Michelangelo Foundation Homo Faber Event
The Foundation / Reflections Posted on October 30, 2019 The Ready Hand by Franco Cologni

The transmission of knowledge from a master to a young artisan is a very human act, but it evokes a celestial image by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – God’s hand reaching toward Adam’s, endowing him with life. When I think about ensuring the future of fine craftsmanship, I picture a similar spark of energy that must pass from the hands of today’s masters to those of the next generation. At a time when technology often replaces the human touch, it is an urgent task.

A career in fine craftsmanship is a great calling. To spend one’s working hours creating things of great beauty and utility is indeed to touch the divine. It is hard work, but it is deeply meaningful: it connects to centuries of tradition and reflects our cultures and our enduring values. It is also economically vital: master artisans are at the centre of many of our industries – from furniture to fashion – where they often produce the most innovative and acclaimed work. It is master craftspeople who bring their deep knowledge of materials and method to make real not only their artistic vision, but that of the world’s best designers.

Moreover, there is rising appreciation for and interest in work made by hand, perhaps in response to increasing digitisation and the sheer speed of our twenty-first century lives. Many of Europe’s art and design schools are offering innovative training for aspiring artist-artisans, combining hands-on learning in crafts workshops with history, theory and design in the classroom. We must elevate these opportunities. One way we are doing that at the Michelangelo Foundation is to include these leading institutions in our network and featuring their graduates in our programmes.

This past summer we witnessed a beautiful convergence in which the Michelangelo Foundation’s Summer School brought graduates of many of these fine schools – artisans and designers alike – to spend time in European ateliers working side by side with masters as they demonstrated hot glass sculpture or intricate techniques of basket weaving and tapestry making.

Another opportunity to meet and be inspired by master artisans is our Young Ambassadors programme in which dozens of students from Europe’s leading training institutions take part in Homo Faber, our biennial showcase to master craftsmanship in Venice. I am heartened by these young people, who gain a wider sense of what’s possible and leave Homo Faber knowing there is great value in learning from the masters.

The transmission of know-how from master to pupil often takes place less formally, in the intimate space of an atelier or workshop. In these apprenticeships, a young artisan spends many hours alongside a master learning by doing, gesture after gesture. This time-tested process of transmission is also worthy of our support. One thinks of the Compagnons du Devoir, a tradition of apprenticeship which dates back to Medieval times in France. Over the course of several years, trainees travel from community to community to apprentice with master artisans. Notably, at the end of their training, the Compagnons pledge to pass their expertise to a new generation.

The path to mastery is a long one, and if we are to promote this journey, we must know more about just what it is that makes a master. An inspiring place to start is with Michelangelo himself. Writing in a poem some 500 years ago, he suggested that the artist-artisan must employ “both mind and hand”:
Only after the intellect has planned
The best and highest, can the ready hand
Take up the brush and try all things received.

As he suggested, to create as an artist-artisan is to embark on a complex journey. Fortunately, there are clear signposts along the way that can help us prepare the path. In 2017 the Foundation published a book, The Master’s Touch, which lays out the essential elements of artisanal excellence. Led by Alberto Cavalli, the research reveals eleven key criteria that make a master, from competence to authenticity and interpretation. The findings were confirmed and enriched in many conversations with artistic masters from a range of disciplines. I will mention two of the criteria here because they directly relate to the transmission of know-how to the next generation of masters.

First is training, the art of teaching, inspiring and building future craftspeople. A master recognises potential in aspiring artisans and is able to develop their talent and nurture their knowledge. Mastering this area of excellence requires not just a thorough knowledge of one’s discipline, its tools and techniques, but cultivating a maturity for collaboration and teamwork and an openness to continuous learning on the part of the master as well as the pupil.

The other area of excellence related to transmitting mastery is tradition. But it’s not about preserving a past in resin but creating a vibrant future – breathing new life into a precious tradition. It’s about helping students see and feel the beauty and possibility of using the finest materials and centuries-old techniques in new ways. It is about the renewal of this know-how as it is taken up by new talent with great skill – and a ready hand.

Cavalli A. with Comerci G. and Marchello G. The Master’s Touch: Essential elements of artisanal excellence. Venice: Marsilio, 2018.
Cologni F. “La regola e la passione del sapere” (The rule and the passion of knowledge), in Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte and Fondazione Deutsche Bank Italia, La regola del talento: Mestieri d’arte e Scuole italiane di eccellenza (The rule of talent: The artistic crafts and Italian schools of excellence). Venice: Marsilio, 2014.
Tusianai J. The Complete Poems of Michelangelo. New York: Noonday Press, 1960:146-147.

Posted on October 30, 2019 The Ready Hand

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