A Stonemason and a Sculptor

The contract?

But business was business, wasn’t it? I thought it was time for the two parties to sit down and thrash out the terms of the contract. “I will pay you whatever you think right,” I said.
“All you have to do is come here on Monday morning and we’ll get started. “We’ll talk about money some other time.” He went on chatting with Sanchez.
But I insisted: “How are we going to do it? Will I pay you by the month?”
His smile had gone down to a frown now. “You can pay me once you cost me something. Don’t worry about it, all right?” This he said with more than a trace of hint-giving that I should drop the subject. It was bad manners to go on speaking of money.
But this was no agreement at all. “At least let me pay for the marble blocks!” I pleaded.
“How big is your figure?” he said with exasperation.
I showed him with my hands. He shook his head. “Look, right there’s a piece of Marquina you can have. That’s too small for me to do anything with.”

800px-CanterasCampaspero6 Campaspero quarry
(GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1 photo by
Rastrojo (D•ES)

Should I give up? Should I consider it all a gift, as he wanted, and accept graciously? This wasn’t a drink he was buying me. I wanted to work at his workshop, using his tools and machinery, for weeks, maybe months. I wanted him to spend time showing me how to carve marble. Apparently he himself didn’t picture this contract correctly. “You have to charge me,” I said with determination. “Come on.”

I hadn’t yet understood my man, didn’t know what I was up against. Fernando was no meek craftsman I could cajol or soften up with a flattery or a tip. He was a proud king of a man and I was risking his royal displeasure. “Later on,” he said, “when you make bigger figures and we have to order the blocks, I’ll charge you for them. OK?” This was his absolute last statement on the subject. He abruptly turned his back on me and walked away with Sanchez.


VII_Festa_da_Malla_01.15bStonemason carving a ball, at the VII Festa da Malla do Grove (Pontevedra) (Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license photo by P.Lameiro)

Fernando was a stonemason—copying marble figures for artists was only a sideline for him. The stonemason used to be everywhere. Always, from the beginning of history, buildings of any consequence were made of stone and the mason was the builder. Out of raw boulders he made slabs and moldings and building blocks, and set them in place. He was in charge of the work, he executed the architect’s plan. But now modern construction doesn’t use much natural stone, or natural anything, and stonecutting has usually become part of the carpenter’s job.

800px-Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._109The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563, detail showing stonemasons (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Some masons specialized. They did the fine carving on moldings and delicate indoor marble decoration. These men were what cabinet-makers are in carpentry. Marble was their mahogany and ebony and teak. Some were virtuosos with a chisel, able to turn out arabesques and flowers and other patterns.

There was another specialist: a marbler who did not come from the sphere of construction. He was the gravestone worker. He had nothing to do with masons. Cemetery sculpture was its own world. He was set up near the graves. Most of his work consisted in engraving names and dates on marble slabs. Now and then he would carve a cross in them or even a design which he traced from one of the patterns he had around the shop. And some of these gravestone marblers actually did statues but the figures were not of their own invention. The models came from their suppliers, they displayed them in their shops, you chose one and the marbler copied it for you in stone.

Fernando was all of these. He took what work he could get. After the Spanish Civil War, sin oficio ni beneficio, he had joined the workmen in his hometown, repairing its ruined cathedral. He had only blocked out building stones and cut a few moldings when he decided to come to Madrid. His fingers weren’t yet even deformed to make a clamp for the chisel. He had never done a figure; nothing like sculpture.

1024px-Lago-Maggiore_1016Monument to the stonecutter at Baveno am Lago Maggiore (GNU Free Documentation License photo by Mbdortmund)

So it was unbelievably bold—rash—of him to take on an order, after just six months with his own business, for a fifty-foot statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for a famous monastery. He had to find a bigger place to work, round up a team of workmen, find his suppliers in a new city. There was a deadline. He had to trust in himself, that he would be able to enlarge a small model and copy that colossal statue to perfection. It was an ambition worthy of a Michelangelo, who accepted a commission to paint the ceiling of the Sixtine Chapel though he had never painted in fresco. Fernando was confident. He was sure he would solve the problems as they came up. For the first time he had found a challenge as big as his talents.

Hernán Cortés once sighed in disgust when he heard that one of his captains had abandoned a mission because he had judged it impossible: “As if there were some problem that couldn’t be solved with imagination and effort!” Fernando certainly agreed. In another quirk of destiny he might have led a company of irregular soldiers into Aztec country or a shipful of near-mutinous sailors to a New World. But now, in this Old One, poor health was slowly taking away his strength and ruining a business only a man like him could make successful.

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

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