Sculpting in Tuscany: A Guide
Over the years, my consulting work has given me the opportunity to meet many sculptors who enjoy working in some of the Tuscany region's famed carving studios. This carving mecca attracts hundreds of artists from all over the world. Some spend a few months there every year to execute their own commissions and to improve their technical skills, while others go for shorter stays to check on a work in progress or to be involved in the finishing stage. Many who came to visit or work many years ago have settled there, and swear that they would not live anywhere else.
Last February, as the consultant for a public art project, I was invited to check on the fabrication of a sculpture commission at SGF studio, in Carrara, Italy. The artist, Larry Kirkland from Washington, D.C., had been selected through the General Services Administration's Art-in-Architecture program to create a major civic work for a new federal building in Maryland. Larry had previously worked on several projects with SGF studio and had developed a good relationship with the owners and workers at the studio. This personal pilgrimage to Carrara gave me the perfect opportunity to check on the carving scene and gather information specifically for sculptors who are interested in having work executed there, or who would like to spend some time carving their own work in a unique environment that is both inspiring and nurturing.
Having decided to visit both Carrara and Pietrasanta, I first had helpful discussions before my departure with several artists familiar with the area. With their recommendation, I compiled a list of carving studios and contacts there. During three days in Carrara and four in Pietrasanta, I visited ten studios (laboratori di scultura), interviewing the owner or the foreman (il capo), checking the facilities, and asking questions of artists from all over the world whom I found working there.
Carrara or Pietrasanta?
Located within half an hour of each other, Carrara and Pietrasanta provide very different environments. Each of the artists I met had a definite preference for one or the other. In either town you will experience the magical balance of past and present, and in this beautiful part of Tuscany you will be immersed in Italy's practical and spiritual "marble culture."
The name Carrara is said to derive from Kar, the Indo-European word for stone. Marble has been the lifeblood of the region since the Romans. Carrara is a 40-minute train ride from Pisa. Sprawling factories surround today's town which originally developed as a trading center between Tuscany and the Ligurian coast. The huge snow-like scars on the nearby Apuane Alps provide a dramatic backdrop to the dusty town. With more than 200 excavation sites, Carrara is the world's single largest producer of marble. It is also the world's largest stone mall!
Besides the wire saws that slice into the mountains to produce the gleaming white blocks, large rough monoliths of all types of stone from all over the world are shipped to nearby Marina di Carrara to be worked by the highly reputed local factories. The traffic in downtown Carrara is a mess, and the atmosphere is polluted with more than the gray marble dust (polvere) that settles on everything and everyone. Yet there are some lovely streets, lined with peeling pastel stucco facades and an 11th-century duomo on the piazza. A former fortress is now the reputed Accademia delle Belle Arti.
From Carrara, a short trip up the sinuous roads towards the mountains took us to some of the marble quarries (Cavi di Marmo). On the way, we stopped in Colonatta, a quaint village with a white marble memorial to the quarrymen (Cavatori) depicting the old ways that marble slabs, tied onto sleds drawn by oxen, were pulled down the mountain and delivered to ships off the coast of Forte di Marmi. This was, and still is, dangerous work.
Halfway up the ragged peaks, we reached the very basin from which I was told Michelangelo selected the famed statuario marble for his Pieta. On Pope Leo X's orders, Michelangelo spent three years in the area, opening new quarries. As I stood by the huge blindingly white sunken amphitheater, I imagined the great man, arriving with his entourage and its horses and mules, searching for the special deposits that would yield the purest white.
It is less than half an hour by train from Carrara to Pietrasanta, or more by car if you get stuck behind one of the many huge flatbed trucks loaded with stones. Both sides of the road are lined with yard after yard filled with rough slabs of marble and granite awaiting to be selected or cut on site by enormous saws.
A smaller town of 25,000, Pietrasanta is nestled in the valley, between the hills and the sea. Marina di Pietrasanta, a typical Mediterranean beach resort, is only a few kilometers away. The charming town offers interesting examples of religious, military, and civil architecture. A prototype for a type of planned "new town," it is centered around a rectangular piazza with the unusual-for a marble town-red-brick campanile of the 13th-century St. Martin's Cathedral, the 14th-century church of Sant'Agostino, and a row of pastel Renaissance buildings. At one corner of the piazza, in a former convent, is the Museo dei Bozzetti, which houses a collection of hundreds of models donated by artists who have worked in the area, dating from the beginning of the century and still growing. The models are a fascinating educational display for sculptors, and free. Perched above the town and nestled among groves of olive trees, a turreted 13th-century fortress, Rocca di Sala, stretches its medieval crown. (I met a young American artist who actually lived in one of the dilapidated towers after he first arrived in town.)
In less that two hours, I knew my way around Pietrasanta and felt comfortable. The local information office located on the piazza provided me with a map, a list of all studios in and around town, and the visiting hours for the monuments and museums. I found that I could easily walk to a number of the workshops. Along the way, I passed by several stores selling tools and other artist's supplies. Lucky to benefit from a mild February, I sat at an outside table at the Michelangelo bar (a plaque on the building commemorates his signing the contracts to purchase the local marble) enjoying a prosciutto sandwich and a glass of local wine, socializing with some dusty-looking artists and other interesting "art types" from all over the world. Certainly, "la dolce vita"!
In Pietrasanta, I was lucky to have an invaluable guide: my friend Shelley Robzen, originally from Pennsylvania, who has lived there for 23 years. A talented and hard-working sculptor, Shelley knows everyone in town. In the early '80s, seeing how fast the scene was changing, she spent three years photographing some of the best-known carving studios in the area. Sensing that their craft was facing extinction, she wanted to capture the much-respected older master carvers whose skills and love for the marble have been passed from father to son for several generations. Her stunning portfolio of black and white photographs is much admired locally, and has become an important nostalgic portrait of the Pietrasanta that was. As Shelley told me, several of the original studios have closed, and the last one of the "great old master carvers" has died recently. She recalls the amazing scene she witnessed on the first day she arrived in Pietrasanta: a couple of white oxen pulling a great wood platform on top of which was strapped a full-scale copy of Michelangelo's Pieta. Although reproductions of many of the famous classical statues are still being carved regularly in some of the major studios-usually for Asian clients-big trucks with forklifts are now the common sight. Another change is the "tempo of life," which has accelerated greatly. The pace is no longer as relaxed and piano as it used to be, but more "American-style efficiency" and rushing. All the resident artists I talked with also lamented the fact that the town is pushing the studios from their downtown locations to the outskirts. But, for the artists who have settled there, this is still "paradiso."
The Sculpture Scene
There are more sculptors per square meter in this area of Tuscany than in any other place on earth. Besides more than 100 carving studios, there are a couple of dozen foundries and several mosaic studios. I found that the scene had its interesting layers. At the top are the current "legends," such as Botero and Mitoraj, who own beautiful homes and spacious studios. They shuttle back and forth from Italy to other countries. They have "conquered" the town, and a couple of their mythologically inspired bronze statues preside over Pietrasanta's public squares.
As accomplished as the "legends," and also very successful, are several dozens of international artists who, over the years, have established a routine of spending several months in Italy working on their own commissions or supervising work being done for them. Many have bought old houses in the mountains with spectacular views of the coastline. Others have settled for more modest housing arrangements over the years, sometimes sharing houses with friends or taking turns. Then there are the many who live in various degrees of comfort or discomfort, renting rooms in somewhat decrepit old houses in town or in farm houses surrounded by olive groves or vineyards and friendly cows.
The character of the layers has changed over the years. I was told that during the '60s and '70s there were many American artists. Then came the Germans and Belgians, to be followed by the Japanese. Now, an impressive number of South Korean carvers have moved to the area, some bringing their families with them. Although there are fewer studios, between the architectural business, the still very active reproduction business, and the contemporary work, there is still intense art-making activity and creative and spiritual energy. Both men and women artists mentioned that they especially enjoy the fact that local people respect and appreciate them not just for their skill and talent, but as important contributors to the economy of the whole region.
All the artists I met there seem to work extremely hard, stopping only to entertain a dealer or client coming into town to check on a work in progress. Although they acknowledged that business is now rather slow, over the years each has developed his or her own market. Many have made connections with European galleries and dealers. (It is easier to travel a show from one European country to another rather than from one U.S. city to another.) There seems to be a genuine feeling of camaraderie and a sharing of information and tips between artists. Several of the studios organize traveling exhibitions of "their" artists' work, and I was told that it is not uncommon for dealers or clients visiting a particular studio to notice the work of another artist and end up purchasing or commissioning through the studio. I found that many artists participate in international stone-carving symposia all around the world which often lead to a sale of the large-scale work produced, besides a stipend and a very enriching and worthwhile experience.
The following quote is from Neal, a member of the Studio Leonardi in Pietrasanta, an unusual co-op type of studio where I met a dozen artists, about half from the United States, half from Europe:
"For us, surviving as artists mean keeping expenses down. Our life is incredibly rich, and we eat very well. We've broken through the myth of the starving artist. Many of us do without cars, telephones, TV's, VCR's. We travel a lot, and stay with friends around the world whom we met while they were here. We barter and help each other. Everyone pitches in for the olive harvest and we have our fine olive oil for the year. We buy local wine by the demijohn and bottle it ourselves. The local butcher loves us for our involvement in the local festival and always gives a discount. Some have traded sculptures for tabs at the bar, butcher, and pizzeria. Prices for houses triple in the summer. Many leave then to be able to be here in the winter. I usually go to Sweden in the summer to stay in the studio of a Swedish colleague. The cultural transition is necessary. Staying even in as rich a place as Pietrasanta is limiting if one seldom leaves."
Another artist from the same studio discovered that by renting her house in the United States for nine months she can pay for living and working in Pietrasanta. She returns to the United States in the summer to sell her work and to find another renter so that she can go back to Italy.
The following tips are for those of you who have been dreaming of getting there or have an artwork you would like to have carved in marble, and are wondering how to make it happen, which is the best studio, where to stay, at what cost, and what to expect.
Before you go
Do your research and gather information. You probably know an artist who has been there or a friend who has a contact. Someone may give you the name of a local person who may prove to be invaluable.
Select two to three studios to contact ahead of time: (I like the Italian work for estimate: "preventivo"). Every studio I visited has a fax. There will be someone there who can read English or translate. The type of response and the accuracy of the estimate you will receive will depend on your preparation, what information you send, and several decisions you will have to make. You will end up with a range. Be flexible.
There are two basic scenarios you can choose from. In one scenario, you want to have a particular work completely carved by studios there and would like to make one or two trips to see it before it is finished. You will need to know when will be the best time to come and for how long. In the second scenario, you want to do most of the carving yourself, maybe with some help from specialists at the studio. You will need studio space, assistance, tools, and a place to stay.
Remember, once you have selected a workshop you want to work with, it is most important to build a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding; the studio and its workers will welcome you into their "family" and take pride in meeting your artistic needs and caring for you. On the other hand, before you make your selection, make sure you have some solid figures. Ask for a reference-the name of another artist who has worked there and with whom you can talk to before finalizing your plans.
The type of stone you will select can make a great difference. The best statuario can be as much as ten times more than an ordinary marble, and carving granite will take three times as long. You can get a range of prices per type of material. If you choose the first scenario, some studios will send samples of stones for you to select, or tell you what they recommend, and what the price difference will be. If you choose the second scenario, you will probably want to select your own stone, and should do it through the studio you have decided to work with, rather than try to "shop around" by yourself.
Submitting Basic Information
You need to send a detailed scale drawing showing all dimensions, and photos of your model to the studio you have chosen. If you are having the work carved by the studio, the studio will eventually need a maquette in a resistant material: plaster, cement, or fiberglass, or even a small bronze. If too small, an accurate reproduction could be difficult. Once a studio is familiar with your work, they will be able have a better understanding of your needs and interpret your work more faithfully.
Once the type of stone has been selected and the studio owner knows the exact scale and measurements of the work, you should be able to get a fairly accurate estimate of your costs to have the work done for you. If the piece is being enlarged for you, you will want to make a trip when the plaster enlargement is done to check on the final proportions and give your approval before the carving can start. Depending on the type of work and on your own requirements, you will want to be present for the final finishing of the work and not just rely on photographs before crating and shipping.
If you are doing most of the carving yourself, after having determined how much you want to be involved and how much time you can spend in Italy, the studio owner will help you estimate how many hours of a specialist you may need, and whether you need to have your own separate working area or just a work table within a common area.
Working at the Studio
In most workshops, the space available for both people working on their own and the employees is limited. Since there is a high demand for studio space, the studio will need to coordinate the availability of the space with their own production schedule.
You can get the help of specialists with the roughing out, the enlargement, and the pointing up. You may need tools, and an assistant. The studio will help you estimate how long you may need to stay. I was quoted $200 to $250 per month to rent a work area (depending on tools and amount of air and electricity required). Hiring a specialized craftsman to work for you was about $45 per hour, according to quotes I was given.
When there is collaboration between artist and studio in the production of a sculpture, the studio will be more likely to provide tools. Remember, the current is different and your American electric tools will not be usable. You can purchase excellent tools locally and at a reasonable price; you may also be able to buy used tools from another artist.
There are several excellent bronze foundries in the area. If you are interested in having a cast taken from an enlarged stone and having an edition made in bronze, the studio you select will be happy to make these arrangements and coordinate with you. Skilled artisans can make either rubber or plaster molds from the clay or stone. You can also order a resin positive from the mold to be patinated or painted. Pietrasanta also has several excellent studios that execute marble inlay and mosaic work with glass and marble.
Hiring for Preparation Work Only
If you only want the studio to do "preparation work" and you want to execute most of your carving yourself, at home, you may want to consider the following option. Negotiate with a studio to select and purchase the marble and have the individual pieces (it will be much more advantageous if you have several) roughed out in Italy with some pointing up. The more points, the more expensive. The finishing will be much less demanding for you and the cost of shipping these now much-lighter, half-finished works will be less than purchasing the original blocks of marble. (I saw dozens of these partially finished works being shipped to a prolific South American sculptor.)
Shipping and Insurance
The studio you work with will take care of ordering wooden crates for finished or unfinished works, made by professional art packers, and the export documents needed to ship items anywhere in the world. You can get a fairly precise estimate of the cost.
All shipments are either insured by the shipping company or with a separate policy from a national insurance company with fees varying according to what is being shipped and what route. The studio will take care of insuring the work with the client as beneficiary of the policy.
For more precise information about insurance, you should consult your own insurance company.
François Yohalem is an art consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area.
Sculpture Studios in Carrara and Pietrasanta
Carlo Nicoli Marble Sculpture Studio
Studio Luigi Corsanini
AMA (Artistici Marmi Apuani)
Cervietti Franco & C.
Bottega Versiliese (Societa Cooperativa)
Italy is very expensive. I was told that the only cheap things are the marble and the wine!
Finding a place to stay is not easy, but after you have selected a studio to work with, be assured that this studio will work hard to help you find accommodations.
Everyone agrees that the worst time to go is between June and August when it is practically impossible to find a place. Summer is also when most of the carving workshops are offered. The beaches along the coast bring many tourists into the area. In addition, in August, most studios and stores are closed. I was blessed with balmy weather in February, but winters can be quite cold and damp and you may want to make sure that the studio space you rent is heated.
Some of the studios keep a list of apartments for rent. The going rate for an apartment near the center of Pietrasanta is about $450 to $500 per month plus utilities. The prices during high season could double. The sooner the studio knows what you need, the greater your options. (You will need a down payment to hold a reservation.)
Other types of accommodations
To stay on a farm five minutes from SEM's studio costs $32 per night with breakfast or $45 per night with breakfast and dinner. (Lunch is usually a quick sandwich at the bar with a glass of wine for about $6).
Hotels in the area charge between $50 and $90 per night with breakfast (non-tourist season.)
Recommended hotel in Carrara: Hotel Michelangelo: 585-777161. Budget hotel: Albergo da Roberto: 585-70634
Recommended hotel in Pietrasanta: Hotel Palagi: 584-70249. Budget hotel: Hotel Italia: 584-70175
Corsanini Studio can arrange for artists to share a small apartment. Pension, including family-style meals, costs around $60 per day. Bicycles are available.
You may want to come with a friend and share expenses. You may have to share anyway when you get there. Be flexible.
Once there, you should not need a car, although a car will give you more options since you could then rent housing in the mountains. Gas is very expensive. You may be able to walk or bicycle. On Sunday, you can ride the bus or train to explore Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and Florence.