¿Cómo eran los canteros?

Al día siguiente volví a la cantería de Fernando y trabajé allí durante tres años y medio, y ojalá hubieran sido diez. Herman Melville, el autor de Moby Dick, dijo que el ballenero había sido para él su Universidad de Yale o de Harvard. Yo había cursado la universidad pero digamos que la cantería de Fernando, la fea, ruidosa, y sobre todo, polvorienta cantería, fue mi ballenero, y los canteros, mis profesores.

el castillo de proa de un ballenero  (Foto en el New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts)

Cada mañana salía corriendo del metro y trotaba hasta la cantería como un caballo camino del establo. Me esperaban sorpresas todos los días y cosas maravillas que aprender, y no solo de piedra. Nunca más espero ver a gente tan variada y pintoresca de una sociedad antigua, los visitantes del patio: artistas, sus esposas y queridas; y sus clientes, las personalidades de la aristocracia, la política, la banca. Tenía tanto empeño en aprender la escultura que rara vez quedaba suficiente tiempo para el cotilleo del viejo Luis; pero en mi próxima vida quiero sentarme con él, saborear las historias enteras que contaba en su español antiguo y rural, y situar mejor la gente de aquel mundillo.

En pocas semanas empecé a sentirme a gusto. Hice amigos con los trabajadores. ¿Cómo eran?

Los canteros

Eran todos pobres, más o menos sufridos según el carácter de cada uno. Picar piedra era uno de los trabajos más bajos imaginables en un país donde todo trabajo se despreciaba. Era duro y sucio. Tras pocos años terminaba con la salud debilitada, a menudo con silicosis, pero siempre con el envejecimiento prematuro.

Muchos ya tenían una salud precaria al comenzar. Su legado de una familia pobre consistía en enfermedades congénitas y una visión de la vida que les hacía impotentes para ayudarse a si mismos. Era difícil verlos como seres libres. “Algunos nacen con estrella,” decia un refrán, “y otros, estrellados”.

En un mundo rígidamente injusto, donde uno se encuentra abajo, puede intentar subirse haciendo el mal activamente; o bien, como los picapedreros, hacer una huelga de celo perpetua, que consiste en dar obediencia solamente a las formas del deber, como los patriotas de un país ocupado por el enemigo. ¡Prisioneros, sí, pero esclavos, jamás!

Llegaban al trabajo vestidos de ropa sencilla y limpia, la mejor que tenían. Entraban al taller derechos y con las caras impasivas. Luego se cambiaban a los peores trapos, la indumentaria más sucia nunca puesta por hombres teóricamente libres. Eso era su opinión del trabajo. No les importaban que dieran una imagen ridícula. Se resignaban a ofrecer sus cuerpos como prostitutas.

Se ponían camisas rotas o jerseys mancos y guantes a los que faltaban dedos. Se metían en pantalones viejos de otro. Las zapatillas de esparto no les protegían de los tropezones. Tapaban sus cabezas con papel, con un pañuelo, con una bolsa de plástico. Parecían una compañía de cómicos.

Una vez frente a su trabajo, buscaban una manera de abandonarlo. Se les ocurrián numerosos pretextos para dejar el martillo. Paraban a menudo para limpiar la nariz, ajustar los guantes, sus jerseys, pantalones y zapatillas. Hacían viajes a la botella de aguardiente, nunca a mano; a la rueda de esmeril, con un puñado de cinceles; al “baño”: numero dos en el campo, agachados en las malas hierbas; numero uno, allá por el compresor. Más tarde alguien tuvo la idea de abrir un agujero en la pared.

El jefe tampoco era puntilloso a la hora de proveer al taller de comodidades. En vista de la actitud que demonstraban los obreros, pensaba que sería inútil acomodarles.

Todos eran alcohólicos. Cada uno hacía una docena de visitas diarias a la botella de aguardiente, que era un regalo de uno de ellos a los demás. Se podría pensar que hacían eso por turnos pero no era así tan estrictamente organizado. Ninguno quería que sus compañeros le tacharan de tacaño, y así el orgullo le obligaba a cada hombre llevar una botella regularmente.

Algunos días, por tanto, había dos o tres botellas sobre la piedra llana al lado del compresor, y otros días, ninguna. Una de sus más notables cualidades, por no llamarla virtud, era su capacidad de abstenerse. Sé que un alcohólico debe tener su ración diaria; pero había días en que faltaba la botella sobre aquella piedra y nadie podía beber. No había quejas ni protestas visibles y yo empezaba a dudar de su dependencia.

Lo mismo pasaba con los cigarrillos. Había que ser generoso. Nadie simplemente sacaba un cigarro de su bolsillo y lo enciendía. Primero había que pasar la cajetilla por el grupo de amigos, y cuando llegaba de vuelta, se palpaba suelto. Casi la mitad de los cigarros se regalaban. E igual que con el aguardiente, había días que ninguno se acordaba de parar en el estanco camino del trabajo. Eran días sin tabaco y los canteros los superaban sin rechinar. Bueno, quizá una bromita. Había una profunda e instantánea resignación, y un desdén incluso hacía ellos mismos, no solo por la familiaridad con la pobreza.

A continuación: Mis mejores profesores eran Ángel, Luis y Pepe.

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The Stonecutters

Whaleship

I went back to Fernando’s stoneyard that next day and worked there for three and a half years, and I wish it had been ten. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick, said the whaleship had been his Yale College and his Harvard. I had been to college but let’s say Fernando’s ugly, noisy, and, especially, dusty stoneyard was my whaleship; and the workmen there, the poor canteros, were my teachers.

heartsea_mobydick_featuretteScene from the movie “Heart of the Sea”

I skipped out of the last subway exit every morning and ran the old road there like a horse going home. There was a surprise every day and wonderful things to learn, and not just about stone. Never again do I expect to see such varied and colorful people of an old society, visitors to the yard: artists, both sculptors and painters; their customers, their wives, and their mistresses. I wanted to learn stone-carving so badly I never had much time for old Luis’s gossip; but in my next life I want to sit all day with him, hear out the full stories in his old, rural Spanish, and get the people in that world straight.

After a few weeks I began to feel at home in Fernando’s stoneyard. I made friends with the workmen. What were they like?

The Stonecutters

They were all poor, more or less miserably according to each man’s character. Stone cutting is the lowest work imaginable in a country where all work was despised. It is hard, filthy work that ends, after not many years, in broken health, often silicosis, but always early aging from exposure.

Many of them were frail to start with. Their inheritance from a poor family was congenital infirmity and a vision of life that made it impossible for them to help themselves. It is hard to see them as free beings. “Algunos nacen con estrella y otros estrellados”: some are born under the aegis of a star, and others, under its curse.
In a rigidly unjust world, where you are at the bottom, you may try to lift yourself up by actively doing wrong. Or you may do as they did: go on a perpetual huelga de celo or zeal strike, which is to give grudging obedience to the forms of duty only, like patriots in a country occupied by the enemy. A prisoner, yes, but not a slave!

They came to work in simple, clean clothes, the best they had. They walked into the workshop with straight backs and impassive faces.
Then they changed into the worst rags, the filthiest pieces of clothing anyone ever wore freely. That was their opinion of their job. They didn’t mind looking ridiculous. They were resigned to giving over their bodies like prostitutes.

They put on one shredded shirt and sweater over another. They got into any other man’s discarded trousers and shoes. They put on gloves with fingers missing and sweaters with only part of a sleeve left. They covered their heads with paper, with a handkerchief, with a plastic bag. They looked like a troupe of clowns.

Once on the job, they looked for a way off again. Never were there more pretexts for putting down a hammer. There was regular nose-cleaning, rearranging of gloves, and, in winter, of sweaters and trousers; trips to the brandy bottle (never near at hand); trips to the grinding wheel with a whole fist of chisels; visits to the other workmen (I wonder how Pepe is coming); long sessions with the boss (the most licit of things), getting instructions clear; toilet trips (number two, out in the field under cover of high grass, number one, somewhere around the compressor—later someone had the idea to hammer a hole in the wall).

The boss himself was negligent when it came to decking out the shop with comforts. In view of the attitude workmen displayed on the job he considered it foolish to spend good money on accommodating them.

The whole lot were alcoholics. Each man made a dozen or more trips a day to the brandy bottle, which was a present from one of them to the others. You could say they did this by turns but it was not so strictly organized. No man wanted the others to believe he was stingy, so pride made each man regularly bring along a bottle.

Yet some days there were two bottles on the flat stone shelf, and other days there were…none. One of their most remarkable traits—why not call it a virtue?—was their ability to go without. I know an alcoholic must have his daily ration. But there were days when there was no bottle on that stone shelf, and no one got a drink. There was no complaining and no suffering you could see. I wondered whether I had been wrong about their dependency.

The same happened with cigarettes. You had to be generous. No one simply pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit up. You had to first pass the pack around to everyone; and when it came back to you it felt very loose. Nearly half the cigarettes any man smoked were gifts.
Just as with the brandy there were days when only one man or none took the trouble to pick up cigarettes on his way to work. They were days without smoking, and the men got through them without a whimper. Well, maybe a joke. There was deep instant resignation and disdain even for themselves in these men, not just long familiarity with want. They never complained. They either protested (a bark and a growl) or kept their mouths very tightly closed.

Next: My best teachers: Luis, Jacinto, and Pepe

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La máquina de sacar puntos

Cuando Fernando volvió, me preguntó cómo iba a “hacer” mi torito. ¡Vaya pregunta! “Yo utilizaría la máquina,” dijo. “Es mucho más rápido.”

¡Una máquina! Yo no quería ninguna máquina. Quería tallar mis estatuas solo con las manos y los ojos. Pero difícilmente podía objetar a las recomendaciones de mi maestro. Y me preparé para ver la llegada del dichoso aparato. Estaba seguro de que los productos de esa máquina, cualquier máquina, serían deficientes. ¿Cómo podía producir el arte una máquina? Esperé a que la trajeran sobre sus ruedas o su plataforma.

maquina_de_sacar_puntos1-medina Máquina de sacar puntos, montada en la “cruz”(photo Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International de MarisaLR)

Pero, ¡sorpresa! La máquina no era tal. No era más que un hierro fino, como el que se usa para medir el aceite del coche. Lo que se hizo llamarla “máquina” era solamente la manera modestamente ingeniosa de suspender el palito en el aire y sujetarlo, dejando que al mismo tiempo se giraba para poder sacar las medidas de una figura en 360º.

Pero no podía quitar mis prejuicios. Sin examinar ninguna de las figuras copiadas por el artilugio habría dado por descontado que tenían que ser vulgares. Veía que los hombres que las producían no solo carecían de un sentido estético sino del mínimo interés en lo que hacían.

De allí mi sorpresa al comprobar su altísima calidad. No pude descubrir la más mínima diferencia con sus modelos de yeso. Cada curva, cada prominencia, habían sido captadas y reproducidas. Esto significaba que lo único que el escultor tenía que hacer era crear su figura en arcilla o yeso y dejar que estos hombres lo copiaran en mármol con sus maquinitas.

copia-de-1024px-punktiergerc3a4t“Punktiergerät” de Reiner Flassig – selbst con licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 deWikimedia Commons- Una copia en mármol con la ayuda de la máquina de sacar puntos

De momento guardé mi decepción, ya que mi meta era aprender a trabajar la piedra. Luego decidiría si usar o no usar máquinas…

Fernando se subió a su bloque para seguir con su trabajo y fue Luis el que me enseñó a usar el dispositivo, tomando medidas de mi torito de yeso para luego llevarlas al bloque de mármol.

Cogí la maceta y un cincel con punta y me puse a trabajar el mármol. Pero no fui capaz de golpearlo con toda mi fuerza y, por así decirlo, desfigurar el noble bloque. Daba solo golpes simbólicos con la maceta y sentía alivio cuando el cincel resbalaba y solo arañaba la superficie. Al verme, Luis cogió las herramientas de mi manos y demonstró el golpe fuerte y certero del escultor. Una esquirla como una gran polilla salió al aire.

Respeto por el bloque

¿El mármol no es solo un material más? En el pasado desde luego no infundía ningún temor reverencial. Aquellos artesanos no dudaban en cortarlo en trozos, en agujerearlo, en pulirlo para imitar formas y superficies que no tenían nada que ver con su esencia pétrea. Lo único que buscaban era su dureza y, a veces, solo su baratura, en tiempos clásicas, por ejemplo, cuando cualquiera hubiera preferido el bronce. Pintaban sus figuras para alegrarlas, tratando el mármol igual que el yeso.

800px-canterascampaspero6Canteras de Campaspero (foto GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1. de Rastrojo (D•ES)

Este respeto es parecido al que siente el escritor que tiene delante la hoja blanca, aunque la piedra merece una deferencia mucho mayor, no solo por ser más cara. Impone por su masa, su peso, su origen. Es una escultura de la misma naturaleza, una extraña creación de millones de años y de fuerzas invisibles e inimaginables. Es como una montaña en miniatura, con todas sus prominencias y depresiones; y, como aquella, tiene un carácter. Los bloques forman parte del taller como muebles. En el taller de Fernnando tenían el mismo derecho de estar donde estaban como las acabadas figuras de mármol, y casi la misma llamada a los ojos e imaginación. Cuando a Fernando le enseñaba un modelo mío o le explicaba los planes que tenía para una obra, me decía: “Tengo justo el bloque para eso.”; o “si alguna vez haces ese Miura tuyo, quisiera que lo hicieras en el marquina que está detrás de la piedra de esmeril. Llevo tiempo imaginando un toro para ella.”

stone-block

Una vez que los has conocido durante meses o años, has saltado por encima de ellos inumerables veces y soñado con los ojos fijados en ellos, es doblemente difícil empezar a trabajarlos y con un golpe del martillo cambiar por completo y para siempre lo que ha estado confortablemente fijo en tu vida diaria.

La mejor manera de perder el miedo del bloque de piedra es ver trabajar a los canteros. Ellos no sienten reverencia o temor.

800px-une_chasse Herramiento para deslajar o exfoliar el bloque (Wikipedia  free-domain foto)

Hay una herramienta que no incluí en mi lista. Se utiliza para partir los grande bloques de piedra y es tan antigua como la talla de piedra.  Es un cincel grande y pesado, con el filo ancho y plano.  Actua cruelmente sobre el bloque. En manos de un cantero experto sus efectos son devastadores. Sacude al bloque igual que un terremoto sacude a la montaña. De hecho, causa un terremoto, enviando arriba y abajo violentas vibraciones. De un solo martillazo, siguiendo la veta o en contra, grandes secciones del bloque se partirán y caerán al suelo (aplastando el pie inadvertido).

Se acabó la mañana

Cuando quise darme cuenta, era ya la hora de marcharme y no había hecho casi nada. Me vestí y volví por el largo camino al metro, preguntándome si algún día llegaría a aprender a manejar esas herramientas tan crudas, y si tal vez me había dirigido al lugar equivocado. Fernando no era un escultor-artista y sus empleados eran todo menos alumnos del arte. Aún así, aprender la escultura de piedra era lo que me había propuesto y hoy recibí la primera gran lección. Intenté contárselo a Pilar, la criada hecha encargada del piso en que vivía, pero ella solo gruñía y me llamó tonto. ¿Qué bobadas hacía yo? Ella quería que subiera en el mundo, no bajara. Por la tarde fui al trabajo y daba cuatro clases de inglés a mis alumnos; y Pilar tenía preparada la cena cuando llegué a casa por la noche. La engullí y me acosté directamente, exausto.

A continuación: los canteros

..

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Viendo trabajar al escultor

1024px-Lago-Maggiore_1016Monumento al cantero en Baveno am Lago Maggiore (GNU Free Documentation License foto de Mbdortmund)

El angel rojo que yo había admirado aquella primera noche ya no se veía. Estaba tapado por unas viejas camisas de pana y resguardado en un rincón. La mayoría de los trabajadores estaban tallando piedras para las cornizas y molduras de edificios. Solo uno picaba un bloque de mármol blanco y de vez en cuando sacaba medidas de una pequeña estatua de un santo que estaba en una mesa que tenía a su lado. Me acerqué para observarlo.

Trabajaba con el ritmo de una máquina y martillaba con gran fuerza. Jacinto, como más tarde le conocía, estaba dando en el bloque con una herramienta como un clavo gigante o gran lapicero de hierro que hacía saltar trocitos o esquirlas por todas partes. En inglés la palabra “carving” despistaba, no parecía la correcta. “Carving” siempre se hacía con un cuchillo. “Carving” era cortar la carne. “Carving” era grabar con una navaja el nombre de tu novia en el tronco del árbol. “Carving” incluso era tallar la madera. Lo que veía ahora no era “carving”: sería más acertado llamarlo “chipping”. Y me preguntaba si no existía una manera más eficaz. ¿De verdad era la mejor herramienta que el genio humano podía inventar para tal procedimiento? ¿No debe haber un instrumento más rápido y más preciso para dar forma a la piedra? Las esquirlas o trocitos que saltaban del bloque eran muy irregulares y la superficie quedaba igual de rugosa. La única señal de algún método o técnica visible eran pequeños surcos paralelos, por lo que la zona trabajada parecía un diminuto campo arado. Fernando y los demás obreros estaban “afeitando” sus bloques con martillos pneumáticos. ¿Por qué no procedía así Jacinto?

Cómo tallar la piedra

La talla de piedra guarda pocos misterios, o ninguno hasta el Renacimineto. Sabemos cómo esculpían los egipcios, ya que hay obras suyas tanto terminadas como sin terminar, y tenemos sus instrumentos. Son los mismos que los nuestros, aunque forjados en bronce, que nos parece incomprensible. Incluso la punta de un cincel de hierro templado se estropea después de unos minutos de trabajo sobre un mármol duro. Y los egipcios a menudo esculpían basalto, granito y diorita, las piedras más duras que existen. Los griegos ya utilizaban herramientas de hierro pero eran los mismos. Solo hay cuatro tipos, menor que en cualquier otro oficio. Es una de las cosas más bellas de la talla de piedra: hay menos soporte instrumental que en cualquier otro arte. Se talla directamente con las manos, o casi.

En el siglo pasado hubo dos revoluciones en la técnica de la talla de piedra: el martillo pneumático y la sierra de disco. Y últimamente ha habido otra: el ordenador. Pero se siguen usando los mismos cuatro cinceles:

Uno tiene la punta plana como un destornillador; otro tiene dientes como un desgastado tenedor de mesa; un tercero lleva la punta en redondo como la uña del dedo; y el cuarto, el que se ocupa de la parte más dura, termina en punta como un lapicero.

Stone Tools, Set of 6Estas herramientas, que aquí se muestran solo como ilustración, se venden aquí.

Para ayudar en las medidas, además de las escuadras, hay bellos compases de todos los tamaños, el mayor de los cuales puede ser tan grande como el arco de una puerta.

Para suavizar y perfeccionar las superficies rugosas se utilizan mazos con dientes, limas o escofinas, y, para pulir, polvos abrasivos o papeles de lija. En el pasado, se pulía con el polvo de pómez.

¿Cómo se talla una figura en mármol?

El martillo pneumático

Air_hammer_Cuturi_E-typeUn martillo pneumático italiano, con un cincel. Hay una válvula de rotación añadida. (foto de Satrughna de GNU de licencia de documentación libre)

Hace unos ochenta años los canteros y los escultores empezaron a hacer uso de un pequeño martillo pneumático. No es como los martillos grandes y pesados que se usan para abrir un agujero en la calle, aunque el principio es el mismo: la presión del aire sustituye el golpe del brazo del trabajador por una vibración constante.

El martillo pneumático que utilizan los escultores es un pequeño cilindro hueco de unos 25 centimetros de largo. El aire desde el compresor llega por un tubo de goma, con una pequeña válvula para regular su fuerza. Más o menos, todo parece un tubo de regar del jardín: la cabeza en este caso es el martillo. Los martillos pneumáticos de todo tipo impulsan o hacen vibrar brocas, pero el pequeño martillo pneumático del escultor funciona con sus cinceles de toda la vida. ¿Cómo?

Dentro del cilindro vibra un trozo de hierro: es ese su “martillo”. Se coge un cincel, la gradina, por ejemplo, y se mete “de culo” (con perdón) en el cilindro hasta que hace contacto con el trozo vibrador y empieza a su vez a vibrar. Ya se ha convertido el cincel en martillo. Cuando toca la piedra, empieza a romper la superficie, haciendo saltar pequeñas esquirlas. Es así de fácil. El escultor corta su piedra como el peluquero que, con su máquina eléctrica y largo cable, pasa por encima de la cabeza de su cliente. Cuando vi a Fernando aquella primera noche, él yacía sobre el enorme bloque que tallaba y el tubo le envolvía como una serpiente.

800px-afzaat_met_vaste_moet_voor_montan_-_unknown_-_20365138_-_rce Utilizando el martillo pneumático para impulsar al cincel  (Foto licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.
Atribucion: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed)

Manejar el martillo pneumático es fácil, en seguida se coge maña. Y hace más fácil y rápida la talla de piedra. Pero no se puede utilizarlo para el debaste inicial. ¿Por qué?

Porque las vibraciones del martillo pneumático no proporcionan suficiente fuerza para impulsar al puntero, que es la herramienta básica para quitar del bloque las grandes zonas que sobran. No hay nada como los fuertes y certeros golpes del cantero.

Cuando entré en el taller el primer día y vi a los hombres golpeando los punteros con sus mazos, y solo alguno con el martillo pneumático, era porque se encontraban todavía en la primera fase de su trabajo.

A continuación: La máquina de sacar puntos

 

 

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The Pointing Machine

Fernando finally came back and asked me how I was going to “do ” my bull. What kind of question was that? “I’d use the máquina,” he said. “It’s a lot quicker, you know.”

A machine! I didn’t want to use a copying machine. I wanted to carve my statues using only my eyes to guide me. Yet I was hardly in a position to object to Fernando’s suggestion, at least now. I braced myself while waiting to see this máquina. I knew this was the twentieth century and you had to put up with things like that. But the universe being the moral thing that I figured it was, I was sure whatever the primitive contraption could come up with and be proud of must necessarily be deficient. How could a machine produce great art? I waited for them to drag it out or wheel it out.

maquina_de_sacar_puntos1-medinaPointing machine mounted on the “cross” (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International photo by  MarisaLR)

But, lo, the máquina wasn’t a machine! It was no more than a measuring stick, like the oil stick in a car. What made it a macchina was only the modestly ingenious way of suspending the stick in the air, holding it fast and yet allowing it to swivel and do measuring all around the figure. It was a machine only in the old pre-Industrial Revolution sense—an aid to doing what had always been done, i.e., taking measurements.

But I couldn’t get rid of my prejudice. Without examining any of the figures copied with the máquina I would have supposed that they had to be of low quality. I could see that the men who made them not only had no aesthetic sense but even lacked interest in what they were doing. So I was shocked at the high quality of the stone figures they were carving. They were really indistinguishable from the originals. Every curve, every fine curl and bulge had been perceived and reproduced to perfection. How could such a thing be? It meant that all a sculptor-artist had to do was to model a figure in clay and then leave it to the stonecutters to copy in marble. Stonecutters  who hated their job! I kept my disgust to myself for the time being. The idea was to get carving.

Fernando went back to his high rock and it was Luis who came to show me how to use the máquina, transferring measurements from my plaster model to the stone block.

800px-aaltonen_toissa

I picked up the square hammer and the pointed chisel. At first I could not bring myself to lambast the noble block. I shied away from using all my might, made token swings with the hammer, and was relieved when the chisel skipped and made only scratches. Seeing me, Luis took my hammer and chisel from me and demonstrated the sculptor’s slam: a marble chip the size of a moth flew into the air.

Respect for the block

Isn’t stone just another material? In the past it did not strike the awe it strikes in us now. They did not hesitate to hack it to pieces, to drive drills into it, to smooth it into the most unrock-like shapes and surfaces. All they wanted was its hardness. Sometimes all they wanted was its cheapness—in classical times, for example, when anyone would have preferred bronze. They painted over the surfaces to liven it up, treating stone no better then we do a mere plaster figure.

800px-canterascampaspero6Canteras de Campaspero (foto GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1. de Rastrojo (D•ES)

That respect is the same as the would-be writer has for the white sheet of paper, though a stone is much more deserving of deference, not only because it is much more expensive. It is imposing because of its mass, its weight, its origin. It is nature’s own creation, the weird child of millions of years and of the forces that made the universe. It is like a miniature mountain, with all its prominences and recesses; and it has a character like a mountain. People in the stone business get to know their blocks, which stand around like furniture in the workshop. You walk around them all day and at break-time your eyes rest on them.

stone-block

In Fernando’s shop they had all the right to stand where they were that the finished statues had, and just as must claim on your imagination. When I showed Fernand a plaster figure or told him about some work I was planning, he would say, “I’ve got just the stone for that, too”. Or: “If you ever get around to doing that Miura of yours, I’d like you to do it in the Marquina behind the grinder. I’ve been thinking of a bull for that one.”

Once you know them and after you have had them around, stumbled over them for months, daydreamed with your eyes on them (and who knows if you were not led by them and their faces to think in the way you did), it is twice as hard to begin work on them and in one hammer-stroke to change altogether and forever what has been comfortingly fixed in your daily life.

The best way to lose your respect for a block of stone is to watch stone-cutters for awhile. They are not awed into inaction or retreat.

800px-une_chasse Maul or chaser (Wikipedia  free-domain photo)

There is a tool that was not mentioned in the list above. It was not included because it is an accessory really. But it is as old as stone-cutting. That tool is the maul or chaser. It is chisel-shaped—the kind with the screwdriver head—but larger and heavier. It is even blunt, though Jacinto preferred to bevel it slightly. It works cruelly on a block. In the hands of a skilled stone-cutter like Nicanor its effects are incredibly devastating. It does to the block what an earthquake does to the mountain. It actually causes an earthquake to the block, sending violent vibrations up and down it, which is how it works. In one stroke, with or against the vein, entire sections of the block will collapse, whole shoulders will fall crashing (and crushing if your foot is unadvised) to the ground.

The morning ended

Before I knew it, the first morning was over and I had done almost no carving. I walked back to the subway wondering whether I would ever really learn to use those crude tools and whether I had come to the wrong place. Fernando was no artist-sculptor and his men were anything but art students. Still, it was carving I was after and I had gotten my first immersion in the world of stone. I tried to tell the house-maid Pilar about the stoneyard and she just wagged her head. What kind of nonsense was I up to? She wanted me to move up in the world, not down. After siesta I went to work and gave four classes of students their English lesson. Pilar had dinner ready when I got back home—I gobbled it down and went right to bed, exhausted.

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Watching a Sculptor

The red angel I had admired that first night was out of sight, draped for protection in old flannel shirts and put away in a corner. Most of the men were cutting stones for buildings—cornices and mouldings. Only one was chipping a block of white marble and now and then stopping to take measurements from a little statue of a saint that stood on a table beside him. I went over to watch him.

your-drawing-of-sculptor-at-work

He worked with the rhythm of a machine and and brought his chisel down very violently onto the stone. The word “carving” surely seemed like the wrong one. The man—Jacinto as I knew him later—was hammering a pointed chisel like a giant nail or a big iron pencil onto the block of stone and making little chips or splinters fly out all over the place. Sr. Pons the marbler and I had used a similar chisel at first to gouge out the marble of our ashtray and already then I wondered whether there didn’t exist a better one. All the carving I had ever seen was done with a knife. People carved the Sunday roast. They carved their sweetheart’s name on the birch tree. Even the whittler carved his figures in wood with his pocket-knife. Shouldn’t they have called sculpting “chipping”? Was that really the best tool human ingenuity could come up with? Shouldn’t there be a faster and a more precise way to carve stone? The little chips like sharp moths that flew out of the block were very irregular. And once they were out, the surface of the marble was just as rough as before. The only sign of any method, any technique to the chipping, were the little parallel grooves or furrows the chisel left behind, so that the worked area looked like a miniature ploughed field. Fernando and the other workmen were slamming into their blocks or shaving them with air-hammers. Why didn’t Jacinto use one of them?

How to carve stone

There are few mysteries about stone-carving technique—or none at all until the Renaissance. It is known how the Egyptians worked—there are unfinished as well as finished works of theirs—and we have their tools. They are the same as ours, though made of bronze, which seems to be a terrible handicap*. Even the tip of a tempered iron tool flattens or buckles after a few minutes’ work on a hard marble. And the Egyptians often sculpted basalt, granite, and diorite—the hardest rocks there are. The Greeks forged their tools in iron but used the same ones. These are of only four kinds —fewer than in any other craft. That is one of the beauties of stone carving: there is less instrumental support than in any other art. You carve directly with your hands, almost.

In the last century there were two revolutions in stone cutting technique: the air hammer and the disk saw. And lately there has been another: the computer. But the same four tools are still used:
One is flat like a screwdriver; another has teeth like a worn-down fork; a third has a rounded tip like a finger-nail; and the fourth one, that does the heaviest duty, is pointed like a pencil.

These tools, shown here for illustration, are sold at the following site.

To help you measure, there are beautiful iron calipers of all sizes: the biggest in the set might be as large as the arch of a church door.
There are plain iron rulers, T-squares, and squarish hammers, some with teeth.
In addition, you will need files and abrasive powder or sandpaper for polishing. In the past, pumice stone was used for the same purpose.

How do you use these simple tools?

Air-hammer

Sixty or eighty years ago sculptors and stone-cutters started using a small air hammer. It is not like the big, heavy ones you see them using to open a hole in the street, though the principle is the same: air-pressure substitutes the old hammer blow with a steady vibration.

The pneumatic hammer the sculptors use is a small, hollow cylinder half a foot long that feels pleasingly heavy in your hands without causing tiredness. The air from the compressor comes in through a rubber tube at one end. You can regulate the force of the air, and so of the hammer, with a little valve on the tube. More or less, the whole thing looks like a garden hose with its nozzle (the cylinder-hammer).
Air hammers of all kinds “drive” or vibrate drills or bits. This little sculptor’s hammer works with the same old tools sculptors have always used. How?

Inside the cylinder a piece of iron vibrates: that is its “hammer”. You choose a chisel, the claw chisel, for instance, and stick it into—back it into—the vibrating cylinder until it touches that buzzing piece of iron and vibrates too. Now your chisel is a hammer. Hold it to your stone and it cuts right in and shaves little chips away. It’s that simple. Nowadays a sculptor at his statue might look like a barber shaving over the head of his customer with an electric clipper with its long cord—in this case, the long air tube. When I saw Fernando that first evening, lying as he was on the enormous stone drum of a capital he was carving, the air-hose was wrapped around him like a snake.

800px-afzaat_met_vaste_moet_voor_montan_-_unknown_-_20365138_-_rce Using the pneumatic hammer to drive the chisel. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.
Attribution: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed)

Using an air hammer is easy—you get the hang of it right away. And it does make the second stage of sculpting easier and quicker. Though not the first stage. Why?

Because it can’t drive the pointed chisel, which needs heavy blows to work. And the pointed chisel is still the best tool for removing big areas of excess stone from the block. At maximum vibration the air-hammer driving a big claw chisel can throw out a lot of chips but it is no longer very manageable and so the good old pointed chisel is still preferred. Having seen this air-hammer of Fernando’s, I was surprised to find that first day when all the men were at work that half of them were swinging hammers at their chisels. They were at the first stage of their job—that was the reason.

Next: Should I use a pointing machine?

See I Saw Michelangelo Carve

* See this post on Ancient Egyptian carving methods.

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First Morning in the Stoneyard

I had trouble finding the stoneyard that first Monday morning, in spite of Sanchez’s instructions. When I came out of the subway station—the last on the line—Madrid had ended. The buildings stopped and all you could see were bare fields.

“About a quarter of a mile farther, you’ll see the lane to the left,” he had said. He might as well have mentioned the landmark mudpuddle just where the lane began because it was big enough to swallow a car. Except for a few wooden shacks where Gipsies lived and stockpiled junk, there was nothing at all in sight—no trees, no bushes, just a vast plain.

Far off to the left were the beautiful Guadarrama Mountains with streaks of snow on top, just as you see them behind King Philip and his family in the great Velazquez portraits in the Prado.

69_Velázquez_-_Felipe_IV_(Museo_del_Prado,_1634-35)King Philip IV by Velázquez (c.1635), Prado Museum, Madrid (Public domain photo Wikipedia )

I hurried on along the lane. Where the devil was the workshop? It couldn’t have been much farther. I was carrying my little plaster figure and it was getting heavier and heavier.

It was the noise that finally told. It came from a big lot enclosed by a six-foot wall of broken bricks, with canvasses flapping in the wind above the wall, and an enormous metal gate. From a hundred and fifty yards I could already hear a hum; at a hundred yards, a big motor chugging, with hammer-clinking and a trace of shouting. By the time I reached the metal gate, the noise no longer seemed isolated as noise but had become a constant din.

I pounded on the big metal gate and pounded again harder. A little man with a Franco moustache for distinction but a wimpish smile that took it away opened up. It was Pepe, one of the men who would become my colleagues and my teachers. He seemed to expect me and led me across the yard without a word. A dozen men were working and singing and raising dust—the men I would soon get to know: Luis, Angel, Jacinto, Nicanor, and others. Each stood at his stone, which lay here and there around the yard, a-tilt in dunes of marble-chips. They had heard me in spite of all their own noise and they stopped, hammer in hand, to look hard. People of all kinds came through that gate all day and were good entertainment. Afterwards, when each of them had had his look, slowly, with dignity, and after pulling up trousers or rewinding the cloth around the blisters of his hammer-hand, he went back to his daydreams and his songs and hammered his stone or shaved it with his air-hammer-vibrating chisel. Stone splinters began to fly around and billows of white dust blew across the yard like clouds.

LandscapeA stonecarver using compasses to copy a large figure in marble (public domain photo)

Fernando was up on the big stone drum of his capital again, and he came down when he saw me. “Put your figure on that flat rock over there and let’s have a look at it,” he said. He was covered with white dust and there were little stone chips in the pits of his eyes, which he didn’t seem to care about. I laid the figure carefully on the rock and uncovered it, proud and ashamed of it at the same time. It was one of my first figures. I had modelled it in clay in the room of the elegant residence where I lived, and then made this plaster copy, also one of my first. It was a lying bull—a Spanish fighting bull, of course. “So you like the bullfight, do you?” Fernando said, smiling. “What marble are you going to do it in? Black? Come over here.” (No comment on the artistic merit of the bull, of course. That didn’t concern him. A stab of disappointment for the artist.)

Toros_de_Baltasar_Iban_pour_la_corrida_d'AlèsFighting bulls from the  Baltasar Ibán  farm, waiting in Saint-Martin-de-Crau before the bullfight in Arles, France (photo CC-BY-SA by Alain MISTRAL)

We went to see a very irregular gray rock—I wouldn’t have thought of it as a block—lying on a sliding pile of marble chips. “How about this one?”
He found a piece of sponge, dipped it into a pail of dirty rainwater, then wiped the gray stone with it. That made a shiny black patch on the stone which like a window showed you what was inside. “It’ll get even darker than that when you polish it, but there you have an idea.”

When I bent down to take hold of the stone Fernando stopped me. “Let Pepe do that. You’ll get yourself a hernia.”
He called Pepe over and ordered him to carry the stone to a corner of the yard and to set me up to start. Then he climbed up on his rock again and I heard his air-hammer start up.

Pepe, the flatterer, made a fuss over my little plaster bull. “Torito,” he said, petting it and chuckling. “Le gusta España?—Do you like Spain?” And once he had set the gray stone on a table beside my model and kept it from rocking with wooden wedges, he assured me that when I was finished, I would like the black marble bull very much. “You’ll see,” he said with certainty. This, coming from a man I thought ought to know since he had seen hundreds of polished figures, was very exciting to hear. Pepe walked away then, his orders carried out. For a moment I had nothing to do but look around.

Chapter one: How I Learned to Carve Marble

Chapter two: Carving Michelangelo’s Marble

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