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The ancient art of the stonemason - worthless sculptors or misunderstood masters?

Posted on07/04/2018

The work of stonemason has existed since the dawn of civilization. It has gone through the centuries until it has reached us practically unchanged.

The tools have become more effective and resistant, thanks to the introduction of new materials and new shapes, but most of the secrets of the trade are always the same and in some cases they are jealously guarded family secrets.

Another thing that has remained, unfortunately, unchanged is the reputation of this profession.

Even today, if you open a paper dictionary, or go through one online, you will almost certainly stumble upon a section of the “stonemason” which emphasizes that the term is used in a derogatory sense to identify sculptors without any value, artists without art.

How was this profession born and what does it mean to be a “stonemason” in our times?

Where does the contempt for this work come from?

In this article we will try to answer these and many other questions. We will make a quick excursus along the history of this profession full of anecdotes and forgotten heroes.

How about accompanying us on this journey? Who knows, you may find that your great-great-great-great-grandfather took care of the facades of some famous building!

In ancient times, between sand and sweat

The first stonemasons we know of are those who worked on the construction of the Great Pyramids.

The stonecutters were the ones who knew the material well enough to know how to cut and work it in order to have the necessary blocks.

The denigration of this profession began in Egypt, at the dawn of humanity and this profession.

The stonecutters were "quarry workers capable of cutting the stone and smoothing it with a chisel to build works in series", so they were workers, not artists, and did not make art because they had to create all the same blocks following someone else's specifications.

Despite the low social background and the sufficiency with which they were treated, without the stonemasons antiquity would have been much more different and harsh. Stone was the most resistant material available for various uses (houses, wheels, furniture, etc ...) and they were the only ones able to get their hands on it.

The (re) birth of an art

The situation did not change particularly during the Greeks and Romans. The real evolution of the stonemason's role took place during the Middle Ages.

The stonemason became part of the various guilds and guilds of the arts and crafts of the Italian cities. Finally, the "art of the stonemason" officially existed and these artists were commissioned to bas-reliefs and external-internal finishing of houses and palaces.

It remained labeled as a minor art and those who worked on it were still far from being considered a true artist, but the Renaissance stonemason was not only part of a guild but had more freedom of movement and could choose the stone to use and assert itself on the customer.

Unfortunately, not being considered true artists, the name of these stonemasons has been lost in history, even of those who worked on the most important noble palaces.

In addition to construction, in this period, the Italian stonemasons were also involved in creating various more or less valuable artifacts. The millstones of the mills, the troughs for the animals, etc ... everything that was in stone had passed, at least for a phase, into the hands of a stonemason.

It was hard work, even if only for the heavy and uncooperative raw material. The stonemason worked the stone for hours, consuming enormous energy and was often forced to work in uncomfortable or unsafe positions (especially when it came to buildings) which ensured at least back pain.

These were obvious problems that everyone was aware of, but what really undermined the health of the stonecutters was a far more subtle thing.

During the working of the stone a dangerous amount of dust was created and the stonemason did not have to follow the safety rules, so no goggles and goggles.

Many stonemasons, at a young age, were already suffering from asthma or other respiratory problems. A hard work that consumed those who operated it and undermined their lungs, it is no wonder that the stonemason of the past tended to live less than the national average.

Escape of "hands"

The Renaissance city stonecutters managed to earn their space in the world and their dignity. The "quarrymen", that is, the workers of the quarry delegated to extract the blocks, still had a bad time.

Now it is a job that no longer exists, carried out mainly by highly skilled machinery and workers who know how to use them. Modern blocks are truly mass-produced and an old-fashioned "quarrier" wouldn't be able to compete.

The trade of the “city” stonemason is not dead, however, it continues thanks to the stone artisans, especially those specialized in marble.

In Italy the craft of stonemason exists and has been handed down, usually in the family, for centuries. Even without credit, there are many families who have pursued this art over the years and have made a name for themselves.

The Italian stonemason, like many other things, is a "must own" in many foreign countries. We have no sure traces of the movements of the pre-900 stonemasons, but as far as the last 120 years are concerned, the situation is quite different.

We have diaries and contracts dating back to the beginning of the last century. The first "migrations" of stonemasons tended to bring them to Russia, especially in the Siberian area where they were required for galleries or humble occupations. The task of these stonemasons was to help the locals and teach them the art, in an uncompromising land.

The second wave was obviously headed to America and here the Italian stonemasons became an important part of the building, especially New York.

We also lost many master stonemasons during the persecutions of the fascists, some returned to their homeland but many exported the art abroad and their techniques merged with those of local artisans.

Challenge between machine and chisel

The contemporary stonemason tends to do more meticulous and refined workmanship, also because it is no longer his job to make the actual object starting from the block. However, they have a pivotal role in the world economy: they are the only ones capable of getting back to the work of their predecessors.

Only they know the properties of the stone and are aware of the methods used previously to work it, so they are the only ones capable of restoring, without damaging, all those great Renaissance works.

Without them, buildings would fall and instead of ancient battlements and balustrades we risk having metal pylons or simply a sign saying: “Attention, unsafe. Don't come near ".

They are also the only ones capable of faithfully reproducing the works of the past or creating new ones that, however, give the idea of ​​being ancient. A machine can cut a block for you but is unable to create a bas-relief, the most it can do is copy an existing one.

Even in that case the final result is not certain, each block of marble is unique and it is not certain that a perfect shape for a certain block is good for another. The colors could be so different as to make the final result unpleasant or the block could literally give way because the machine hits a weak point without noticing it.

"Achieving" between "Ponciotti" & "Giandini"!

We conclude with a quick overview of techniques and nomenclatures typical of this profession. So if you happen to order something from one of our marble artisans (such as Petram), you can show off your knowledge.

To give an example: "goal" in jargon not only serves to talk about a goal to be achieved but also identifies the ability to work the rough stone in a precise manner. So "I have reached the finish line", or "I have reached the finish line", can mean having done the first roughing of the stone, but not automatically having finished the job.

The "Cognara" is a vertical slit a few centimeters long made to cut stone. The depth of the cut depends on the size of the boulder as well as the skill of the stonemason in identifying the weak point of the boulder.

The "Ponciotti" and "Giandini" have fallen somewhat into disuse, but they were the key tools of the trade in the quarry because they were used to cut and trim the stone.

Initially they were made of steel, often recycled steel reforged as needed and hardened to be usable.

Currently, steel is almost no longer used, the machines use diamond tips and cables but also hand tools are made, or coated, with materials designed specifically to be resistant and non-deformable.

The Ponciotto is a cylinder 4-5cm in diameter and about twice as long. The shape of the tip can vary depending on the type of stone or work to be done.

However, it is not a cutting tool, it is inserted into the cognara and pushed deeply. It is the evolution of wooden wedges, once placed in the cracks and wet and then waiting for the expansion to split the stone.

The Giandino, on the other hand, is a sort of edged chisel used for trimming. The type of cut depends mainly on the force that is impressed in the hammer that hits it.

“Bush hammering” means beating the stone with a plaque, usually of small dimensions, more or less notched depending on the type of work to be done. Once it was a process done entirely by hand with modified hammers, now usually computerized machines that use the pressure of compressed air to strike are dealt with.

“Facciavista” is a worked stone which however maintains the natural split. It is not cut or sawn in any way, at most lime and plaster are used to combine them with other stones or to make some surfaces less angular. In short, nothing is taken away, at most it adds up.

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