funds which were necessary to put them into marble or even plaster of Paris : and it was owing to the taste, judgment, and liberality of an English gentleman, that he was at last enabled to execute his first work in stone. In his work shop we were shown a basso relievo to the memory of his patron, who is represented supplying the lamp of genius with oil. He sat to me for his portrait, which records his mild blue eye, his kind countenance, and his patriarchal locks.*
The sculptor of the present day is scarcely required to touch his marble, or even to know how to cut it. First modelling his figure in ductile clay, which is kept moist by wet cloths, during any length of time, he may give it the utmost perfection of form. It is then trusted to the careful hands of a mere mechanic, whose art is to make a mould on it and produce him a fac simile in plaster of Paris. The sculptor, now in possession of his model in white plaster, instead of dark clay, can more readily judge of its effect, and may improve it at his leisure; and at any future time either copy it himself in stone, or employ workmen, who generally do nothing else all their lives. Many such reside at Rome and Florence, where blocks of marble are received from Carrara. But to save the expense of transporting large masses, it is becoming more than ever customary to transmit the model carefully packed up, to Carrara, where it is accurately copied or roughed out for the sculptor to finish.
It is surprising with what accuracy these workmen copy the model which is given them. Thorwaldsen, whose models are seldom remarkable for the delicacy of the finish, is so well satisfied with the general accuracy of the work done here, that statues which he is making for his native country, will be boxed up at Carrara and sent to Denmark, without being once seen by him.
This mode of statuary has been reduced to a perfect method, only in modern times. The genius of Michael Angelo was frequently fatigued before he could approach the forms, which his imagination conceived, in his blocks of marble, and he often hastened to chisel out a part as a guide in the development of his whole figure, which sometimes was spoiled by his impatience. The Carrara workmen proceed, with more Saturnine temperament, mathematically to lay out and measure their task. The model is marked all over with numerous spots, which are transferred by the compasses to the block of marble; two well defined points always serve as a base for finding the position of a third; and the workman continually measures as he advances to the completion, in which he is expert or excellent in proportion to the attention he has paid to his studies in drawing, modelling, and anatomy.
Excellent as is the road to Carrara, for the safe conveyance of the original model sent, and the marble copy in return; yet the road (if it deserves to be so called when formed only by dragging along it blocks of marble) down which the smaller masses are drawn by oxen, on strong wagons, is covered with stones which are scattered over it by the falling blocks. Such is the labour of contending with the impediments allowed to remain, that one hundred and twenty oxen were required to drag down, without wagons, each block of marble for Thorwaldsen’s colossal statues.