Could robots do the work of master marble sculptors? This one is "99%" there, according to its creator.
Carrara, Italy — A remarkable innovation is changing the way timeless art is created. For centuries, Italy's world-famous Carrara marble has been used to make some of the most iconic sculptures in history. It was the marble that iconic artists include Michelangelo and Canova spent hundreds of hours turning into masterpieces.
Now, it is also the marble wrought into sculptures by "1L."
The 13-foot zinc alloy robot is doing the work of an army of Renaissance sculptors, according to Giacomo Massari, the owner of Robotor, the company behind the invention.
We watched as his creation worked to create another: a Venus sculpture.
"I think it's going to take about four days," Massari told CBS News.
Before 1L got the job, when human hands had to hew the raw stone, he said it would have taken a couple months, and of course, 1L "doesn't go on holiday… doesn't even sleep!"
To craft statues at an industrial scale and speed, 1L's cutting surfaces are coated in a synthetic diamond powder. It works in the very hills of Carrara where Michelangelo sourced the marble for his "David" and "Pietà."
Today, art stars including Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan are working closely with Massari — first to transform their ideas into 3D images, and then to get them sculpted into blockbusters of their own — with a precision that's superhuman.
In some ways, it's like a Photoshop for sculpture.
"It saves a lot of waste," said Massari. "If something that is wrong, or you don't like it, you can just go back… The cool thing about this technology is that we allow the artists to think without any limits."
It is all based on a synergy of software and robotics that might in itself be the real work of art.
But what would Massari say to an art purist who might be scandalized by the concept?
"Robot technology doesn't steal the job of the humans, but just improves it," he told CBS News.
Some humans might disagree. In the workshop of the Florence Cathedral, sculptors like Lorenzo Calcinai have toiled to maintain and repair the Cathedral's vast inventory of marble statues for centuries, the old-fashioned way.
"We risk forgetting how to work with our hands," Calcinai said. "I hope that a certain knowhow and knowledge will always remain, although the more we go forward, the harder it will be to preserve it."
But even he admits that his profession cannot remain anchored to old technology.
And outsourcing is nothing new in the field. Even the Renaissance masters, including Michelangelo, hired teams of anonymous artisans to help execute their concepts.
Today, artists like Koons and Cattelan are upfront about using the robots, but others prefer not to advertise it.
"I think art is related to the thought. So, if you can imagine something, it's already a unique piece of art," argued Massari, suggesting that people like himself "are just the contemporary artisans."
But while modern robot artisans are no doubt extraordinary, even they require old-fashioned humans to apply the finishing touches.
Giacomo says 1L hasn't achieved perfection on his own. Not yet, anyway.
"I think, let's say we are in 99%," he told CBS News. "But it's still the human touch [that] makes the difference. That 1% is so important."
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