How I Learned to Carve Marble

Sanchez and I came bouncing down that unspeakable road in the dark in his furgoneta (delivery van). I was lost but supposed we were headed towards the cemetery, which was where all the stone businesses were set up. Hades: the perpetually overcast underworld of tombstones and withered flowers. I’d been in and out of it dozens of times in the last three or four months looking for….for what? I thought it was a simple thing: I wanted to learn to carve beautiful figures in marble. Like Michelangelo.

David_von_Michelangelo David by Michelangelo, a GNU-FDL photo at Wikipedia by Rico Heil (User:Silmaril).

And I needed someone to show me how to do it. That was all. Maybe I was still too close to boyhood and used to people doing “nice things” for me only because I was a kid. I hadn’t yet understood the quid pro quo idea. Parents and grandparents and godfathers and many other people showered a boy with presents and goodwill all the time without requiring anything of him. They seemed happy enough if he smiled in thanks. So I thought that getting someone to show me how to carve stone, if I approached him with filial piety and honesty, was a realistic objective. I was even willing to pay should the fellow plead realities of life. I figured that cinched it. It sounded to me like a business deal.

But when I made this proposal to half a dozen stone-cutters, none of them acted like uncles or my old football coach. They seemed to think I was past the age when boys are helped out of a general instinct the species has for its furtherance and survival. They broke away from their dusty work just long enough to hear the start of my spiel, then turned me out like a salesman. Was I nuts? Either I worked for them and they paid me (a pittance) or I got out of their way. Realities of life.

I had explained my scheme to Sr. Pons and other marblers; to stone copyists; to engravers and teachers of modelling at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios. I had met art dealers and gallery owners. I had even walked into a few real sculptors’ ateliers. Sanchez was the last name in my book: a man whose business was selling abrasives and machinery to stone-cutters and masons. My hope was on its last leg when I got to his shop one evening at closing time. I unrolled my story one more tired time. I had rehearsed it most of the times I’d told it but now, partly because it was so well memorized and partly because I no longer believed in its power as a charm, I just let it come out as it fell. I didn’t expect Sanchez could help me. In my heart I was sure he was just another wild goose.

But he listened. He was a good listener with instant grasp. And he was sympathetic. He thought a moment, ran his finger down a big agenda with telephone numbers and addresses, picked up the phone, looked at his watch, put the phone back down and thought again. “Let’s go try Fernando. He should still be there. If he can’t help you we’ll go see Luis or Braulio, but I think Fernando’s your man.”
“You know a lot of sculptors,” I said.
“All of them,” he said. “I sell to every last one of them.”
And he locked up his shop and hurried me into his furgoneta.

The yard

Sanchez pushed Fernando’s big metal gate right open without drumming on it first. He knew he couldn’t hear us above the compressor. “Watch your step”.

The stoneyard was dark except for Fernando’s big light bulb at the far end. We crossed through a yard that was open to the sky—a vacant lot strewn with enormous boulders. Fernando looked up from his stone and watched us come. “Damn it all,” he must have said to himself. We meant the end of his work. He had counted on another half-hour or hour tonight before calling it quits. Now, at this rate, he would need two more evenings minimum to finish the capital. If there weren’t more surprises. He closed the valve on the rubber tube of the air-hammer and sat up straight to receive us, resigned.

He smiled. Big glasses. A dusty beret with gray hair ducktailing out the back. “Hombre! You’re going to wreck la furgoneta coming out here in the dark,” he said to Sanchez. He was high above us on that big rock, like a preacher in his pulpit, and he had to carefully climb down. “Let me turn the compressor off,” he said, and disappeared into the dark. Suddenly the big chugging stopped and everything was dead quiet; and Fernando reappeared beside us with his hand outstretched.

This was not one of the great meetings in art history. I wasn’t Michelangelo and Sanchez wasn’t my father turning me over to Domenico Ghirlandaio. Great sculptors and painters and their workshops were gone. Sanchez knew me only slightly from Adam. He was furthering the species—doing me a giant favor; and now he was challenging Fernando to do me an even bigger one. They were both unusually generous men in a country that lavishes gifts on the visitor and the foreigner. But one thing is what you offer to do on your own and another what you are asked to do. Other men had listened with a frown while selecting one of the very good excuses they had for bowing out. But Fernando never let up on his smile as he looked first at me, then at Sanchez, and back at me again; and the smile got bigger and bigger. What made him like the idea?

There was the curiosity of my nationality. What the hell was an American doing in Spain trying to learn sculpture? Don’t these Yankees come here teaching us everything? Maybe the guy wants into Montserrat’s racket.

One of his best customers, a sculptor from Barcelona called Montserrat, had ordered and was still ordering dozens of figures for galleries in New York and Washington. Fernando carved them from his plaster models, packed them up, and shipped them off. There was a chance that I would eventually give him some orders like that. But that was too far into the future to affect him. He was sixty and sick with diabetes. He might not even make it to retirement.

No; it was the other thing, the generousness. He liked the idea of showing me what he had learned. He hadn’t had a teacher. And though he had had plenty of people come to watch him work, he’d never had a serious student either. Maybe this boy could learn. Maybe he had it in him to be a sculptor. If he will listen to me, I can save him from all the knocks I had to take. How often have I thought: if only I had known then (when I started out) what I know now!

And Fernando knew everything about the world of stone. In art schools there were teachers who passed on the general principles of sculpture such as you could read in a book. But few or none of them had ever carved more than a trial figure “to get the idea”. Stone-carving, like any craft, needs thousands of hours of earnest practice; and this means years of exhausting work with the hammer and the chisel in a permanent cloud of dust, in the ice of winter and the sweat-dripping heat of summer. Your fingers will deform to accommodate the chisel and your hands will become almost as calloused and thick as your feet. Fernando had been through the mill: he was qualified all right. He was possibly the fastest stone-carver in Spain.

canaletto stoneyardCanaletto – The Stonemason’s Yard (fragment); 1720; National Gallery, London, UK (Wikipedia public domain photo)

“Do you like my workshop?” he asked me, introducing it with a sweep of his hand. He was teasing, challenging too. The place was completely unpresentable…

Next chapter: Carving Michelangelo’s Marble






This entry was posted in art, Michelangelo, sculpture, talla del mármol and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How I Learned to Carve Marble

  1. Pingback: First Morning in the Stoneyard | Fernando's Stoneyard

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  3. Pingback: My Poor Teachers | Fernando's Stoneyard

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