WSJ Magazine: A Tuscan Marble Studio

THE ITALIAN TOWN of Pietrasanta, wedged between the foothills of the Apuan Alps and the wide sandy beaches that front the Ligurian Sea, has all the features of an archetypal Tuscan village. There’s the imposing marble duomo, the cheerful cafe terraces spilling out onto the piazza and the narrow streets of Renaissance-era houses in sun-bleached tones of terra cotta and turmeric.

On weekends, Pietrasanta’s population swells with visitors perusing market stalls that peddle everything from small kitchen utensils to mammoth wheels of local pecorino cheese. It’s only once the crowds have cleared that the cityscape reveals its singularity. At every turn there are works by renowned sculptors like Kan Yasuda, Franco Adami and Igor Mitoraj—many of whom have been Pietrasanta residents at some point and have offered the pieces as gifts to their adopted hometown. The main square is frequently the site of exhibitions, the most recent being a showing of Salvador Dalí’s towering bronze figures.

Known as Little Athens, Pietrasanta has become something of an urban sculpture park because of its proximity to 80 or so quarries that contain what is considered to be the world’s finest marble. Carrara marble has been mined in this region since Roman times, and the local community of family-run marble-working studios continues to this day. Many of the large-scale workshops scattered through Pietrasanta’s industrial area have collaborated with contemporary artists since the mid–20th century, when modernist sculptors including Joan Miró, Isamu Noguchi and Henry Moore traveled there to produce their work.

London-based artist Kevin Francis Gray, 45, first came to Pietrasanta in 2006. As a nascent sculptor he worked with bronze and resin, but when he was ready to graduate to marble he sought out the Giannoni family studio. Now run by Marco Giannoni, a fourth-generation artisan, the workshop is one of the last in the area to reject the machine-made in favor of traditional by-hand techniques, the same used in Giannoni’s great-grandfather’s day. Aside from an air compressor that powers the hand-held chisel, the only “machine” in the studio is a manual tool called a pointing machine, employed since the mid-18th century to transfer a plaster model’s measurements to the roughly hewn marble.

As a small operation, the Giannoni studio works with only a select few artists, such as Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone, and has declined commissions from many others. Gray says that the Giannonis—Marco and his now-retired father, Sergio—were initially reluctant to take him on. “When I approached the studio, they were resistant. I just kept coming, knocking on the door,” he says while huddling up to the studio’s oil heater on a cold January day. “But Marco is not interested in me and my profile. He doesn’t care about that. He just cares about the work.”

Giannoni, a lively man in his 50s, recalls being seduced by a resin casting of Gray’s sculpture Ghost Girl (2007). “Just seeing her in resin gave me a shock and immediately moved me. She was such a strong work: timely and provocative and evocative,” Giannoni recalls of Gray’s statue, a young woman shrouded in Swarovski crystal beads that seemed to fall like tears. The finished marble piece married the arresting beauty of a typical neoclassical sculpture, realized in the studio’s traditional manner, with a contemporary, thought-provoking subject: The girl’s wrists, hidden behind her back, were slashed. “Kevin already had such interesting ideas, even back then,” Giannoni says.

Over the past decade, Giannoni and Gray have produced 21 sculptures together. Gray generally spends 10 days out of every month here working side by side with the artisans, and recently they have been focused on preparing seven new pieces for Gray’s upcoming show running through April 22 at Pace Gallery in New York. The 1,100-square-foot workspace, which, with its soaring tin roof, has the appearance of a lofty shed, is filled with Gray’s busts and reclining nudes, cast from three different kinds of marble: Carrara, black Marquina and Statuario, a luminous white stone with striking ash-colored veins. Plaster casts of the studio’s previous work, classic religious commissions, line the walls and shelves.

Gray’s new works signal a bold change in direction for both artist and artisans. These sculptures have none of the realism or polish of Gray’s earlier oeuvre, which attracted collectors like former Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art founder Dasha Zhukova and Sir Elton John. Instead, their striking features are oversize, abstract and a little awry—“as if the stone has been grabbed in their hands,” says Gray, who created the original forms by scooping their features out of clay.

“It was very important for me to change, artistically,” he says. “This is about doing something I like and having the confidence to do that.” The new technique renders his models unrecognizable: Though the three reclining nudes were modeled on three different women, they’re indistinguishable.

“I think it’s beautiful,” says Giannoni, gesturing to a powerful female figure who appears to be twisting up and out of the base, her features a blur. “They’re all extremely contemporary pieces made with the most classical of methods. We’re creating these works in the same way we would a Bernini, a Canova or a Michelangelo, and that’s what is so interesting, that tension between the old and new.”

Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery, agrees. “Great art is made in all manner of ways, in the lab if you will, but there is something special about the mark of the hand, and an artist like Kevin restores that for you. It’s not just me who thinks that: There’s a line of people pleading for a piece of Kevin’s work.” One of Gray’s collectors, the private investor and philanthropist Lady Alison Deighton, recently visited the studio to view the new sculptures. “They’re absolutely revolutionary,” she says.

On the Saturday of a three-day weekend, one of the studio’s six artisans, Massimo Consigli, 52, is hard at work on the rifinitura of one of the reclining nudes. This is the final stage of the sculpting process, which sees the marble smoothed and polished to reveal the luminosity and detail of the stone. Consigli and two other artisans, brothers Nicola, 48, and Christian Ghelarducci, 29, usually work on this together, buffing over the surface with four different grades of emery stone and then with four different grades of sandpaper.

The oldest of the group, Piero Quadrelli, who is in his 70s, handles the first crucial stage of roughing out the form from the original block of marble. Giannoni, who was trained by his grandfather from the age of 15, emphasizes the importance of cross-generational collaboration. “When I started, there was still this incredible group of artisans, and they taught me this traditional system, which began with drawing, then clay modeling, then applying those techniques to the marble,” he says. “It’s important to have the older, experienced men with the younger men, to pass down the knowledge and experience.” It’s unclear whether Giannoni’s only child, Igor, who at age 9 is already training with the junior team of the ACF Fiorentina soccer club in Florence, will sign on to the family business. “It’s possible,” Giannoni says with a laugh. “I’m sure that if his interest in football ever wanes, he will turn towards art. He has my blood in him.”

In the middle of the production process, in the hands of Gray, Giannoni or Giannoni’s right-hand man, Simone d’Angiolo, the artwork realizes its truest form. D’Angiolo, a man in his early 40s with floppy hair, stops in on his day off and makes a round of bitter espressos from the dusty coffee machine in the corner. There’s a jovial sense of camaraderie among the men, who lunch together every day. “Simone is a different kind of artisan because he works on the sculpture as an artist,” Gray says. “He’s not copying the plaster. He’s deciding on his own and making changes and improvements, making it better.”

In all, it takes anywhere from five months to a year to get from marble slab to finished artwork, and Giannoni wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you want to make quick money and a lot of work, the way to do that is easy: Working with machinery and robots can increase the speed of production enormously, despite not delivering the same final quality,” he says. “Kevin’s works—slow and painstaking in the manual labor behind them—are like putting away diamonds in a bank safe.”

In Pietrasanta today, Giannoni estimates, there remain just two or three studios still rooted in traditional practices. “There is a change in mentality, and it is faster, but I like the old system,” he says with a shrug. “I’ll never change.”

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