Cut from the same stone
Brunello Cucinelli leads one of the world’s most elegant fashion houses. He’s also spent the past 20 years commissioning classical sculptures made from the same marble favoured by Michelangelo. As Cucinelli celebrates his 40th anniversary, Michael Hainey
The epitome of Italian style, Brunello Cucinelli marks 40 years of crafting true art
the village of pietrasanta in italy traces its lineage to Roman times. It’s small (around 20,000 inhabitants), nestled between the shore of the Mediterranean and the foot of the Apuan Alps. Its streets, unlike those in many of the ancient towns in Italy you may have walked, are not a jumble of blind twists and path-of-most-resistance turns but are instead laid out on an elegant, rational grid. The Roman Empire can be thanked for that. (The legions preferred to lay streets on grids because it made towns easier to defend.)
Most of the people in Pietrasanta make their living as they have for centuries: farming the tomatoes and other crops that surround the village or working with the stone that comes from the mountains outside town. Those mountains are the area’s most dramatic feature, primarily the one the locals call the Tacca Bianca, the “White Scar”. When you stand outside sculptor Stefano Giannoni’s workshop, it’s impossible not to find your gaze pulled to that peak and the facade that serves as a backdrop to the village. When I was at Giannoni’s studio this past summer, I assumed that the broad white patches on Tacca Bianca were lingering sheets of snow that had escaped the spring melt, tucked between the assorted trees on the dark face of the mountain. Giannoni corrected me. “That’s not snow. That’s where the stonecutters have taken out the stone,” he said. “It’s one of the most perfect veins of stone in the world. Carrara marble. Michelangelo carved his David from it. Every great sculptor to this day, from Henry Moore to Jean Arp to Botero, works with stone from that mountain because it is the most classic stone, the stone of every great sculpture from the classical era.”
This stone, and its link to the greatest works of antiquity, pulled the designer Brunello Cucinelli to Pietrasanta 20 or so years ago. To those who have the pleasure of knowing him, Cucinelli is the uncrowned philosopher-prince of menswear. Spend time in conversation with him and he’ll want to talk (thank God) about anything but clothes. Mostly he’ll want to talk about the great thinkers and the big thoughts. He’ll quote Marcus Aurelius, Martin Luther King Jr and Confucius. He will tell you he believes he has lived three previous lives — one with the Athenians, one in ancient Rome, and most recently one during the Renaissance — and you’ll believe him. Years ago, I came away from a conversation with him with a list of books that ranged from Memoirs of Hadrian to a biography of Robert Kennedy. Cucinelli is a man who reminds you that the most important thing to pursue in life is not the acquisition of goods — it is the acquisition of knowledge.
So it was to be expected that Cucinelli would find his way to Pietrasanta, a birthplace of the classics, certainly in regard to the stone that is at the centre of great sculpture. This was in 1998. Cucinelli was 16 years into restoring Solomeo, the Umbrian town from which his wife hails and he runs his business and where
he has built his home. At the time, he carried a curious, crazy vision he was not sure he could even achieve. Then a friend showed him one of Giannoni’s sculptures.
“I came up with this idea of creating a collection of the great sculptures from antiquity, of those men who have enlightened me and inspired me,” Cucinelli says. “But it was important that the sculptures be exact copies of the ones done by the great artists like Canova, those that were in the Uffizi and the Capitoline and other museums, and this was for two reasons. One, sculptors copying the ancient Greek statues is a tradition that dates back to the Romans. Second, I wanted to create a gift for people who saw them. Someone might not be able to get to the Capitoline but could see the work in my garden or home.”
When Cucinelli appeared in Pietrasanta, Giannoni was spending most of his time making assorted works of little consequence. A third-generation sculptor, he had at 16 apprenticed himself to his father and uncle. “I spent the first three years simply tasting the marble, what we call learning the stone, before my father even allowed me to finish a piece,” he says. From his father, he acquired skills and insights that few other sculptors possess. His father, over his life, had made two copies of Michelangelo’s Pietà, widely considered to be one of the most intricate and difficult pieces ever executed in stone, mainly because so much of the work involves lush folds of fabric that appear almost real. Giannoni’s father’s special skill was as a pannista — a tailor in stone, a sculptor who could make stone look like a garment.
Unfortunately, in the decades since Giannoni undertook his apprenticeship, the demand for hand-carved classical statues had diminished.
‘I believe that only the human hand, the hand of the craftsman, can produce beauty, can capture the natural flow of shapes. Beauty disappears under the burden of technology’s absolute precision’
The first culprit was, strangely enough, the Catholic Church, which drastically reduced statuary commissions after the Vatican reforms of the Sixties. The second culprit, as it is with so many things these days, was technology. Robotic arms can now make an exact copy of a marble fireplace mantel and all its intricate details — something that takes an artist weeks, if not months — in only a fraction of the time. Once, there were countless stone studios in Pietrasantra; Giannoni’s is one of four remaining.
“When I met Stefano,” Cucinelli tells me, “I asked him why no one was making classical statues any more. He told me it was simple: because no one commissioned them.” Cucinelli thought about this truth overnight. It troubled him. He is a man who knows that often what is needed is a customer to place a personal order, whether for suits or for sculpture. He had always been inspired, too, by the Renaissance Italians and how they embraced their responsibility to be patrons of the arts.
The next day, Cucinelli told Giannoni he wanted to commission 10 statues, including busts of the great philosophers — Aristotle, Socrates, Plato — most of them copies of Canovas. And just like that, in a single day, Cucinelli became the modern-day Medici of Marble. In the years since, he has commissioned 51 pieces from Giannoni. “I truly believe that only the human hand, the hand of the craftsman, can produce beauty, can capture the natural flow of shapes. All of this beauty disappears under the burden of technology’s absolute precision,” he says. “Stefano’s only concession to technology is a pair of compasses and a pantograph to reproduce shapes. His workshop still feels like a Renaissance bottega.”
‘Stefano Giannoni’s only concession to technology is a pair of compasses and a pantograph to reproduce shapes.
His workshop still feels like a Renaissance bottega’
It is in this little bottega that you will most often find Giannoni. He’s almost 50, with a head of curly hair and a joyous grin. Some days, depending on the time, you will be greeted out front by his 10-year-old daughter, Bianca, who will be working with the chips and chunks he’s cast off from blocks of marble. Giannoni is a quiet man, and were it not for the battered hat on his head — fabricated from a sheet of newspaper and coated in white dust — he’d look at home in another century.
Well, except for that bust on a high shelf behind him. There, nestled between Aristotle and Sophocles, isn’t that… Steve Jobs?
Yes. As Cucinelli explains, “Jobs is one of the greats.”
Possibly. But as Giannoni says, Jobs — or at least the sculpting of him — was a great hassle, primarily because of Jobs’ perpetual stubble. It took the sculptor a few tries to render this detail properly. When he first attempted to replicate it exactly, the effect was to make Jobs’ face too fat. Giannoni discovered that for stone, there had to be fewer follicles.
Steve Jobs is the most recent of the works Giannoni has completed. All are either in Solomeo or on Cucinelli’s estate. The pieces in his home are arranged in a logical order: in the garden are the artists and great artworks, on the ground floor are the emperors, and upstairs in the library are the thinkers.
Cucinelli spends most of his time upstairs, seated in front of his fireplace, with busts of Plato, Socrates and Epicurus looking down at him.
“In the evening,” he says, “I talk to them. I do. Because this is a place to reflect — to commune with ideas, to be inspired. And how can you not be when you are in their presence?”
He’s looking forward to seeing the next pieces he has commissioned, renowned figures of the 20th-century: Mandela, Einstein, King.
“I want to leave some sort of legacy of these who I have known, who have mentored me in this day and age. The sculptures, I hope, don’t simply reproduce the works of our ancestors, of these great artists and great minds. I hope, too, they remind us of our humanity and the eternal values we are linked to.”
He is placing more pieces around Solomeo and estimates there are at least 10 years’ worth of commissions to see through. “I believe we all have a responsibility to be guardians of creation — safeguarding the beauty of nature, of the world that surrounds us. This is why I wanted to restore Solomeo, and why I wanted to place art in the village.”
I tell Cucinelli that he is a man who seeks what the greats did, to know the answers to the profound questions of life. And one of the questions they wrestled with is: which is greater, truth or beauty?
He hesitates and tries not to answer. Finally, he relents and says, “Beauty. It is eternal. Beauty is the star by which we must navigate, for it always leads us to the truth.”
Previous pages, left: a large block of Carrara marble in Stefano Giannoni’s bottega awaits the sculptor’s hammer and chisel; and, right, designer, label owner and sculpture aficionado Brunello Cucinelli Far left: third generation sculptor Stefano Giannoni, a craftsman who maintains heritage working methodsLeft and right: sculptures in various stages of progress inside Giannoni’s bottega in Pietrasanta, Italy
Left: among Cucinelli’s more contemporary commissions is a bust of Steve Jobs — his stubble proved problematic to reproduce in stoneRight: more classical styles rendered in marble at the Pietrasanta studioFar right: Cucinelli and Giannoni alongside his carving of Antonio Canova’s ‘The Three Graces’