05 May 2013

LIFE: In Black and White

CHIAVARI, Italy – It was always the stones that fascinated me, those smooth, oval black and white stones used to create the beautiful pavement designs found in piazzas and gardens and in front of churches and other buildings here in Italy. Someone somewhere had culled those stones from the riverbeds and along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Someone somewhere had waded into the water and picked them up one by one, judged them perfect and carried them off.

Walking on Art
Up until World War II, stone culling was an industry In Vigevano, a small town south of Milan. Stone pickers would stand and scan the bottom of the nearby Ticino river for stones of a certain size and color. The best ones would be tossed into a small boat that they pulled along behind them.

Long before cars were invented and roads were paved the Ticino river stones were carried through the mountains and valleys of Lombardy in hand woven straw baskets tied to the backs of mules. They were used to decorate piazzas in towns as close as those on the Italian Riviera, and as far away as Venice. In the 14th century, a Venetian master craftsman discovered that by adding ground up white stones from the Ticino river to a soda ash solution, he was able to filter out the impurities in Venetian glass. The glassmakers of Murano rejoiced for that breakthrough launched the Venetian glassmaking industry, which is still going strong today.
 It Starts Like This
Here in Liguria they bought some stones from the Lombards, but they also collected them themselves. They used them to create amazingly beautiful stone carpets that added to the beauty of glorious baroque churches like the Basilica of Santa Margherita in Santa Margherita Ligure, and the Villa Durazzo, also in Santa Margherita Ligure.

The technique of creating these masterpieces in stone is called ‘risseu’ in Genovese, and it is a dying art. You have to admit we can all think of many other ways to spend our days than on our hands and knees pressing stones into wet cement to create complicated designs. You have to have had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune, of inheriting the ‘passion for art’ gene which was so prevalent in Italians in the past when those who had it made Italy one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Popular opinion that – not just my personal prejudice.

You Need Patience, Dedication and a Strong Back
But today things are different. Somehow the ‘passion for art’ gene mutated to become   the ‘passion for technology’ gene. Fortunately Luca Riggio e Luciano Bonzini are two Genovese who inherited the original gene and are now doing their best to keep the art of ‘risseu’ alive. Both men are artists and artisans who specialize in restoring old mosaics and stonework. A few years back Riggio merged his bottega with that of Bonzini’s. Their business is called Laboratorio Musivarius, and it is located in the historic center of Genova.  

It was their interest in old mosaics that led to them to trying their hand at the art of ‘risseu’, as the techniques are quite similar. They started with small pieces, little decorative ‘doormats’ of stone, but after they were hired to restore a ‘risseu’  at the 17th century Sanctuary of Madonnetta in Genova, they were hooked.

 The 'Risseu' at the Sanctuary of Madonnetta in Genova
In a recent interview with Il Secolo, Genova’s newspaper, Luciano Bonzini explained what happened. “It was so moving to work with that ‘risseu’”, he said, “to continue an art form that has been around for two thousand years, it was almost like meditation. It takes incredible patience to place one stone at a time in a particular order, often thousands of stones, and not lose your concentration. Just knowing that we were, in our small way, helping to keep a Ligurian tradition alive was very satisfying and we knew we wanted to work in this medium.”

About 15 years ago the Italian government passed a law against collecting stones from beaches. This somewhat insignificant law creates immense problems for Bonzini and Riggio. They could use river stones, like those from the Ticino river, but those stones are not part of Ligurian tradition, and both men are confirmed traditionalist. So when there are broken or missing stones in a work they are restoring, they have to ask for special permission to collect stones from the beaches of Liguria.

One Stone at a Time
But the real problem is the lack of protection not only for the works of stone art Bonzini and Riggio restore, but those found throughout Italy. While Italian law protects the pebbles on its beaches, it only protects ‘risseu’ that are near churches. Other ‘risseu’ are often abandoned or become parking lots, their historical value slowly destroyed by the daily to and fro of traffic.

One of their more interesting projects was a recent collaboration with German artist Ilona Lenk, winner of a design competition for the urban redevelopment of part of the campus of Tuebingen in Germany. Together they created a work that brought together applied art, poetry, architecture and the genius of traditional artistic Italian workmanship. It was a successful marriage of yesterday and today, and one that will stand the test of time.

Working on the Ilona Lenk Project in Germany
Most of the ‘risseu’ found in Liguria are done in black and white, a color combination that is carried out throughout the region in buildings, porticoes and churches. There are a few exceptions though, some ‘risseu’ are pink or reddish in color, but the black and white theme is much more prevalent. 

It’s pretty much impossible to rank which of the ‘risseu’ are the most beautiful. One particular example that would be on such a list, if such a list existed, is the 18th century church of Santa Croce in Moneglia, on the Ligurian coast. The church of Sant’Erasmo and the Villa Durazzo in Santa Margherita Ligure that I mentioned before would also be on that list. But truth be told, no matter where you are in Liguria, if you look around and poke around you are sure to discover a ‘risseu’ or two. They are everywhere.
 The Ilona Lenk Project

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