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You may have the universe if I may have Italy

1 March 2008
Published in Attualità, Fiori
by Thomas Greenaway

convolvulusA man who has not been in Italy, cialis is always conscious of an inferiority, malady from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see – Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, cialis the famous 18th Century English poet, essayist, critic, lexicographer and conversationalist as usual hit the nail on the head. Unaware of his maxim but unconsciously taking heed of it, I had the good fortune to visit Italy in Spring 2004 after leaving school, to further my interest in art.

The 6 week “Art History Abroad” Course took us to Venice, Verona, Padua, Mantua, Milan, Perugia, Florence, Rome and Naples and in doing so we were perhaps following in the footsteps of many a wealthy English aristocrat who in Johnson’s day did a Grand Tour accompanied by a private tutor or companion. Our group consisted of 20 Gap Year students and several Cambridge University lecturers.
We had a great time and a huge amount of fun. Besides visiting Museums and Art galleries, Palaces and Piazzas we were provided with pencils & a sketch pad and on one occasion were given the opportunity to do a Life Study of a rather portly naked lady. My rendering did no justice to her graceful curves at all; sadly there was no latent Michelangelo like talent to reveal to the world! In Rome we watched a football match and in each City we visited I taught the group a new Scottish Reel. In Florence at midnight on the Ponte Vecchio my dancing lesson was rather annoyingly curtailed by the Polizia who seemed not to fully appreciate Scottish culture at that hour of the night!

We all left Italy with a wider knowledge of Italian art and wines, numerous impressions and having made hopefully lifelong friendships. In Florence I was fortunate to come across the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Museum in via degli Alfani which has an excellent collection of Pietre Dure or Florentine Mosaics. The skill, patience and beauty expressed in natural hard and semi-precious stones amazed me. In some pieces it was almost impossible to detect whether the work was actually a painting or a mosaic of stones because the shading of the stones was so subtle. On some tabletops there was a trompe d’oeil effect and it looked as if real objects had been placed on the black marble or Egyptian red porphyry surface because they were so realistically depicted with appropriate shading but were in fact a multitude of small stones inlaid into the polished surface. Each piece of stone had been hand cut from a hand saw, 3 or 4 mm thick, slice of stone, then filed and fitted so perfectly to the adjoining stones to leave no sign of any gap between them. I was told that some tabletops would have taken several craftsmen several years to make. What an impression that place made on me! My mind had been opened to a future career.

greenawayHowever, because I had enjoyed carpentry at school and was not destined for an academic or professional career I had already chosen to do a one year practical wood working course. So in September 2004 I went to the Chippendale School of Furniture Making & Restoration 20 miles east of Edinburgh. Here we were taught by craftsmen a number of skills such as making different types of wood joining, veneering, french polishing, but the skill I really enjoyed was marquetry using different coloured woods. On completing the course all I wanted to do was marquetry in stone – “Commesso di Pietre Dure” and thus it was that in September 2005 I was back in Florence looking for a flat to share, a month’s Italian course and of course somebody to train me. After a certain amount of disappointment my prayers were answered at Santa Croce. On leaving the Church I noticed a shop selling Pietre Dure. On enquiry a really kind Maestro, whose work was exhibited in the shop unusually happened to be in at the time of my visit. He offered, in exchange for a small monthly fee, to give me some initial training. After a few months I progressed to a larger workshop run by a charming Florentine family nearby where I didn’t need to pay a fee. A year later I obtained employment with Paci Mosaici another of the leading Florentine Pietre Dure family run workshops. A wonderful feature of Italy that I have noticed, particularly in Florence, is the huge number of small family run artisan businesses that sadly now are so scarce in the UK and how enjoyable it is to be working in such a friendly environment. It is also a super experience learning a craft from really skilled people that has occupied thousands of craftsmen in Florence since the mid 16th Century. Of course the production methods have changed over the years and new technology has been introduced but we need many of the skills that craftsmen developed when the Medici’s were commissioning work from them so many centuries ago. Some of the work we do is restoration and I recently restored a 17th Century Roman Table. I have made a chess board tabletop and mosaic pictures of Tuscan scenes using a huge range of different coloured stones. Our workshop handles virtually anything that can be decorated with stone.

Of course arriving in Italy speaking no Italian has been an experience. Working now alongside Italians for three years and having made numerous Italian friends I am beginning to get a better grasp of the conversation or perhaps I have become better at hiding my incomprehension! Due to a misunderstanding I was once nearly arrested for not having my rail ticket validated on the platform before getting on the train. In the UK this doesn’t happen. Certainly Italy has a well deserved reputation for its official bureaucracy which at times I find maddening but it also has a well deserved reputation for its food and I wish the English were more passionate about their cuisine.

Who knows what the future holds? Perhaps one day I will produce some Pietre Dure masterpieces for the UK where man can see them without being conscious of an inferiority for not having been to Italy. In the meantime I revel in the warmth of the hospitality I am given here.

One Response to “You may have the universe if I may have Italy”

  1. Fanny says:

    mi piace moltissimo il tuo articolo!!
    bravo Thomas!