“I was eleven years old when I stepped into a workshop for the first time. Every morning I would wake up and run to the church to pray to the Virgin, so she would make me work. And finally the day came, when the headmaster called out my name and sent me to take some coffee and drinks for the other artisans. That day I stepped into the church twice to thank God for his mercy. That was the first day of work of the last fifty four years.”
This is the beginning of an interview with Piero Giannoni, artist mosaic maker in Pietrasanta, a small town at the foot of the Apuan Alps where white marble is carved still today. This little village sheltered by an ancient fortress along the Via Francigena is dominated by the Duomo church, whose rose window is attributed to Michelangelo. But it is not until the 19th century that Pietrasanta developed several crafts connected to the marble excavation and carving. Its artisans became more and more accurate and skilful in marble, bronze, mosaics and modelling. Michelangelo was probably one of the first famous artists to hang around its workshops
“Young people nowadays think they can enter the door, sit down and put their hands on art pieces… but, this is not the way it goes… I spent two years in the shop without even touching a tool, but sweeping, preparing the glue, ordering coloured tiles on the shelves, always casting an eye to the careful movements of hands, the way to handle the hammer, smooth the edges, polish them. The day I sat to put my hands on a mosaic, I was ready to do it, because I had all information and techniques in my head.”
I will admit I have always been fascinated by Piero, both as a man and as an artist. I used to drop by his workshop in Pietrasanta with my clients to show them how mosaics have been made since time immemorial, but mostly to introduce them to a simple and genuine, yet gifted friend.
I have no fear of missing him, because he is working every day, Monday-to-Sunday, either on his commissions or on his personal works. He is a master of mosaic portraits: Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli, Patrizio Bertelli, aka Prada’s patron and Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Republic of Italy, among others. Many of these celebrities are usually showing up in Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany’s holiday luxury hot-spot, which is a short distance from Pietrasanta and Piero is proud to gift them with his works whenever he gets the chance. One day he was sitting at his desk facing the entrance, when a young boy and his girlfriend peeked into the shop. Piero welcomed them and showed them around, when the young man exclaimed: “This is Roberto Cavalli!”, and Piero replied “You are right! I tried to get in touch with him with no luck.” “I could help you deliver your piece, if you want.” and Piero said “Of course! That would be great! But, hang on, how could you do this?” and the guy firmly replied “Because I am his son!”. That day Piero received a call from Roberto Cavalli - overwhelmed by the beauty and generosity of the artist. Piero is in his seventies and he is the youngest of the gang, as he used to say. Every time I think that all his life experience, expertise, knowledge and art will end with him, I feel sad and depressed. How are young students and trainees not able to grasp the beauty and great expectations behind this job? How can the young generations be so blind about their professions?
Despite the narrow and a bit messed-up lab, Piero and his colleagues have worked, and still do work, on gigantic art pieces all over the world, from Russia to Kazakhstan and USA, just to mention some.
So, you meet up with this humble guy who presents himself as a worker, and then you find out that he was part of the team who made "The Birth of Liberty" at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, which is considered the longest mosaic ever made: 162 feet long and 28 feet high, with ten million pieces of Venetian glass. If life is, indeed, a mosaic, where each tile is an hour or minute of our existence, I wish mine could be laid by Piero’s tireless hands and his immeasurable passion.