Artisans too must speak with their hands

An extraordinary wealth of skills and sensitivity has carved out Italy’s history, making it the place where common wisdom is forged. One need only distinguish between art and the arts...

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.”