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 fascinating quest for the code of talent

Talent is both the measure of the weight that, on a balance, makes one pan heavier than the other, and the metaphor of anything (money, especially) endorsing the supremacy of one side over the other. A unit of measure that becomes a value in itself, when one seeks evaluation standards that are not just numerical. Talent and value have thus migrated from the solid units of quantity to the less tangible ones of ethics or aesthetics, involving emotional variables such as desire and ambition. Whether quantitative or qualitative, even meritocratic league tables are based on talent: they attribute a value to invention and highlight the flair of those manual skills that are intrinsic to craftsmanship. Because the artisan produces with his own hands, and uses a machine only on condition that he is the one guiding it, with his talent and emotions.

Craftsmanship embraces all the professions obliterated by industrial machines. Man’s work replaced by a serial production in which the prototype is endlessly cloned: modernity has gained supremacy celebrating the triumph of the copy. If we were to illustrate the progress of modernity on a line chart, with competence on the vertical axis and consensus on the other, we would see the curve plummet to the X-axis, against which it would continue to run in a parallel line. What counts in modernity is not quality, an opinion based on comparison, but quantity, measured on the undisputable scale of numbers. And numbers (of copies, votes or spectators) are the new gods of modern times: they command us, they decide who wins and who loses, and their sentence is unappealable. When modernity took over, craftsmanship declined. Its resurgence is the confirmation that modernisation is over. This is the dawning of a new era, in which we must learn how to give up modernity without retracing our footsteps, which is something mankind is not allowed to do. The return to craftsmanship must not imply the restoration of a world that has ceased to be. It has a rather different and richer meaning: the renewal of tradition in the sign of discontinuity.

To give shape with one’s hands, and not in a mould. To leave one’s mark, restoring the pleasure of surprise and the joy of wonder. In craftsmanship, ability, skill and experience play a fundamental role. As much as the supremacy of the individual, the sense of awe, the mystery of beauty, the thrill of competition, the enthusiasm of confrontation. Leaving behind us modernity and its insensitivity, we embark on a formidable quest, an extraordinary adventure towards an unknown destination. Not knowing how to do anything is no longer the aristocratic hallmark of the modern intellectual. Instead, it is the mark of a long-suffered fealty, an enduring servitude, a liberty we must reconquer. In the wake of modernity, we have to deal with the torment of Sisyphus: the fascinating and inexorable quest for the “code of talent”.

Excerpt from La regola del talento. Mestieri d’arte e Scuole italiane di eccellenza (The code of talent. The Métiers d’art and Italian Schools of excellence). Published by Marsilio Editori, March 2014.

Photo credit: Dario Garofalo

Only passion gives meaning to work

Theodor Adorno once wrote that “freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices”. It is an approach that clearly reflects our current situation; instead of looking for a fertile combination of complementary principles, we often end up working in one direction only. Yet in so doing, we frustrate the blossoming of riches that diversity can offer.

When examining our economic model (not just Italy’s, but that of many European countries too), we tend to think in terms of opposing forces: industry versus craftsmanship, digital versus manual, and so on. Yet this economic model does not reflect the growth prospects of a country like Italy, where the economy is also based on culture; not just culture in terms of museum heritage, but also of its priceless legacy of “savoir-faire”, a knowledge that encompasses conceptual and productive skills. Culture and work, or rather the culture of work, where work is not done by faceless insects but by human beings who dedicate their lives and creative talents to achieving a functional perfection that makes history as much as creativity itself. Economist Stefano Micelli reports that Chris Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, predicts that the next industrial revolution will be fronted by a new generation of small businesses which combine cutting-edge technology with craftsmanship. Their aim will be to offer limited editions, innovative products that can be tailored to suit customers’ needs. But if we think about it, it is something that is already happening and indeed already producing results in many of the fields in which Italy excels: fashion, design, shipbuilding and jewellery to name but a few. Over the years, many of our businesses, often small family-run outfits, have been signed up as key partners of luxury groups. They come to Italy to have shoes, bags, suits, and jewellery made; not just for Italy’s unrivalled craftsmanship, but also because in this country they (still!) find skilled craftsmen that can develop technique and art. They offer an ability to innovate which goes hand-in-hand with the safeguard of a centuries-old legacy of culture and craftsmanship. Of course, nobody can claim craftsmanship as their exclusive domain. But in Europe, and indeed worldwide, there are areas  where certain techniques have become part of the local lifeblood. You breathe it in the air and see it in the eyes and hands of the people; districts where the combination of matter and imagination generates magnificent objects, the functional and creative expression of craft and ingeniousness.

Perhaps the potential for growth lies in this merging of technology and craftsmanship, design culture and interpretation, perspective and historical knowledge, an opportunity for those aware that the future is about looking beyond a reality in black and white, to find solutions that are new, creative and made-to-measure. Customised solutions are required for ever-changing needs, even when they are as old as mankind itself. They include the need to identify with an object that reflects who we are, made with techniques that are not just crude actions but actually transform the material, looking beyond immediate profit and investing in resources of the future. Resources such as knowledge and know-how which are unaffected by the ups-and-downs of the stock exchange; resources which cannot be sold off in bland financial buying-and-selling processes which overlook the value of passion, the only truly meaningful aspect of work itself.

Photo credit: Emanuele Zamponi

The future between schools and markets

The business area of craftsmanshift does not have the same meaning as it did some decades ago, even from a semantic point of view. In France, the definition of “métier d’art” was correctly chosen to substitute “artisanat”. In the past, handicraft was a concept associated to  the production process of consumption goods by the artisan regardless of the quality, raw material, techniques or design. Now, artisan work has a completely new meaning: it is a kind of artistic expression reflected in everyday objects, in interior design, in clothing and fashion accessories. It combines the choice of materials, the use of refined techniques, the uniqueness of the product and its own aesthetic characterisation.

This change is not always immediately understood and accepted, even by the most refined observer: it is a craft revolution, which could even be defined as anthropologic. However, it is extremely difficult to convey the need of this evolution to the old generation of artisans, who still have an anachronistic vision of their work. To introduce certain new concepts, interventions of communication and promotion together with the development of a cultural debate are needed. These measures are difficult to take mainly for practical reasons, such as the economic resources needed in order to carry them out. The solution lies in forming a new generation of artist-artisans, or better artisan-artists, culturally ready to face this challenge in the new millennium. Thus, coaching acquires a fundamental role. A particular coaching, since it must combine a sound cultural education with practical “know-how”. Coaching must also include the use of instruments and new techniques that give quality and uniqueness to the product while improving economic performances. This is the natural basis needed to stimulate the young generations to choose an activity. It does not seem like the recent school reform in Italy deeply considered this issue. This theme, which might seem elitarian, regroups elements of cultural novelty, in a period in which the paradigms at the base of the last hundred years’ development seem to be going through a harsh crisis. Public schools and their structures are not ready for this cultural revolution. Often also private schools are not able to develop the necessary programmes due to economic constraints. Furthermore, the general idea of artisanal work as a downgraded activity restricts coaching to the field of activities managed by local institutions. These institutions are unable to train new professional figures, both in terms of time and of organisation of the courses. Another problem is university education. University should be the place where students develop new ideas. Instead, the dominating approach is still to  interprete art like in Vasari’s 16th century: by making a distinction between major arts (painting, sculpture and architecture, considered the only ones to represent intellectual dignity) and minor arts, characterised only by their manual contents.

According to this same vision, crafts are relegated to the limbo of those complementary subject matters: their space is too small to influence both students and public opinion. What can be done? A possibility would be to create a movement awakening the sundry category organisations, themselves involved in this sector but with an inferior numerical relevance and, hence, representation. The press and media should be informed in order for them to talk about this historical heritage, which needs to be interpreted in a new way. Finally, the issue should be brought the attention of the European Parliament and Commission, since it is an important part of the cultural heritage in its national, regional and local expressions. We will keep following the path begun over ten years ago, on behalf of future generations and in order to honour our history.

Communicating savoir-faire

It is not easy to keep up with Sam Baron. He works in Italy, France and Portugal and is always on the move between Europe and the rest of the world, where he stages his exhibitions and takes part in all the most important design events. The 37-year-old French designer is well known in the design world because he places himself halfway between factory and workshop. So much so that in the last ten years – he started working in 1997, before finishing his studies –he designed objects for design brands such as Zanotta, Ligne Roset and Casamania and took part in special partnership projects with important manufactures, such as Sèvres and Limoges. On top of this, he works as head of the design department of Fabrica, the school/research centre founded by the Benetton group, and the personal projects that he carries out under the name Baron Edition.

Sam, you are a prolific designer as well as a very active art director, and your projects develop into installations and exhibitions with a cultural content (such as your most recent, Belvedere, held at Villa Necchi during the last Salone del Mobile). Are design and its “mise-en-scène” a valid medium for the protection and promotion of savoir-faire?
Design is a process, a practice which allows you to combine different components: creativity, technique and communication… so as an art director it is possible for me to convey a message through a collection of objects that can be focused on a particular subject or theme, depending on the occasion. I believe that when young talents can be dedicated to elaborate new visions (like the projects elaborated with the Fabrica team. Ed.) we are given a great opportunity to establish a dialogue and a contact with the public on specific issues, such as how to defend the legacy of craftsmanship.

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.

Painted in stone

The beautiful tradition of mosaic works fashioned in semiprecious stones that originated in the Italian Renaissance is still carried on today in the heart of Florence by the Scarpelli family: in the workshop Le Pietre nell’Arte, this art finds a natural continuation under the banner of absolute and acknowledged excellence. This particular mosaic technique, with which extraordinary pictorial and decorative effects can be achieved, is called commesso fiorentino from the Latin “committere”, to bring together, to unite.
It was originally developed in the second half of the 15th century, but this art flourished under the enlightened patronage of the Medici family: first with Francis I and then Ferdinand I, who founded the glorious Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop for Hard Stone) in 1588. Indeed, most of the specialised artisans who decorated the Medici’s magnificent Cappella dei Principi in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, a masterpiece of this technique, were trained in the Florentine Workshop. Many extraordinary artworks were produced with these inlays in semiprecious stones, ranging from furniture to ornaments and even magnificent copies of paintings, and the Florentine masters became famous throughout the world for their inventiveness and skill, until the decline of the Medici and Lorraine dynasties in the late 19th century.
The ancient and laborious art of commesso is perpetuated today by master craftsman Renzo Scarpelli and his son Leonardo: both artisans command with unmatched skill every phase of this technique, from selecting the stones to cutting them, smoothing and polishing the surface, exploiting every shade and variety of colour in the natural stones to create astonishing “stone paintings”. The expressive power and pictorial delicacy of their works is awe-inspiring, as one does not expect so much beauty to emerge from a material as difficult and hard as stone… Tuscan landscapes, Florence and the Arno, children and animals playing, country scenes, seascapes, still lives, flowers, jewels, objects and miniatures, replicas of famous paintings… all appeal to us for their poetry and perfect execution.