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11 June 2011

arts and crafts

The Artist and the Artisan

Cathedral, Civita Castellana (Lazio)
OK, so there’s the Romantic idea of the humble artisan toiling away anonymously for love of God and his craft. And then there’s reality: the Cosmati father and son who proudly signed their names in the architrave over the portico of the cathedral in Civita Castellana; the artisans who were, historically, just as likely to work for private patrons as the Church—think of wedding chests, picture frames, painted tiles, etc.; and as for craft, the distinction between art and craft is a modern construct that does just as much violence to the nature of craft as it does to art. At the level of the material object, there is no inevitable difference between art and craft in pre-Modern culture; what, perhaps, separates them is the intentionality, the conceptual idea and/or the meaning that is intended in the work. While the craftsman might or might not be knowing in what he does and how he decides to do it—he might be either an advancer of a traditional skill or he may simply be its continuer—the artist is expected, required even, to know how and why he does what he does. So, some (of course not all) craftspeople know exactly how and why they do what they do, and may be quite articulate about it; and they may also invest their work with meaning, a poetic intent that transcends mere form. Naturally not every picture frame needs to be meaningful, but an artisan who is conscious of the decorum a frame requires does indeed contribute to the contextualization, and therefore a part of the meaning, of the picture.
Witness the marvelous Florentine carver Carlo Puccini (; from a family of architects, his chosen artistic metier is carving in wood, something he does with a bravura freehand style, investing often complex baroque forms with a lively touch, and a bit of a rustic (“rustic” in the sense of the Baroque music of Corelli) edge. Carlo knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes a frame (see the quote from Frank Zappa at the head of his website—for the rest of the quote go here). Many of his clients are looking for copies of furniture, frames, etc., sometimes translated from other media (like stone or stucco); some, like me, present him with a design (for the frame holding my painting of Diogenes and Alexander, next to Carlo in the photo). He is also capable of invention, although it is the nature of most folks who want something new-traditional that they’re not prepared to take risks. I don’t want to Romanticize what is, in this modern world, a challenging life, but Carlo is an absolutely lovely human being as well as artist, and I attribute some of that to the satisfaction he gets from his work (of course, his work gives him satisfaction in part because he is a lovely human being). And, while not as aggressively self-promotional as the Cosmati, neither is he anonymous: he works on the ground floor in via Ghibellina, just up the street from the Casa Buonarotti, so he is “on show” to passersby.
Carlo Puccini in his shop in Florence

He is by no means alone in a country that still, despite the best efforts of our culture to kill them, is filled with active, talented, youngish (diversamente giovane), and knowledgeable masters of carving, painting, plastering, and intarsia—the latter perhaps best represented by the phenomenally able, and charming, Daniele Parasecolo in Todi: These modern masters have to be smarter, more alert and articulate than their predecessors, partly in order to defend what they do. If these folks survive, it is because they are actively engaged in their craft; which means it is practically an obligation for those of us who love what they do to give them every opportunity to practice their art.