Tallando el mármol de Miguel Ángel

“Te gusta mi taller?” me preguntó, mostrándome el lugar con un gesto de exhibición. Estaba bromeando, retándome también. El sitio parecía la ruina de un bombardeo.  Entre los bloques sin labrar, el suelo subía y bajaba en dunas de polvo y cascotes de piedra. Y más que un taller, era un campamento. Solo dos lados del solar estaban techados; e incluso ellos estaban abiertos al viento y la lluvia que a veces entraba de lado.  Fernando sin duda se preguntaba si yo me imaginaba lo que tenía por delante. ¿Se hartará pronto el novato? No son los yanquis  como niños mimados? Me miró con una sonrisa escéptica.

800px-Trabajo_de_mami_071Taller de cantería (foto Wikimedia de Patty P en dominio público)

Detrás de él, dando saltos para alcanzar el cable de la luz, había una camada de gatitos. Parecían bailar alrededor de él como duendes o hadas. Fernando penetró en la oscuridad y levantó los brazos por encima de la cabeza. Hubo un destello mientras enroscaba una bombilla , y en seguida, una luz contínua. “Mira,” dijo.

La pared estaba llena de estatuas, apiladas sobre gruesos tableros de madera arqueados bajo su peso. Estaban amontanadas de cualquier manera, cubiertas por un centímetro de polvo y manchadas del hollín de la lumbre. Muchas estaban rotas o aplastadas. En esa condición era difícil comprenderlas o apreciar arte alguno. De hecho, nada en el taller de Fernando se parecía a la escultura que yo conocía, de la que hay dos caras. La otra, que yo iba conociendo con los años, es la que se contempla en los grandes museos y se comenta a continuación en cafeterías en el lenguaje abstracto de la crítica. Es la flor tierna, recién cogida del arbusto. El taller de Fernando era el envés, el arbusto, un arbusto espinoso.

El ángel de Montserrat

El meneo del cable eléctrico atrajo a los gatitos, que acudían rápidamente. Se perseguían y se caían unos sobre otros como payasos; y sus persecuciones terminaban en locos saltitos mortales. Subieron a una roca grande y plana como una mesa, y comenzaron a jugar a escondidas alrededor de una figura de color rosa que yo no había divisado. Era de un chico, casi a tamaño natural, que se sentaba sobre una pequeña roca, perdido en triste contemplación. No era como el famoso Pensador de Rodin, no colocaba la mano en la mandíbula, encerrándose en una postura rígida. Por el contrario, se quedaba relajado y como soñando, una mano apenas rozando su cara, como si fuera la caricia de una madre; la otra mano descansaba cerca de la rodilla, posada tan ligeramente como un pajarito. El movimiento se percibía por todo el cuerpo y sin embargo estaba quieto. Aunque se sentaba con verosimilitud sobre la piedra, no parecía tener peso. Parecía a punto de levantarse y salir corriendo con la ligereza de un gamo.

“Es realmente hermosa,” dije, dando pasos a su alrededor para contemplarla desde más ángulos y comprobar si toda la figura estaba tan sumamente graciosa. Fernando me observaba. Fue su primera oportunidad de estudiarme. No quise presentarme como un sofisticado entendido de arte pero sí quería que se diera cuenta de que era capaz de reconocer una cosa buena. “Es un ángel,” dijo. “¿Te acuerdas de [el nombre de un político fallecido hacía poco]. “Es para su panteón.”

Aquí estaba escultura de la otra, de la flor. Era superior a todas las figuras que había visto de un escultor vivo, y era, tuve que reconocerlo, mejor que las que yo mismo era capaz de crear entonces, aunque esperaba superarla algún día. Todos los detalles estaban modelados con la autoridad de una idea clara: ninguno se había hecho como una mera copia de la naturaleza. Todo era una interpretación, un estilo. Fue tal vez su único defecto: el estilo obedecía con demasiada conformidad un canon de elongación y ductilidad. Mas, con todo, el canon funcionaba: el ángel era gracioso, ligero, profundo. No tenía nada del gran estilo, nada de la terribilité del David de Miguel Ángel pero sí, la gracia del joven pastor-profeta de Verrocchio.

“¿Conoces al escultor?” pregunté.
“¿Si lo conozco? ¡Hombre! ¿Cómo no lo voy a conocer? La mayoría de esas figuras son suyas”–señalando las machacadas estatuas de escayola de los tablones. Las miré de nuevo pero no pude ver ninguna tan bella como el ángel rojo, y se lo dije.
“No se pueden apreciar así,” dijo Fernando. “Otro día bajaremos alguna y la miraremos como se debe. Mucho depende de cómo se exhibe. Tendrás que ver lo impresionantes que son en mármol.”
“¿Has hecho todas ellas en mármol?”
“La mayoría más de una vez.”
“¿Y ésta?”–señalando el ángel rojo. “¿En qué mármol vas a hacerla?”
“Carrara.”

800px-Carrara_15Cantera de mármol de Carrara, Italia (foto Wikimedia de Lucarelli bajo licencia GNU Free Documentation)

¡Carrara! ¡El Carrara de Miguel Ángel! Casi todas las grandes esculturas del Renacimiento estaban realizadas en ese mármol blanco de las montañas de Italia. La Piedad, el David, el Apollo, todos eran de mármol de Carrara. Yo tuve cuidado en no decir que el mismo Miguel Ángel era mi modelo a seguir. Sabía que habría parecido una niñería, o según, una afectación o una locura. El joven aspirante a actor, para evitar unas sonrisas odiosas, no anuncia que va a ser como Charlton Heston o Russell Crowe.

Sin embargo aquí, en este improbable taller del siglo veinte, todavía se oía decir Carrara, como si los escultores modernos todavía soñaran con el David y los Gigantes Boboli e hiciesen pedidos de mármol de Carrara porque consideraban que era la única materia prima digna del Arte Verdadero, habiendo sido bendecido por el Maestro. No sabía que todos los cementerios del mundo estaban repletos de figuras hechas de ese mármol.

“¿De verdad proviene de Italia?” Quise decir: “¿Te refieres al auténtico mármol de Carrara?” pero la pregunta salió desviada, golpeada por la sorpresa. “Eso espero, por lo que cobran,” dijo Fernando con un pequeño soplo de risa y una mirada a Sánchez. “Últimamente viene bastante malo. Grisáceo. Gris claro con unas vetas negras, que son más duras que el resto y muy molestas de trabajar.”
“Tienes el bloque para el ángel?” Eché una mirada hacia aquellas piedras esparcidas por el solar.
“Despacio, chaval. Todavía está en el almacén. Pronto lo verás. Y conocerás al escultor también si te quedas por aquí.”

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

Me acerqué a ver el martillo neumático, el primero que había visto, y los curiosos cinceles. “Ya quiere empezar,” dijo Fernando a Sánchez con un guiño. Fernando no trabajaba dando golpes con un mazo sino con un cilindro de acero al final de un tubo de goma, como una manguera de regar con su cabecilla. Lo cogí, algo así como coger una serpiente por la cabeza, y Fernando me tendió un cincel y me enseñó cómo introducirlo en el cilindro. “Un segundo,” dijo, y fue a encender el compresor. El motor arrancó con un ruido ensordecedor. A la vuelta, Fernando dio unas golpes sobre la enorme piedra delante de nosotros. “Venga!” gritó. “¡Atácala!” Abrió una pequeña llave en la manguera y el cilindro comenzó a vibrar.

Inserté mi cincel en el cilindro y lo apunté hacia la piedra. Al tocarla se saltó inmediatamente y se escapó de los dedos. Vi que, para dirigirlo, había que sujetarlo con más firmeza. Fernando esperó para ver si era capaz de corregir mi técnica sin ayuda, luego intervino. Cogió el martillo y, haciendo unos pases con el cincel, rozó la superficie de la piedra. Parecía un peluquero pasando por la cabeza de un cliente con su máquina. “Venga,” dijo, devolviéndome el martillo. “Ahora.” Hice otra pasada con el cincel, esta vez con la mano sujetándolo con firmeza. Algunos trocitos saltaron al aire. “Así”, dijo Fernando, sonriendo.

Yo también sonreí. En el taller de Fernando había encontrado el lugar que durante tanto tiempo había buscado. Me quedaría…

Tercera parte: mi primer día en el taller del cantero

Posted in art, Michelangelo, sculpture, talla del mármol | 2 Comments

Cómo aprendí a tallar estatuas en mármol

La noche ya cerraba. Sánchez y yo íbamos en su rígida furgoneta, dando saltos casi dolorosos por los baches de aquel camino. Yo me encontraba perdido pero suponía que íbamos hacia el cementerio, donde se situaban todos los negocios de piedra. Era Hades, el mundo eternamente encapotado y triste de las tumbas y flores secas. Yo había bajado a él decenas de veces en los últimos cuatro meses, buscando…¿buscando qué? Pensaba que era una cosa sencilla: quería aprender a crear bellas estatuas en mármol, como Miguel Ángel. Y necesitaba a alguien que me enseñara a trabajar la piedra.

David_von_Michelangelo David de Miguel Ángel,  foto Wikipedia GNU-FDL de Rico Heil (User:Silmaril).

Pero no lo encontraba. Había propuesto mi plan a marmolistas, a restauradores de monumentos de piedra, a grabadores de lápidas y tumbas, a profesores de escultura y modelado de la Escuela de Artes y Oficios de la capital. Había conocido a comerciantes y propietarios de galerías de arte. Incluso había entrado en algunos talleres de artistas famosos. Ninguno estaba por la labor.

Sánchez fue el último nombre de mi lista, un hombre que vendía abrasivos y maquinaria a canteros y profesionales de la piedra. Poca esperanza me quedaba cuando llegué a su oficina, una tarde a la hora de cerrar y le expuse mi proyecto. Siempre había cuidado de su presentación, pero ahora, en parte porque la tenia memorizada, y en parte porque ya no creía en su poder para encantar, la solté sin entusiasmo. No esperaba, pues, que Sánchez pudiera ayudarme. En el fondo estaba convencido de que, una vez más, había llegado a ninguna parte.

Pero me escuchó. Sabía escuchar y entendía al momento. Y era compasivo. Pensó un minuto, recorrió con el dedo una gran agenda, cogió el teléfono, miró su reloj, colgó el teléfono y volvió a reflexionar. “Probaremos a Fernando. Debe estar allí todavía. Si no puede echarte una mano, iremos a ver a Luis o a Braulio; pero creo que Fernando es tu hombre.”
“Conoces a muchos escultores,” dije.
“A todos,” dijo. “Vendo a todos sin excepción.”
Cerró rápidamente la oficina y nos metimos apresuradamente en su furgoneta.

El taller

canaletto stoneyardCanaletto – El patio del cantero (fragmento); 1720; Galería National de Londres, UK (Wikipedia  foto en dominio público)

Sánchez abrió la gran puerta metálica, sin avisar. Sabía que Fernando no nos iba a oir por el ruído del compresor. “Cuidado con el piso.”

El taller estaba a oscuras excepto por la gran bombilla eléctrica que iluminaba a Fernando  al otro extremo. Era un descampado, en su mayor parte abierto al cielo, con grandes bloques de piedra esparcidos por el terreno. Fernando nos observaba desde la enorme piedra en que trabajaba. “¡Vaya tardecita!” sin duda se dijo. Representábamos el final de su trabajo. Seguro que había contado con otra media hora o más, esa tarde. Ahora, con esta interrupción, necesitaría al menos dos tardes adicionales para terminar su capitel. ¡Si no surgieran más sorpresas! Cerró la llave del martillo neumático y se incorporó para recibirnos, resignado.

Sonrió con sus grandes gafas, su boina polvorienta, y su pelo gris asomándose por debajo. “¡Hombre! Vas a destrozar la furgoneta. El camino a estas horas es criminal,” le dijo a Sánchez. Estaba sobre su capitel, mas alto que nosotros, como un cura en su púlpito, y tuvo que bajar con cuidado. “Dejadme apagar el compresor,” dijo, y desapareció en la oscuridad. De pronto pararon los estallidos del motor y todo quedó en silencio; y Fernando reapareció junto a nosotros, quitándose el guante para darnos la mano.

No fue uno de los grandes encuentros de la historia del arte. Yo no era Miguel Ángel y Sánchez no era mi padre que me entregaba como aprendíz a Domenico Ghirlandaio. Los grandes escultores y sus talleres ya no existían. Sánchez apenas me conocía. Promovía la especie humana, haciéndome un gran favor. Y ahora retaba a Fernando a que me hiciese uno aún mayor. Los dos eran hombres excepcionalmente generosos en un país célebre por su liberalidad para con sus visitantes y extranjeros. Pero una cosa es lo que uno mismo ofrezca y otra, muy distinta, lo que se le pida. Otros hombres me habían atendido con el ceño fruncido mientras iban seleccionando uno de sus buenos motivos para negarse. Pero Fernando, al mirarme y seguír mi planteamiento, no dejó nunca de sonreír; y la sonrisa se volvió cada vez más ancha. ¿Por qué le gustó la idea?

Había la curiosidad de mi nacionalidad. ¡Qué diablos hacía un yanqui en España con el propósito de aprender la escultura? ¿No son ellos los que siempre vienen aquí para enseñarnos sus cosas? Igual quiere imitar a Montserrat y montar su propio tinglado.
Uno de los clientes de Fernando, un escultor de Barcelona llamado Montserrat, había pedido docenas de figuras para galerías de Nueva York y Washington. Fernando las tallaba siguiendo unos modelos de escayola, las empaquetaba, y las enviaba a su destino. Cabía la posibilidad de que algún día yo le hiciera pedidos así. Pero aquello estaba demasiado lejos en el futuro para beneficiarle. Tenía sesenta y dos años y estaba enfermo de diabetes. Tal vez no llegase siquiera a la jubilación.

No. Era otra cosa: su generosidad. Le fascinaba la idea de enseñarme lo que había aprendido. Fernando no tuvo maestro. Y aunque muchos se habían puesto a observarle mientras trabajaba, ninguno se ofrecía como alumno. Tal vez este chico podría aprender. Quizá tuviera talento de escultor. Si me escucha, le puedo ahorrar muchos de las duros momentos por los que he tenido que pasar. ¡Cuántas veces he pensado: si hubiera sabido entonces lo que sé ahora…!

Y Fernando dominaba el oficio como nadie. En las escuelas de arte había profesores que impartían los principios generales de la escultura como los que podrían leerse en un libro. Pero pocos habían tallado más que unas sencillas figuras de prueba para “coger la idea”. La talla de piedra, como cualquier otro oficio, requiere cientos de horas de ejercicio, que se traducen en años de duro trabajo con el martillo. El frío de los largos meses de invierno y el sofocante calor de verano azotan al cuerpo como si tratara de una penitencia. Los dedos se deformarán para acomodarse al cincel y las manos se llenarán con las durezas propias de los pies. Fernando había hecho el larguísimo aprendizaje; estaba cualificado: tal vez fuera el que mejor y más rápido tallaba la piedra en toda España.

“Te gusta mi taller?” me preguntó, mostrándome el lugar con un gesto de exhibición. Estaba bromeando, retándome también. El lugar era absolutamente impresentable…

Segunda parte: Tallando el mármol de Miguel Ángel

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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.

Fernando

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.

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Carving Michelangelo’s Marble

“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, even in the dark. Only two sides of the big yard were covered with a make-shift roof. And even they were open to the wind and blowing rain. Between the stone blocks the ground rose and fell in dunes of dust and stone chips. It wasn’t a workshop so much as a semi-permanent camp-site. And now, in the half-dark, it looked like a sort of abandoned cemetery. Fernando must have wondered whether I knew what I was in for. How easily will this kid get discouraged? Aren’t Yankees just big babies? He looked at me with a skeptical grin.

Behind him, hopping and jumping to reach the light cord were some kittens, a whole litter of them. They seemed to dance around him like fairies or elves. He walked over into the dark and reached up above his head. There was a flash as he twisted a big light-bulb deeper into its socket, and then a continuous light. “Mira,” he said. “Look.”

800px-Trabajo_de_mami_071Stoneyard (photo Wikimedia by Patty P en public domain)

The wall was full of statues, stacked on massive wooden shelves that bowed under their weight. They were jammed in just any old way and covered with a quarter-inch of stone dust and soot from the campfire. Many of them were broken and crushed. In that condition it was hard to understand them or see anything pretty in them. Nothing in Fernando’s workshop looked like the sculpture I knew, of which there are two, of course. The first does all the recruiting for the second. The first I’d seen in Florence on the Piazza de Signoría, in the Uffizi and the Accademia. That’s the one you contemplate in museums and discuss over a glass of wine in cocky abstract language. It is the fresh flower picked off the bush. Fernando’s yard was the second, the bush (a thorn bush!).

Montserrat’s angel

The wiggling of the light cord had brought the kittens scampering over. They chased and fell on one another like little clowns in a slapstick act; and their chases ended in crazy little somersaults. They hopped up onto a stone as big as a table and began to play hide-and-seek around a reddish figure I hadn’t seen. It was a boy, nearly life-size, sitting on a little rock seat in sad reflection. He wasn’t like Rodin’s famous Thinker; he didn’t wedge his jaw into his hand and lock himself ape-wise into a rigid pose. Rather, he sat as if in a daydream, upright, one hand only grazing his face as though it were the caress of a mother; the other hand resting near his knee, perched as lightly as a bird. There was movement everywhere and yet the lad was still. He sat believably on the little stone and yet he seemed to have no weight, to be about to get up and run ever-so-lightly away. “This is really beautiful,” I said, walking around it to see if it was as good everywhere. Fernando watched me. It was his first opportunity to look at me while I examined the figure. I didn’t want to play the art connoisseur but I did want to let him know that I could spot a good thing.
“It’s an angel,” he said. “It’s for a grave. You remember”—he said the name of a famous politician who had died recently. “It’s for his grave.”

Here was sculpture of the first kind. It was better than anything I had seen by a living sculptor and was, I had to admit, better than anything I could do myself, though I hoped to do even better some day. All the details were modelled with the authority of a clear idea: nothing was done only as a copy of nature. It was all an interpretation, a style. That was probably its only defect: the style obeyed a kind of predictable canon of elongation and suppleness. Still, the canon worked: the angel was graceful, light, and deep. It had none of the grand style, none of the terribilitá of the figures in the Medici tombs, but rather the young grace of Verrocchio’s David.

“Do you know the sculptor?” I asked.
“Do I know him? I’d better: most of those figures are his”—pointing to the rubble of plaster statues on the shelves. I looked at them again but couldn’t see any as good as the red angel and said so.
“You can’t see them,” said Fernando. “Another day we’ll take some down and look at them right. A lot depends on how a figure is displayed. You should see how pretty they look in marble.”
“Have you made all those in marble?”
“Most of them more than once.”
“And this one?”—referring to the red angel. “What marble are you going to carve it in?”
“Carrara.”

800px-Carrara_15Marble quarry at Carrara, Italy (photo Wikimedia by Lucarelli under GNU Free Documentation license)

Carrara! Michelangelo’s Carrara! It was the quarry in the hills near Florence which supplied him and all the great Renaissance sculptors with their marble. The Pietà, the David, the Apollo— almost all Michelangelo’s works were in Carrara marble. I didn’t dare tell anyone that Michelangelo was my model. I knew it would have sounded childish, affected or arrogant, ignorant or mad, so I kept it to myself; like the schizophrenic who is careful not to tell you that he is a beetle because of the bad impression he knows it will cause. Or rather, like the young actor who, to avoid noxious smiles, has learned not to say that he is going to be like Charlton Heston or Russell Crowe.

And now here was Fernando saying Carrara in this unlikely twentieth-century workshop as if modern sculptors still dreamed of the David and the Boboli Giants and ordered figures in Carrara because that was the only proper raw material for True Art, having been the Master’s.

“Does it really come from Italy?” I meant: Do you mean real Carrara marble? But the question came out deflected because I had been knocked off balance by the surprise.
“It had better, from what they charge,” said Fernando with a little gust of a laugh and a look at Sanchez. “It’s been coming in really bad the last few months. Grayish. Light gray with blackish streaks that are harder than the rest and bitchy when you cut into them.”
“Do you have the block for the angel?” I started to look around at all those boulders.
“Just hold your horses. It’s still in the almacen (warehouse). You’ll see it next week. And you’ll meet the sculptor too if you stick around.”

Air_hammer_Cuturi_E-typeItalian pneumatic hammer, with a chisel. A rotation valve is added. (photo by Satrughna under free GNU documentation license)

I went over to look at the air-hammer, the first I had ever seen, and at the big chisels. “He wants to start already,” Fernando told Sanchez with a wink. The air-hammer was no hammer but a steel cylinder at the end of a black rubber tube, like a garden hose with its nozzle. I picked it up—like picking up a snake by the head—and Fernando handed me a chisel and showed me how to back it into the cylinder. “Just a minute,” he said and went to turn on the compressor. The great engine started up and made us all hard of hearing. Fernando came back and patted on the big drum of Colmenar stone in front of me. “Try,” he shouted. He twisted a little brass valve in the hose and the cylinder started vibrating. I aimed my forked chisel at the stone and slid the buzzing cylinder onto it. The chisel jumped and spun between my fingers. I saw you had to hold it tightly in place. Fernando waited to see if I would correct my technique without help, then intervened. He took the air-hammer and sort of combed or scraped the surface of the stone like a barber with his electric clipper who glides it over a boy´s head. “Venga,” he said, handing it back to me. “Come on.”
I made another sweep with the nozzle and the fork and plowed right into the stone. Some chips flew up. “That´s it,” said Fernando, smiling.

I was smiling myself. This was the right place, all right. I meant to stick around…

copia-de-1024px-punktiergerc3a4t“Punktiergerät” by Reiner Flassig – selbst. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons. Making a copy in marble using a pointing tool

Next chapter:  my first day in the stoneyard, the men, the methods

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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