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Tuscan town writes marble tradition in stone

July 28, 2005

By Philip Pullella

PIETRASANTA, Italy (Reuters) – If Michelangelo were alive
today, he might well be sculpting, teaching and losing his
notoriously short temper right here in “Holy Stone.”

This is Pietrasanta, the Tuscan town that is part artist’s
colony, part sculpture workshop, part open-air museum, part
gallery and part state of mind.

The faithful in Pietrasanta, Italian for “holy stone,”
worship one god above all others — marble.

“This whole area is set up for sculptors. It is a community
set up for the artist and in that sense it is unique,” said
Keara McMartin, director of Pietrasanta’s legendary Studio Sem.

“There is no other place in the world that has this amount
of support structure,” she said as artisans worked away with
power chisels.

Walk through parts of Pietrasanta and your shoes will soon
be covered with the fine white marble dust that blows under the
Tuscan sun.

Pietrasanta is dotted with numerous marble studios and
bronze foundries where master artisans who have stone and
sculpture in their bloodlines going back for centuries help
artists — famous and not — realize their creations.

Colombia’s Fernando Botero is just one artist who lives and
works here part of the year.

Other contemporary artists who have worked with the stone
and bronze masters of Pietrasanta include American Jeff Koons,
Knut Steen of Norway and Britain’s Marc Quinn.

Quinn’s huge work called “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” a marble
statue of a disabled mother which will be placed next year for
about 15 months on the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar
Square, is now being crafted in the Franco Cervietti studio.

LOLLOGRIGIDA’S FIRST LOVE

Gina Lollobrigida, the actress who in her older years has
returned to her first love — sculpting — also lives and works
in Pietrasanta part of the year.

“Here, I feel like a normal person. The people know who I
am but they let me breathe and concentrate on my work,” she
said. “In the movies, I had to work under directors. But in
sculpture, I am my own boss and I can express myself as I
wish.”

Botero, Quinn, Lollobrigida, Koons and other artists are
following in some rather big footsteps in Pietrasanta.

In 1518, Michelangelo, under orders from Pope Leo X of the
Medici family, scoured the quarries of nearby Monte Altissimo
for marble for some of his masterpieces.

“If he were alive today, he would probably have us all
working for him and he’d probably be shuttling back and forth
between here and Florence,” said McMartin, an American who
moved here in 1980 and now heads the Sem studio.

Most people think artists do it all but in reality it is
the artisans of Pietrasanta and other towns in Italy’s “marble
belt” who do most of the sculpting from models of plaster or
wood.

“It’s a very romantic idea but only sculptors with no money
do all the work,” she said. “An artist is wasting his time
doing it all. A large-scale work could take a year. During that
time his mind is already 10 projects ahead and he would be
blocked.”

Pietrasanta’s artisans work with simple, centuries-old
measuring instruments to calibrate depth and distance between
points as they transfer the shape of the model to the stone
using modern tools, most of them powered by air compressors.

“No one should be shocked. Even Michelangelo and Bernini
had helpers preparing the work for them,” said Cervietti.

“It’s a collaborative process. Some artists move here while
we are doing their work and pass by every day. Others come
toward the end and do the finishing. Some want us to improve
their creation as the work progresses,” he said.

PSSSSST … WANT TO BUY THE PIETA?

Apart from working with contemporary artists on new
creations, Cervietti’s studio also makes full-size copies of
classic statues such as Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta.

If you want a full-size copy of the Pieta — not one made
from a mold but carved from a single block of marble the way
Michelangelo did — it will set you back 80,000 euros
($120,000). The last Pieta from the Cervietti studio went to
Florida.

On a recent day, several artisans at Cervietti’s studio
were chiseling away on classical-style statues for the base of
a huge stairway in a palace being built by a Russian oil
magnate.

While the Cervietti and Sem studios deal with big names and
sometimes big money, Lynne Streeter, a 50-year-old Californian
who has lived part time in Pietrasanta for 20 years, runs
sculpting workshops for beginners and middle-level artists.

“The artisans here have a fantastic history behind them.
Some were apprenticed to master cutters when they were 10 years
old. There is no place like it,” said Streeter, her head
covered with a bandana against the ubiquitous marble dust.

Streeter, whose exuberance for all things marble is
contagious, gives her students T-shirts bearing the slogan:
“Don’t Take Marble for Granite.”

One is Rupert Pearson, a 33-year-old artist from London who
is fond of referring to Michelangelo and other artists who have
walked Pietrasanta’s streets before him as “colleagues.”

“Being in the same climate and environment helps me feel
close to those colleagues and try to understand how they felt,
what they wanted to say and questions they were considering,”
he said while guiding a power chisel over his sculpture.

Pearson tells the story of how Michelangelo once destroyed
a wax model by his contemporary, Giambologna, and reshaped it
in front of his eyes to teach Giambologna that he could do
better.

So what would Michelangelo tell Pearson if he were alive
and teaching in Pietrasanta today?

“If he came here, he might smash this and let me know that
he wanted me to start all over again,” Pearson said. “But
that’s fine. That’s what I’m here for.”




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