A heritage of culture and beauty

In Japan, tradition is as important as progress: one cannot exist without the other. Japan was the first country in the world to build an entire railway network dedicated to the Shinkansen, the famous “bullet trains” that whizz incessantly between bustling futuristic cities. In these cities, hundreds of department stores still dedicate entire floors to kimonos and traditional Japanese craft products. The Kabuki theatre and Sumo wrestling are still very popular in the cradle of modern technology. The origin of Manga is older and nobler than anything a passionate Western reader could imagine. In fact, the history of Japan is as committed to the development of advanced digital technology as it is to the conservation of Ukiyo-e, their traditional woodblock printing technique. 

In Japan, the old and the ancient also represent wisdom, not only tradition. In 1950, the Japanese government passed the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties: this law acknowledges the intangible value of living culture and compares it to that of monuments, sites and artefacts. This is how Japan first created the institution of ”Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties”, more commonly known as Living National Treasures (Ningen Kokuho in Japanese). This institution regroups people with supreme expertise and special artistic skills and techniques (Waza in Japanese) in performing Japanese arts and crafts. The Living National Treasures are officially designated and protected by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology through its Agency for Cultural Affairs. The government also supports every member with an annual grant of two million yen. Up to a total of 116 Living National Treasures can be ordained by law: at this moment there are 114. The two categories, arts and crafts, are organised into a number of specific subcategories. Performing arts include Nohgaku (classical musical drama), Gagaku (ancient imperial court music and dances), Bunraku (puppet theatre), Kabuki (traditional musical drama performed only by male actors), Kumi Odori (a narrative dance), Engei (storytelling), Music and Dance. “Crafts” refers to Ceramics, Textiles, Urushi (Japanese natural lacquer work), Metalwork, Woodwork, Doll making, Papermaking.

Showcasing Artisan Talent

The finest Italian craftsmanship, with the exceptional manual skills of the different territories, has for the first time been represented in a new project promoted by the Gruppo Editoriale publishing house, in association with Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte and Osservatorio dei Mestieri d’Arte of Florence: Italia su misura.
This ambitious, innovative program gives space and visibility to numerous Italian artisans of excellence, who are praised and admired all over the world and who contribute to render Italy a destination for cultivated, and responsible tourists.
How? Via a website and printed guidebook that share the same meaningful, evocative title, Italia su misura (Tailor-made Italy).

Passion behind the scenes

My parents would have preferred me to become an architect. But ever since I was a child, I have always enjoyed making big drawings and playing with puppets and costumes. So becoming a set designer came almost naturally. My career at La Scala began after a short experience as assistant costumier for the show Barbablù at the Piccolo Teatro of Milan. I was in my third year at the Accademia di Brera when my professor of scenography, the architect Tito Varisco who was also Director of Stage Engineering at the Teatro alla Scala, proposed me to gain working experience at the theatre’s scenery laboratory. That is how, in October 1972, I stepped through the little gate of the workshop in via Baldinucci 85. The first weeks were disappointing. I was assigned a repetitive and dull task, attaching large tulle leaves onto a backdrop. Far from fulflling my aspiration of painting large scenery, I began to wonder if I had made the wrong decision. What made me change my mind were the chief stage designers, who gave me increasingly important and gratifying duties. The first two years were tough, since I had to reconcile my attendance at the Accademia with my commitment at the workshop. But although I worked up to ten hours a day, the new experience was helping me focus my course of study. For the frst six years I trained in building techniques under La Scala’s chief set designers Gino Romei, Gianni Bellini, Ludovico Sommaruga and Giorgio Cristini, and external set designers like Arturo Benassi, Ettore Rondelli and Fulvio Lanza. In 1978 I received my frst assignment for the stage scenes of La storia di un soldato directed by Dario Fo, who also designed set and costumes. I was at once thrilled and terrifed of making a mistake, and for the frst few days I was having nightmares about the set falling apart. But everything went well and Maestro Fo himself complimented me on my work. During those years I made other experiences in private workshops, which enriched my professional background and allowed me to gain also organisational skills, elaborating timescales and calculating costs, spaces and so on. In 1987 I was appointed head scene painter and I produced the scenery for the ballet La Sylphide, entirely painted on tulle. I think that my contribution to scenography lies in my capability to interpret the artwork, suggesting textures and materials that often vary from one artist to another. An example was creating the curtain for the opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights directed by Bob Wilson; Bob congratulated me because I did not blindly copy his set design, but I interpreted his style, giving the effect of his pastel strokes. Indeed, after that experience he asked me to recreate some of his works on a large scale.

Milan made to measure

As far back as 1750, the name Buccellati referred to a goldsmith’s shop just a stone’s throw away from the Duomo. Today, the elegant boutique in Via Montenapoleone, opened in 1919 by Mario Buccellati and now run by his son Gianmaria and grandson Andrea, represents the continuity of an ancient art that masterfully combines traditional tools and techniques and modern technologies. In 1876, the Villa family established a goldsmith’s business and in 1930 opened a jewellery shop in Via Manzoni. Since then, Villa has fascinated the Milanese and international public with its elegant and luxurious creations: an endless range of cufflinks, micromosaic brooches and rings, and the signature-piece sets of skilfully braided gold threads. Established in 1920, Ganci is one of the city’s oldest silverware manufacturers, a tradition of great craftsmanship that the Morandino family preserves with passion. From planishing to chisel work and engraving, they also produce made-to-order designs and reproductions from sample pieces. Even Roberto Miracoli and his son Renato continue a glorious family tradition, which began over a century ago, when grandfather Romeo established the business in 1912. This silverware workshop is renowned for the wonderfully detailed enamel silver animals it produces. Raffaella (Lella) Curiel descends from an uninterrupted line of successful women and runs a business that has gone from strength to strength since it was founded in the late 19th century. Today, dynamic Lella and her daughter Gigliola work side by side, sharing the same passion for haute couture and prêt-à-porter creations and for amazing craftsmanship, distinguishing features of their charming atelier. Heir to a tradition handed down from one generation to the next since the mid 1800s, Carlo Andreacchio creates impeccable men’s suits in the time-honoured Sartoria A. Caraceni. Carlo and his son Massimiliano, who represents the fifth generation, tailor 400 outstanding made-to-measure suits a year. Carlo, Mara and Lorena Traviganti run the Silver Tre workshop, where they perform the difficult art of sheet metal turning they learned from their father. They make spectacular objects in silver, brass, copper and steel, including 2-metre-tall Fabergé eggs and a life-size carriage drawn by a mechanical horse… Fornace Curti is probably the oldest workshop in Milan. As early as the fifteenth century it was making terracotta vases and capitals for the city under the Visconti family. Today this large atelier is still run by a member of the founding family: together with his wife Daria, Alberto Curti produces astonishing statues, vases, tiles and frames.

Atelier of haute joaillerie

At the junction of two of Milan’s main fashion thoroughfares lies a well-concealed yet thriving business. Even those who think they know every corner of the city might be forced to think again. Far from indiscreet eyes, it shines with a light of its own. It creates culture. It boasts a tradition dating back over a century and gives the gift of pleasure. Its DNA is strictly Italian, but the atmosphere inside is more reminiscent of a Parisian atelier. Because this is where haute couture jewellery is made. Welcome to the atelier of Villa jewellers, where every idea is made priceless. A tireless forge of creativity, where execution is the essential value of an aesthetic approach that reaches peaks of perfection.
One moves glibly amidst the most precious gems in the world: diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, tourmalines, peridots and lapis lazuli, to name but a few. The nonchalance with which the master artisans (four jewellers, one stone setter and one who does both) handle and pass these gemstones from hand to hand is surprising. Given their value we are more used to viewing them with a certain amount of reverential awe. Yet for them they hold no secrets; they reveal themselves in all their simplicity, and their intimate essence inspires the creativity of Filippo Villa. For in fact he is the one who designs structures, lines and profiles that exalt the beauty of each gemstone to the full, producing incredible pieces of haute joaillerie which have made this Milanese shop a reference point for true connoisseurs. He is the one who conducts the orchestra of the atelier’s master artisans, who – on the floor just above – mix and mould the precious materials in the right proportions, so that the final result is the perfect combination of the aesthetic concepts of balance and harmony.

The definition of craftsmanship

While exploring Italy’s artistic crafts, over the years, I have taken part in a variety of research and design projects that were aimed also at stimulating these manifold regional realities. This has given me the opportunity to observe the significant differences in culture, production and business structures that characterise a sector that was once ignored and scorned, but that has recently become highly fashionable.

In this article, I will try to analyse the types of artistic crafts that can be found in Italy and highlight some of their differences. The first category, which is fairly widespread in a country made up of SMEs, is made up of the contractor craftsmen, who supply handmade components that are later “assembled”. In times of recession, these artisans are the most exposed to unemployment: they have neither structure nor entrepreneurial mindset, and are therefore often forced out of business when orders drop. Then, there are the skilled and experienced artisans, who create made-to-measure pieces for designers working on interiors for homes, museums and public spaces. These artisans preserve a good level of traditional craftsmanship, which they apply to contemporary and often experimental projects. Many artisans of this kind can still be found in areas that concentrate on one craft (alabaster in Volterra, ceramics in Caltagirone, mosaics in Ravenna and lace in Cantù, to mention a few examples). Within this group, important distinctions need to be made: some choose to create “low-end” objects in order to satisfy mass tourism’s demand for cheap souvenirs, while other artisans follow traditional methods in a philologically correct manner. Within this second category, two production models (and therefore two business models) can be identified: artisans who try to bring innovation to their disciplines by developing their own style (like the ceramic artists Bruno Gambone, Alessio Tasca and Candido Fior) and artisans who, in keeping with renewed traditions, create projects developed by artists and designers. Recently, new artisan categories have emerged. The “metropolitans” create objects that incorporate a high level of artistry and innovative techniques, often using recycled materials, placing them outside the bounds of tradition. Even more recent are the disciplines explored by the younger generations who use advanced technologies to produce a sort of artistic/synthetic design. They are often competent designers (having received a university education), but completely lack manual skills. Therefore, they compensate for their weaknesses as craftsmen with equipment (such as the increasingly widespread 3D printers) that can create the objects they design. The final category comprises designer/artisans who establish genuine workshops where manual, technological and virtual aspects coexist.

This last category is by far the most progressive and better equipped for the difficult circumstances that young designer/artisans are now facing: they cope with high unemployment by restoring alliances and partnerships with specialised companies, creating a whole new trading and production model.

Artisans too must speak with their hands

While his brother Agostino was engaged in a learned dissertation on Laocoön and the awe-inspiring virtues of the ancient arts, Annibale Carracci set about drawing the famous group of sculptures on a wall. When asked why, he replied: “We depictors must speak with our hands.” This anecdote is well-known and particularly relevant, today. It allows us to reason on the contemporary role of the artifex bonus, the creator who acquires knowledge through the work of his hands, a figure with deep-seated roots in our artistic past. Not just “depictors” talk with their hands. So do all those who, possessing artistic skills, are involved in the fervent and at times erudite process of making things; their importance and responsibility may vary in degree, but they are all equally essential.

Similarly, and contrary to popular belief, even the Renaissance workshops did not produce only masterpieces. They were engaged in a multitude of activities, producing at the same time great works and others that we would now define as “applied arts”: at the turn of the 16th century, for example, Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli’s workshop created altarpieces and panel paintings as well as paintings on paper and parchment, ornate candles, tinted plasterworks, coats of arms, decorations for beams, frames, beds, furniture, parrot cages, painted textiles, shop and tavern signs, mirrors, plaques and baskets. In the late 16th century, painter and art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo enumerated these artificers, the “names of some moderns excellent in their art”: beside painters, sculptors and architects, he listed “mathematicians, engravers of prints in wood, copper and iron, goldsmiths, medal coiners, turners in the round, statuaries, machinists, embroiderers, modelers, illuminators, masters of filing, inventors of burnishing of iron, carvers of iron bas-relief, experts in the art of duplication, carvers of cameo and crystal, clockmakers, stone-carvers, inventors of hydraulic organs, burnishers of stones, founders, stucco workers and tapestry makers.” These were men of the arts who shared skills, know-how and taste. As Vasari wrote, when the work created “industriously by the learned hand” of great artists is assessed with different parameters than those used for other men of the arts, there will be two different outcomes. Not only will “the desire to be considered a universal genius degrade many artisans,” as Jean-Baptiste abbé du Bos lamented in the 18th century, but people will also lose sight of the fact that the artist’s charisma is only an intellectual excellence, compared with solid, acknowledged and common wisdom; where art is not involved, ingenuity may seem irrelevant.

In this perspective, Italy is an outstanding example of a phenomenon that has taken place in the past and indeed continues, owing to the continuity and solidity of the creative and productive activity surrounding “pure” art. According to economist and historian Enrico Stumpo, this has “probably favoured the integration of the manufacturing economies of renowned centres such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, Rome and Milan with a more diversified production of artistic objects and also of luxury goods: weapons, jewellery, silverware, books, musical instruments, decorations, furniture, ceramics and tiles, paintings, statues, plasterwork, coins, medals, prints, engravings, mirrors and chandeliers.” Since its outset in the 15th century, this trend has continued well into the 20th century, up to the present day: developing into the “economy of ostentation” and the intelligent luxury we call design and haute couture or, more generically, Made in Italy. Encompassing a heritage that, in its ups and downs, has evolved into a modern classic, rather than its opposite. In the 18th century, Mary Wortley Montagu wrote: “The more I see of Italy, the more I am persuaded that the Italians have a style (if I may use that expression) in everything, which distinguishes them almost essentially from all other Europeans. Where they have got it, whether from natural genius or ancient imitation and inheritance, I shall not examine; but the fact is certain.”

Passing the torch

110 young talents selected to take part in the programme “A School, a Job. Training to Excellence”, in which Italy’s top masters craftsmen pass on their trade secrets to the artisans of the future, have been celebrated with a special event in Milan. If you could choose your mentor, someone who has mastered the craft and moulded with passion and dedication the secrets of an invaluable trade, who would you pick? That is the question that some of Italy’s most promising artisans have had the good fortune to ask themselves, thanks to a special project created by the Cologni Foundation for the Métiers d’Art, an institution whose mission is to safeguard the relationship between master and apprentice, where wisdom empowers budding enthusiasm. “What I appreciate most about the project is that we give these young men and women the opportunity to work with someone who knows how to create and, most importantly, how to teach, which is the quality that defines a real master,” says Alberto Cavalli, Director of the Cologni Foundation for the Métiers d’Art. “The fusion of these two elements – the ability to hand down a beautiful profession and the desire to learn and perfect a skill – can radiate a powerful energy!”

A new humanism

Michelangelo used to say that whoever had the skill to draw held a great treasure. One needs only to look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to fully appreciate the extent of this seemingly elemental statement, even though the skill of the legendary Italian artist went well beyond drawing: he painted, sculpted, designed buildings, composed poetry and even engineered the removal and transportation of huge marble blocks from the quarry to his studio. He embodied the perfect blending of imagination and creativity with the rigorous material demands of making. After the Renaissance, and particularly since the advent of the industrial revolution, such blending has become more and more rare, and has been replaced with specialisation and fragmentation. The loss of the ideal unity between art and craft, between creating and making, has caused the “intelligence of the hand” to come under threat: the arrival of serial production, the progressive devaluation of the métiers d’art, have caused many high-level artisanal activities to suffer a deep crisis and, in many cases, extinction. Over the last half century, the once highly valued role of the master craftsman has been threatened by globalisation, the digital revolution and technological advancements. And the bias against what we do with our hands has created a gap between those who imagine things and those who make them.

South African business luminary Johann Rupert and Italian entrepreneur, author and cultural authority Franco Cologni (who share a long-standing friendship) have joined forces to tackle this serious and delicate situation. Together they have created the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, the aim of which is to bridge this gap by attracting new talent to the crafts, re-establishing the true value of artisanal expertise, and promoting the creation of new objects that reflect contemporary taste and demands.

Crafting a national reputation

The global luxury industry is dominated by European brands and this configuration is likely to continue in the medium term. Despite much talk, very few luxury brands have emerged from fast-growing markets such as China or even more mature markets such as North America. Europe remains the commercial and spiritual heartland for luxury. This is remarkable, given how most of Europe’s competitive advantage, especially in manufacturing, has been moving eastwards. One of the main reasons for this can be found in what could be described as a brand’s cultural aspects. By cultural I mean the hard-to-define but critical national reputation for certain craft skills often related to a country, region or city (for example, leather-working in Florence) or quality (English vegetable-tanned bridle leather). This is often reinforced by the heritage or length of time during which that skill has been practised in a particular region. Taken together, these cultural and creative aspects of national and brand reputation are significant soft power assets. They have long been important to the success of the luxury industry, even if they are not normally descried in this way. And the craft component of this soft power is both critical and intrinsically mixed with both individual brand values and a wider national reputation. I also believe that luxury brands are not just recipients of the benefits of positive national soft power but contribute to their country’s positive reputation in a beneficial cycle. They can act as ‘ambassadors’, who often communicate contemporary national values more effectively and in a more relevant way (to consumers in key overseas markets) than governments. In a similar way the luxury and independent craft sectors can help in terms of the tangible value of authenticity and exclusivity. Elitism is a dirty word, but why not aim at being the best? In Europe we try to be an open and fair society, which in itself contributes in no small part to our soft power appeal but that doesn’t come cheap. Striving for the highest standards pays in global business but can also engender aspiration and a sense of prosperity at home.

So I would argue that both luxury brands and luxury craftsmen should be proud of and more aware of this cultural and commercial contribution. But with that also comes responsibility to keep up standards, to invest in new blood, to fight to preserve critical skills and to innovate. We also have, I believe, to be prepared to work harder to lobby policymakers and explain not just our soft power credentials but our contribution to the economy, exchequer and employment. Some governments still find it hard to take beautifully made things as seriously as ball bearings. And even though lots of micro businesses add up to a lot of employment, they tend to be too untidy and complicated for governments to measure and therefore treasure. But it’s not just politicians we have to persuade. We need to make craftsmanship more highly prized by young people, in order to have enough apprentices for the future. Because the uncomfortable fact is that, despite recent advances, design is seen as much more desirable a discipline than making. Part of the solution here is to make craftsmanship more prestigious and glamorous.