Italy: The Spring Trip

 

Ben Dearnley in Pietrsanta, north eastern Tuscany

Thursday 26th April, 8pm

 

This is a brief account of my travels to Italy and as I leave home I have to remind myself of the reasons for taking myself 1200 miles away from my own studio: doing so alone only confirms to me that this is totally my journey, to find the source of the purest stone on earth. I am driving down to the mountains of Carrara and Pietrsanta in north eastern Tuscany, where I hope to buy some pure statuary marble.

 

The desire to carve a pure block of marble, straight from the mountains, has been building within me and I now feel the time has come to experience the Alpi Apaune mountains up close, as it's only here where it can get truly personal. Ever since I started carving stone some 10 years ago it has been my wish to make this pilgrimage (as that is what it feels like) and now the journey has begun. I am heading for the Verrocchio Arts Centre in Casole d' Elsa, www.verrocchio.co.uk, which sits among the central Tuscan hills between Florence and Siena. Here I will spend 4 weeks working the marble alongside Nigel Konstam who is an English master carver who moved to Tuscany some 20 years ago and set up this centre. I shall also be visiting Marco Giannoni in Pietrsanta to arrange a further study trip in his studio for the late autumn.

 

Having caught the late ferry from Dover to Calais arriving in France after 1am, I drive down to Reims and stop for the night. I am up early (sleeping in my van gives me the total freedom to stop when and where I wish, also having cooking facilities in the back makes it all the better!) with a view to getting to either the mountain pass of Mont Blanc or the Frejus tunnel. I'm not sure which to go for yet but as I get near I make the decision with the toss of a coin. I tend to use this method to help when I can't make up my mind, heads the Mont Blanc and tails the Frejus route. It's tails so Frejus it is and I'm not unhappy with the route as it proves to be a gentle climb with spectacular views.

 

View from the van heading towards the mountain pass.

I arrive at the other side of the tunnel at 8 pm and stop for a coffee and food. I have the boot of the van open and am watching the remains of the day: the soft light behind the snow capped peaks draws me to reflect what an epic journey I am on. It is all very humbling and I give thanks for getting this far. Today, when I look back only a few years, I am struck by the changes I have made and that the place I am now sitting, on this road to Pietrsanta and Carrara, is one I could have only dreamt of, and yet here I am.

 

I drive on and down to the Italian Riviera where I stop for the night right next to the sea at Celle Ligure. It’s 1am and the moon is out, the night is calm and with only a few fishermen at the water’s edge I can see the full length of the water front dropping away into the distance to the south where I shall be later this day. I am tempted to go in but am tired from the drive so content myself with the thought of a swim first thing.

 

Saturday 28th

 

After only one full day’s drive I awake to the full sun and early morning calm. I get to the water as fast as I can, and although it’s not warm, it is refreshing to submerge myself and swim before breakfast. I spend the best part of the day enjoying this spot and leave for Carrara at 4 pm. Given the fact that it is now Saturday I don’t hold out much hope for finding my marble but will see what happens when I get there.

 

The drive down the coast is good with some spectacular passes through the steep hillsides, looking to my right is the sea and as I drive further south the length of Italy begins to show itself. I think I can see snow on the far off mountains but soon realise that these are the Alpi Apaune which I have been seeking.

 

I arrive in Carrara at 7.30pm and as I drive into the centre of town I am struck by the harshness of the place. Its industry seems to have taken over and produced a sprawling mass of yards where marble is cut, carved, blocked and sawn.

 

All of these are closed and as I drive with my eyes looking left and right I see one small marble yard open. I stop and walk into the yard and a big dog looks me up and down and just lies there accepting my being there as totally normal.


Gualtieri, studio Carrara

One man in his late fifties is working on a huge block of marble and I wait until he notices me through the dust which fills the air (the smell of which I have come to know well and love). I greet him with a hearty ‘buon giorno’ then with my very poor grasp of Italian I explain that I’m from England and a student of marble carving and that I wish to buy some marble to carve. I am happy, I am excited and I can see so many beautiful pieces of marble. I feel sure that I will find what I need here; there is a wonderful acceptance of my being here which goes beyond the fact that I am just buying some material.

 

I explain that I’m hoping to carve two pieces and we look around the yard. There are all sizes from 3 tonnes to a few kilograms. Then I show him the female and the boy from the block (both my study pieces to work from) and he looks me in the eye, an honest look, and says ‘you have a good eye’, a compliment indeed from such a master of this powerful material. He then shows me round his studio/yard and his work is truly beautiful. The first block I see is for the female torso I wish to carve, a beautiful statuary block and very pure, it’s a good size and will do very well. Next I’m drawn towards a larger block for the ‘boy from the block’ which has been ongoing for a while now, and I find a large block about 4ft x 18ins x 20 ins. This is much bigger than I was expecting (almost full size) but it was as if the time was right to begin this piece and my feelings were to go with the flow.

 

We arrange a price which seems quite fair and agree to meet up at 9 am the following day to load the marble into my van, so I set off into the mountains to find a place to sleep. I thank him and as I set off I find myself full of joy, for this encounter was almost too good to be true.

 

On my way to the higher quarries, I passed a monument to the quarrymen who have lost their lives on the mountain side in the task of freeing the blocks of stone. This has always been a dangerous labour and still proves so with at least one life being lost each year, which is considerably less than in the days of early quarrying. Still, a reminder of the hidden power of the silent mountains I was about to enter, and a reminder to show respect for those men who have given everything for the artist to create their works of art, a sobering experience and one which gives a deeper appreciation of the work I am about to begin. It feels almost like a hymn to the mountain and its spirits.

 

After a twisting climb and a few no hope stops, I find my place deep in the heart of the Apuane.

 

Monument to the young quarrymen lost on the mountainside, Pietro Gori

Now it is dark and I can see the marble glistening in the rising moonlight. I could not have been better placed and I give thanks for getting this far and for my meeting with Gualtieri before I go about getting myself some food and opening a bottle of wine. As I watch the night sky, the moon rises behind me and gives the mountains in front of me a beautiful glow, a mellow sight, soft and silent. The Apaune are still and reflective, which sits well with me on this my first encounter.

 

Sunday 29th April

 

I wake early, the sun is not yet up. It’s 5 am and I can’t get back to sleep so I get up to watch the sun rise onto the marble. I make a coffee and enjoy the dawn approaching. I drive a little higher up into the quarries, where huge silent blocks sit beside the roadside and deep canyons fall away far below. I pick up a small piece of Carrara for good measure and put it in my pocket. As I walk among the quarries the footprints I leave in the marble dust are like those you would find on a fine sandy beach, left only for a moment before the winds blow them away.

 

Now it’s 7 am and the sun is breaking through the far mountain tops and as it does so the marble shines with such brilliance that I stand motionless in awe. The sight is so powerful and beautiful it is no wonder that the early master carvers of such stone were driven to find their own forms of truth within these blocks.

 

I climb up onto a huge block of marble and sit quietly for a while, the birds are now in full dawn chorus mode and every now and then I hear the breath of the mountains. This is at first a mystery to my ears, for I have never heard such a sound, but as I sit and tune my one good ear, I find the source. The work has started, and even on a Sunday at this early hour, the quarry men are pushing large amounts of waste material off the higher paths.

 

The resulting sound is of the rocks and boulders tumbling down the face of the mountain and coming to rest far below my position. A long sigh, as the work is far off and there is no sound of a machine, just the soft rumbling of the marble falling in a cascade and then silence. The interval is about eight minutes and each time within the rumble there is the occasional bink, bink of a good piece of marble striking another good piece as it flies to a dusty rest at some unknown spot. Bink is my technical term and used to describe the sound made when striking a block of marble to see if it is sound; if the block is pure it will give a ring when struck, if not it will produce a dull thud thus showing it to have faults running through it.

 

Early morning in the quarries high in the mountains

 

 

I return back down the mountains a little to where I had spent the night and eat my breakfast watching the light change the image before me, giving even more reflected light onto the valleys below.

 

Then fed and watered I set off to collect my marble. As I descended the road into Carrara I stopped at another yard to check the cost of blocks there. It was 3 times more than I had found with Gualtieri and as if I needed confirmation that I had found a good honest man to deal with there it was. Later on in my trip I meet another sculptor (Herbert Hoffmann) who knows Gualtieri as an honest artisan with whom he has had dealings, which again showed me how fortunate I had been.

So on my way back into town I give thanks to my guides for their help, and respect to my own intuition for acting in the moment and not letting the chance slip by. It is far too easy to let situations pass without recognising the importance of them until they are gone and I find it is also important to acknowledge the good that comes from acting on your intuition.

 

8.30 am and as I arrive I find Gualtieri blocking out the marble for the Huntress. He smiles and welcomes me and together we set about loading the blocks into my van. Now the smaller is no problem and can be lifted by one man without too much difficulty but the larger one is way too heavy, at about 250 kgs and needs to be fork lifted into position. As we free the large block form its position in the yard, I notice a flaw running through the lower section, and with a quick calculation I decide it will be fine if we can cut this section away and still have a beautiful block to work with. So, this being done we load them into my van and I can not help wonder at this point how I shall move them at the other end, but put these thoughts to the back of my mind as I'm sure I will manage.

 

The block for the 'Huntress'

'Boy from the Block' on the terrace.

I say my thanks and goodbyes and with a loaded van I set off from Carrara to my next destination. There seems to be a message for me here in acting and not putting off till tomorrow as all around I see the results of the latter, and whilst I am on my journey I begin to know the truth of action first hand.

 

If one is happy to sit back and watch the life you have slip by, then know that it is your choice that has allowed this to be. But if this way creates a restlessness within, then it is time to take up the challenge of the unknown and thrust oneself into a new sphere of relations with the world: for it is in these extremes that one generates an energy which connects to the deeper resonance which surrounds us and from this come some of life’s most valuable lessons.

 

I spend the evening with my cousin Giles and his lovely wife and daughter. We walk in the hills overlooking Livorno and relax whilst we catch up, drinking a bottle of wine, watching the spring sun set over the sea from his terrace. This breathing space gives me the chance to see how my trip has been going so far and where it will go from here remains to be seen. It seems funny to me that I only left England three nights ago as so much that I had been looking for I have found. The night in the mountains, the pure marble lying silently in the back of my van waiting for its voice and the remaining part of the drive is now only a few hours instead of a few days.

 

Monday 30th April

 

As I leave Levorno I travel down the coast road to the beach at Cecina where I stop and swim. The sea is cool and refreshing and I seem to be the only one in the water, but then being an Englishman abroad I feel it’s my duty. I have with me my surfboard as I hope to find some of the classic Italian surf spots, but as yet I have seen only the potential but no sign of any waves worth getting in for. So I swim for a while. I then leave the coast and travel inland, slowly climbing the Tuscan hills and it’s here that I find the real beauty of the Tuscan landscape.

 

Cecina beach and the hills of Tuscany, Volterra

 

My destination is only a few miles away and as I drive up to the hill top village of Casole I feel happy to have made the trip. The surrounding countryside is more beautiful and the village holds an ancient fortified position of some strength.

 

 

I find the Arts centre on my second time round but nobody is in, so explore the village on foot and find a small chapel to rest and calm my mind after my four day journey. After a short while the peace of the moment is broken by the village clock striking three. I let out a little laugh and this I take to be another good sign as three has always been a significant number for me.

 

I walk back to the centre and find Nigel, a very fit and young looking man for someone in his 70’s, and after a brief hello I show him my blocks of marble in the van. Now I am quite worried that we will not be able to place the big block as its so heavy and there seems to be no lifting gear here. At first he seems to be unable to see how we might get these pieces in a place to work. I suggest the least movement the better and we quickly agree to try and get the van as close to the point to work as possible. I drive up as far onto the terrace as I can and open the side door, the first block is easy to drop into place and act as the base for the next block. Slowly we roll this piece out until we have it balanced on the edge of the first block, then I lift from within the van and heave it into place. To this day I’m sure it was too much to lift and I’m not the strongest of men but there we are standing looking at the marble ready to be carved. It was at this point that Nigel tells me that if I had said I was going to be carving this size of marble he would have suggested against the very idea, as it would prove to be too big in this situation.

 

 

The sculpture terrace is open to the elements and I cannot quite believe that I have arrived at such a place as the view across the hills is again quite spectacular. All that remains for me now is to get started on the carvings.

 

The marble on the terrace: the first cuts and outlines on the block.

The marble on the terrace: the first cuts and outlines on the block...

The sculpture terrace of the Centro D'Arte Verrocchio



Two views of Casole, the Centro and the edge of town looking north.

Early morning before sunrise

View from my room looking east

 

Carving on the terrace is completely different to anything I have experienced so far as each time I need to rest all I have to do is to look up and drink in the surroundings.

 

Boy from the block being cut.

The Huntress, plaster first, and the block to be carved...

The marble being worked under the shade of the wisteria

There follows many days of carving, working and instruction from the master, who would occasionally simply stand and look for a while then come up with an observation which I had not been able to see for being too close to the work. The carving is halted in the first week by the rains and this so frustrates me that I end up making a cape from a bin bag which allows me to work in the rain. I am not cold and the cape is doing a fine job; I don’t wish to lose too many days to the weather so work as best as I can with what I am given. Luckily for me this lasts only a few days and then we are blessed with the warmth of the early summer sunshine.

 

My progress is slow though as I’m only using hand tools and the rough cutting is a real test of will. The marble has such a strength and resistance that I have to be mentally strong to be able to see into the stone, to the surface which I wish to reveal. Slowly I begin to make progress and this, with the added bonus of my partner arriving soon, give me a sense of belonging to this time in this place quite completely. I have all but forgotten about the home I have left behind and have become so absorbed in this place that it seems as if I have been here for a much longer time than I have. But I know that before long I shall be heading back to England again.

 

The days fly by with the occasional trip to the surrounding cities and smaller villages. These form a kind of refreshing balance to the driving work on the marble, also giving me a bit of distance which I begin to recognise as a healthy way to work.

 

Nigel Konstam at work on his latest marble couple, sculpture terrace

 

I see Nigel working on as many as 4 pieces within the same day and as he flits from one to the other he keeps a fresh view of the works in progress. I'm not sure if I can follow this practice but see how it can work to the advantage of the sculptor.

 

Sunday 6th May

 

I can hardly hear myself think as I’m in my van with a huge thunderstorm right overhead. Big heavy rain and flashes of lightening…all very dramatic. After work I left Casole for the beach to try to find some surfing. I felt I must go, it’s a surfing bug, every now and then there is a calling to the water. Yesterday I fell badly on my left side and aggravated an already poor left shoulder. That, together with the general aches and pains from constant hand tool work, made me take some time out.

First I get to Cecina and as there is no surf here I head up the coast towards Vada… the soda factory. After two attempts at finding this spot, I drive into a beach car park and know I’m at the right spot as all over the place are vans with surfers. I get out of my van and run through a small lane, over a foot bridge and out onto a beautiful white sandy beach. The water inshore is white and just a little way out the colour changes to a deep blue, this is caused by the soda factory and although it looks amazing it is quite polluted. There are two breaks and the one on my left looks good with only three people out in the head high surf. The paddle is easy as the break is a defined reef break. I surf for three hours and now have a cut foot as the reef was a little sharp in places. Added to that is the fact that my shoulder is in torture, but it was well worth the effort as I feel refreshed on the inside. Probably all that soda!

 

Wednesday 9th May

 

Stuck on the block today, Nigel tells me to block out a small piece of soft stone so as to see the shapes needed, a good technique but one I find just as hard to do. So I spend some time defining the face, a bad practice as this sets it in place and becomes hard to change later when in fact it needs to be pushed further into the block. However, I find that it helps me to see where I'm going and have always found it hard to follow this teaching, even from my early lessons with Les Sandham.

 

Monday 14th May

 

The tilt of the head is so hard to get now, especially as I have put some detail in and so I struggle to get past this point and find I must re-carve some of the detail to find the position that fits. This takes me days to finally arrive at the point where I can be happy with the overall positions of the forms which are slowly coming through.

 

I've been thinking what an amazing place to be this is, and giving thanks for this experience, as two weeks from now I shall be leaving here and making a new journey with all that I have learned to lead me towards my future. To make your own future you must know what it is you are after. This is often the hardest part, then it is a matter of working out how best to get there.

 

 

Tuesday 15th May

 

At 5 pm I checked my emails and found the gallery in London which is representing me had sold one of my works, a marble torso. This was of course very good news for me and as they had mentioned an interest in my next piece I thought it would be a good idea to get really stuck into the work for the next couple of weeks. This meant having to work on two pieces and thus I came to appreciate one of Nigels teachings.

 

 

A few quiet moments in the city of Siena.

 

The visit to Siena left me feeling the need for the solitude of the marble, as I found it a struggle to get away from the tourist traps of endless people clutching dripping ice creams and barking at each other in their own mother tongues. I headed for the quieter streets to find the silent beauty of the city.

 

 

Wednesday 23rd May

 

A week has gone by and having been busy carving the time seems to be speeding up as I approach the end of this trip. I still have to get to Pietrasanta to arrange the next step which is to hopefully to spend some time working in the studio of Marco Giannoni. I?ve been putting this off as I am unsure how it will work out but decide to go this Friday and find the studio and get things organised. Also Nigel suggests I check out Sem Studios as they rent out space for visiting artists, so I make notes and plan my trip. I also make a note to visit Gualtieri and sort out buying some other blocks to collect on my way home.

 

Friday 25th May

 

I arrive in Pietrsanta in time for a bite to eat, park the van just off the main piazza a little way up from the church and picnic right there. Then I go for a walkabout. It is siesta time and most of the place is closed for the customary two hours, but the Bar Michelangelo is open and here a few people sit, drink and relax. There is a plaque which states the artist stayed here in 1518 when he opened a new quarry up in the mountains. It is a strange feeling being here now some 500 years later and following my own instincts which are leading me to work the same marble from these quarries. I walk round to find the tool shop where I intend to get a few new tools (in particular a diamond cutter) and of course it is closed, but at least I know where it is.

 

Just now I'm thinking of trying to find Marco's studio and have two addresses for him but no map so the search will not be an easy one. Then I notice a fellow sculptor (one can tell) across the street and approach him for some advice on how to get to Marco's place. To my good fortune I have just bumped into Nicola Stagetti, who runs another sculpture studio ( Barsarti) and knows just about everyone in Pietrasanta as he has been here all his life and by the look of him is born to carry on the tradition of working marble. He is powerfully built, in his mid 40's (at a guess), has huge hands, deep blue eyes, silver hair cut short and is charming. He draws me a map to help me find the studios I'm looking for and includes his own as an option. Then he's off to price a job and I thank him for his time and feel very fortunate to have met him.

 

I walk up to Marco's studio and find him amongst a lot of marble dust surrounded by work he is doing for Igor Mitoraj. This seems almost too much as having come across Mitoraj many times in London, Yorkshire, Florence and Venice he has been an inspiration to me. Now I find he has a home just 500 yards from this studio! Maybe I'll get to meet up with him if I come back in October. Marco says that they do not usually let people in the studios to work and have no extra work to hire anyone but then he offers me a place to come and work alongside him and the other carvers there for October, to work on my own sculpture! An offer too good to refuse and I accept gratefully. This will give me a unique experience and allow me to get to know the area a bit more deeply than this flying visit. Also October will be a little cooler which will be good for carving.

 

Next I go and check out the Sem Studios and find so much going on there that it seems as if all the world's marble carvings are being done in this one town. The rates are good for hiring space and I am sure this will be a useful contact for the future. Then a short drive finds me at the beach for a cool evening swim. All in all a very good day, I head out of town and drive high up into the mountains to find a place to spend the night.

 

Saturday 26th May

 

Waking early (as there are a lot of heavy lorries on the road, collecting the marble and transporting it to the port for shipment all over the world), I drive down to Gualtieri and choose some more fine blocks to be collected on my final run back through Italy to England. Next for a few hours I take a little known route to an amazing beach just north of Carrara. I have been sworn to secrecy so cannot tell where it is but will put in a picture as the view towards the Alpi Apuane was fantastic.

 

Tuesday 29th May

 

Back at the Centro I’m beginning to push the shoulder of the boy into place now and the forms appearing are becoming more defined and I find them where I need them to be. The huntress is coming along too and although I am now able to use the diamond cutter I have bought from Pietrasanta I am still a long way off. I think I will have a lot still to do when I return to my own studio.

 

Secret spot with the marble mountains in the background

I spend the next few days working as much as possible with a visit to friends in the central Tuscan hills: their home/studio is a truly magical place with the most amazing terrace for sculpture with far reaching views across the hills. Herbert gives me a tip for the future: If in doubt, say yes, which I like as it reminds me of another, "why not"?. I only have a few days left of this first trip and they seem to be flying by now. I am happy to have got so far with both works and will have to finish them off when I'm back in my own studio.

 

Friday 1st June

 

Last day:  Walked through the woods at San Galgano in the early morning having slept in the van just behind the ruins of one of the great abbeys of the past. I love this place as it's so peaceful and holds such a presence even in its ruined state. As I drive back to Casole for the last time the sky is looking darker and the rain clouds are building.  Stopping at a little hill top village for a coffee to enjoy the moment as above the sun and rain fight for supremacy.

 

Once back at the Centro it is time to load the van and I get some help from Matt who has been there a few weeks. We tip the marble boy into the van and roll him into place just as the heavens open with an almighty crash: the rains are let loose and fall heavily to the ground as the lightning and thunder strike right over head. Quite a dramatic departure, but one I'm thankful for because it denotes a change and also brings the cooler air to be driving in.

 

As I drive away the rains become less and less until again it's dry as I reach Carrara to collect the last of my marble. I then stop for one last swim before the return drive home.

Huntress, 2007 at The Belgravia Gallery, Mayfair, London. The boy from the block is still waiting to be fully realised.(March 2008)