Pietrasanta is perhaps the most delightful of all the towns strung out along the Versilia coast from Viareggio to La Spezia. It’s quite small but very attractive, located only 20 miles north of Pisa and the next stop north from Viareggio. Its entire raison d’être is the art of sculpture and has been for centuries. Working side by side with all the international sculptors are local craftsmen helping to translate their ideas into marble and bronze.
There are about 55 bronze foundries and marble workshops in this small area between the sea and the mountains and much of the highly skilled work takes place here behind the scenes without much credit given and without many people who admire marble works of art around the world even knowing that they exist.
No longer do the artists themselves have to start with a sold block of marble like Michelangelo and chip away at it before the highly skilled work begins. In fact, as we discuss below, does the traditional art of sculpture even exist any more and if it does, for how much longer?
Though Pietrasanta has been a mecca for Italian sculptors since Michelangelo himself, the influx of foreign artists began in the late 1950s with Henry Moore being one of the first regular visitors. He was joined by many of his friends like the Japanese American Isamu Noguchi and the Spaniard Joan Miró, themselves internationally renowned sculptors, and others followed later like Igor Mitoraj.
That period also coincided with a major decline in religious statuary art when, after the Second Vatican council in 1962, everything about the traditional architecture and symbols in the design of a Catholic church was relaxed. It quickly became clear that Pietrasanta’s future prosperity would come from avant-garde sculpture not religious commissions, which had been the mainstay of its past.
There are three stages to a marble sculpture: the sbozzatura (carving the very rough shape out of the raw block), the smodellatura (traditionally using a plastercast to transfer the design to the rough block and chipping it down to within a few millimeters of the exact outline) and the rifinitura (smoothing and polishing until the sculpture is complete).
As to who exactly does what, there is a lack of clarity in this art form that doesn’t exist in most others. One would expect that the sculptor whose name adorns the finished product would at the very least personally carry out the rifinitura if not the smodellatura as well.
But it seems that there are many artists who never actually lay a hand on their creations but instead conceive of the idea, design and supervise it and approve all the stages which are in fact carried out by relatively low paid artisans in the dozens of studios and workshops in Pietrasanta.
It’s not clear for example that Damien Hirst had any physical contact with his ‘Anatomy of an Angel’ that sold for over one million pounds in 2008. According to a Financial Times article a few months after the sale “Although his studio prefers not to discuss the matter, it’s no secret that Damien Hirst never visited Studio Sem; he sent a resin model for 'Anatomy of an Angel' and approved the marble through photographs”.
In the same article the F.T also quotes the head of Studio Sem, Franco Cervietti, as saying that Marc Quinn, who created the controversial Fourth Plinth statue in Trafalgar Square in London in 2005, never put his hand on the marble but visited regularly to check on the progress made by uncredited craftsmen working on his statue.
Perhaps with the exception of Michelangelo, who famously did not like to delegate, talented and busy sculptors throughout history (and painters also) have employed assistants to help them in an uncredited role with their commissions, but it’s a question of degree.
Compounding this issue today is the giant leap forward in technology where 3D printers can now make technically perfect sculptures. There is a new technology studio in Pietrasanta helping workshops move more in this direction and studios will admit to at least the sbozzatura now mostly being carried out by machines but who really knows to what extent a sculpture is now machine-made.
What exactly is the role of the sculptor today? Just the concept and design? They can still be described as artists but are they really sculptors anymore? It has all become a little blurry and not helped by the fact that none of this seems ever to be made public in an explicit manner. Who knows what the famous sculptors from history would have made of the human hand and eye being replaced by machines, but I’m sure they would have had strong opinions on the subject.
Back to Pietrasanta itself. The streets and squares of the town are an open air museum of permanent works of art, many of which were created by its more famous international residents, like Fernando Botero, Ken Yasudo and the late Igor Mitoraj. These are augmented every year by temporary exhibitions, also outside.
Art here is accessible for everyone and it’s the perfect environment for it. The centro storico of Pietrasanta is relatively traffic free and has a beautiful main piazza in which the marble clad 14th century Duomo takes center stage, surrounded by outdoor cafes and restaurants. There are regular festivals and other exhibitions that take place in this piazza from time to time like the recent olive oil symposium which we attended (above photo).
Every street has a surprise in store and it’s great fun walking around for the first time seeing all the exhibits, but unlike a conventional museum the sculptures here are all surrounded by the same workshops and studios that crafted them.
Pietrasanta itself is anything but a museum. It’s thriving and creating new art constantly with a worldwide reputation second to none. There is however a more conventional museum in Pietrasanta, called Museo dei Bozzetti. It was created in 1984 and is quite unique in that it showcases all the maquettes and models used over the years by sculptors to create their works. A maquette is a reduced scale model of the artist’s idea and a model is the same thing but to scale. Their dimensions can vary enormously and they are mostly made out of a gypsum-based paste.
There are over 700 maquettes in the museum representing over 350 Italian and foreign artists whose finished works can be found in museums, collections and parks all over the world.
When you start the art tour of Pietrasanta the first statue you see at the entrance to the centro storico of is 'The Warrior', a bronze sculpture by the Columbian artist, Fernando Botero (first sculpture photo at the top of this article), followed by the 'Peace Frame' by Alabama artist Fred Nall Hollis. 'The Centaur' is by Igor Mitoraj and there are about 70 works in total. There are no real directions for the tour but they're all in a small enough area for you to be able to find them quite easily. As you walk through the streets it's also worth popping inside the Chiesa della Misericordia.
Here you will see Botero's two frescoes called the 'Gates of Heaven' and the 'Gates of Hell'. In the former Mother Theresa is praying beneath a plump Madonna but I'm not sure what a Spanish conquistador with his sword is doing in heaven, especially when put there by a Columbian artist. In the latter the only easily recognizable figure is Hitler right at the bottom.
The following 5 minute video was taken in the Nicola Stagetti Studio in Pietrasanta and shows the complicated process involved in producing large marble sculptures headed for destinations all over the world. They have a nine person staff and complete about 60 commissions every year.