THE WORD The art of the artisan

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Alberto Cavalli, director of the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, and author of The Master’s Touch: Essential elements of artisanal excellence, believes that craftsmanship and artistic creativity go hand-in-hand

In his Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919, Walter Gropius wrote: “Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as ‘art by profession’. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan.”

The artist as an exalted artisan, or rather, the artist and the artisan as two sides of the same coin, working together in harmony to achieve a level of excellence that manifests itself in difference, uniqueness and competitive advantage: a perspective which, even after almost one hundred years, is still extremely seducing and challenging. Because it brings us directly into the heart of that galaxy of competences, passions and expertise which the contemporary master artisans should possess, if they want to bridge their time-honoured manual dexterities (often imbued with precious artistic skills) into the future.

A future where the concepts of rarity, beauty and perfection will be constantly challenged by the advent of new hyper-technological possibilities, and where it will be more and more important to share a common language, precise and alive, to cultivate a taste for those beautiful and carefully crafted objects, whose cultural meaning blends design and history, form and function, inspiration and vision.

With The Master’s Touch. Essential elements of artisanal excellence, published by Marsilio Editori with the support of the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsman- ship, we wanted to try to lay the groundwork for a common language to describe the distinguished work of master artisans everywhere, hoping that these criteria will be the start of a serene, constructive and relevant conversation around the definition of quality in craftsmanship.

Our idea was to take a close look at what determines excellence in craftsmanship and identify the key qualities shared by some of Europe’s nest master artisans. Through systematic research and analysis of relevant terminology, legislation, public opinion and in-depth interviews with master artisans, we have distilled 11 specific criteria for excellence and developed a corresponding assessment tool that can be re ned with use over time. Authenticity, competence, craftsmanship, creativity, innovation, interpretation, originality, talent, territory, tradition and training: these are the words that were found, analysed and contextualised in the field of fine and creative craftsmanship. They constitute the “bricks” necessary to edify a solid conceptual base not just to de- ne “quality”, but to look of this quality in an objective, constructive way. Once the criteria were identified, we tested their practical application through in-depth interviews with recognized masters in Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Switzer- land, and the United Kingdom, which allowed for the further testing of the terms, proving them to be robust and meaningful across these different cultures. The 22 European masters interviewed represent a broad range of high-quality craftsmanship, from ceramics and violin-making to fine tailoring and jewellery by way of metal sculpture and cabinetmaking. Asked to speak to the importance of the various criteria in their work, their testimony grounds the criteria in lived experience, affirming and enhancing their relevance. These artisans, who have devoted a significant portion of their lives to achieving mastery, were able to provide specific examples to ground the terms, ensuring that they apply to a full range of ne crafts – from ceramics to violin-making – as well as to a diversity of cultures.
The distinctiveness with which only a real “master” can imbue an object, and which is deeply linked to the concept of excellence and to the cultural significance of this expression, is a distinguishing trait that creates value. But we have to find an appropriate way to communicate this “difference”: not only by giving master artisans back the central role that they deserve, but also by rediscovering those methodological paradigms that can provide a holistic and up-to-date image of the sector of ne craftsman- ship. Seeking to establish an objective assessment of excellence can prove to be an effective communication tool, bearing in mind that, given its complexity, the artistic crafts system can- not be reduced to a few basic, finite and simplified components.

Attempting to attach a mathematical formula to artisanal excellence would be misguided. Rather, we should try to de ne as clearly as possible the attributes that an “excel- lent” artisanal product must possess. Such an exercise would serve a dual concrete purpose: that of improving the creators’ visibility and that of presenting their method as a set of rules, practices, knowledge and experiences essential to the attainment of the “character” that is the main ingredient of artisanal excellence. The master artisans’ work, in fact, rarely receives the acknowledgement it deserves. If we are to recognize this work – and to advance the field as a whole – we must be able to understand exactly what it is that makes a master. We must be able to identify our master artisans and distinguish the qualities that constitute excellence in craftsmanship.

By developing criteria for excellence, we are creating a common language that aims to set the “gold standard” that can inspire new generations of young artisans and to which all artisans can aspire.

All language is alive, which is to say that it is constantly changing to reflect new realities, perspectives and imperatives. As such, with this book we tried to anticipate that the criteria for excellence will evolve over time and with use: assessing excellence should be a fluid examination of measurements and visions that are continuously evolving.

This is why we designed a matrix for how to work with the criteria in a way that allows it to be re ned as it is put to use in new contexts. It is our hope that a reasoned and objective assessment of excellence, based on the construction of a shared and common specific language, will act as an incentive to preserve, improve and rediscover that extraordinary array of competences, abilities, skills and passions that underpins the very best of artisanal production, in the forms of those objects that make our lives better, our homes more beautiful, and our future more human.

The Master’s Touch. Essential elements of artisanal excellence, by Alberto Cavalli with Giuditta Comerci and Giovanna Marchello. Venice, Marsilio Editori, 2017. Published thanks to the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship.






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