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

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

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’

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