Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Craftsmanship, revisited in Venice and Ravenna

I began the first of three blog posts on craftsmanship quoting the didactic panel next to Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made." I wrote in that post of the lore of craftsmanship that was part of knitting, quilting, ceramics or woodworking, suggesting that one of the qualities of craftsmanship was its relationship to time.  The practice of a craft--ceramics, for example--is founded in the rituals and practices of other ceramicists who have gone before.  I also suggested that craftsmanship is timeless, insofar as the maker is not concerned with how long it will take to piece that quilt or make that Shaker box, but with how well she or he is doing it.  Bill Reid's words, even after my trip to Italy, still seem like the right place to begin this conversation.

I realized, after my time in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, that I have made unarticulated assumptions about craftsmanship.  In particular, I have tended to see craftsmanship as part of a minimalist aesthetic, one that you can see in a piece of well-turned wood or a mellifluous sentence.  Craftsmanship, I think I would have said, is present when the simplest, most elegant solution to a maker's problem is brought to bear.  This is ironic, given that most people who aren't quilters tend to see quilting as a practice of buying perfectly good fabric and cutting it up into tiny pieces to sew it together again.  Some of my quilts are simple, like the Amish ones.  Many of them employ colour and pattern and design in ways that are less than simple.  And then there's my penchant for knitting complicated lace, particularly when I can't sleep.  I think my error is the product of nostalgia, of the notion that the times when the lore of a craft developed were simpler times.  Someday, though, there's going to be a Ph.D. thesis on the craftsmanship of the effective tweet or the engaging computer game or the most elegant Ap. Or at least an essay.

The Basilica de San Marco, was (finally) consecrated in 1093, and is an example of Italo-Byzantine architecture--and of Venice's historic connections between "east" and "west."  Every surface is decorated.  The walls and the vaults that hold up the domes are the simplest example of such decoration:  marble with complicated patterns has been cut in sheets and re-assembled on the structure to create complex patterns.  The floor of the enormous church (of which I have a good dozen photographs because they are a great sourcebook for quilters) is entirely made of inlaid stone, one pattern butting up against another.  The capital of every column is carved and often painted gold.  Some columns in lesser-used areas are carved into a wood frieze that twines around, with hundreds of people and animals in each column:  they are an encyclopedia of human experience, showing a knight in armour, a shepherd carrying his sheep, a man hanging himself.  Those found at hand height are lightly worn where people have touched them as they passed, adding another layer of the human.  The ceilings are covered with mosaic figures, most of them in a simple gold ground.

I would have expected to be overwhelmed with the relentless decoration, longing for a simpler structure of Palladio, for example.  But I was uncharacteristically entranced.  Veronica (whose photographs you see here, except for mine of the floor) put my reaction well.  For the most part, one thinks of places like St. Mark's as expressions of "the greater glory of God," yet what one often experiences is the glory of the human:  of our inventiveness, of our delight in craftsmanship, of our sense of the human, of our attempt to reach toward the divine.  You could feel, in this space, the makers' delight in invention, in the craftsmanship necessary to give voice to that inventiveness.  You could feel their sense that they were making a world apart, but a world so rich with echoes of our own world that we would see the connection between the daily and the spiritual.

Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  There is something timeless about craftsmanship, but it's not necessarily the timelessness of elegance or simplicity.  The photograph below is of the ceiling of the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna, built in 527, half a century before San Marco.  We were told by guides that Italian birders who happen to come in with their binoculars can recognize birds on this ceiling that are still alive--so detailed and accurate are their portraits.  These earlier Byzantine churches require an enormous amount of time to unfold.  You have to be willing to stand there, letting the detail and inventiveness work on you.


Many sections of mosaics can be read for their "plot," like the small piece you see at the left.  We see a newly-born Christ Child sitting in his mother's lap, surrounded by angels.  We know what this depiction means.  But if you let the craftsmanship and inventiveness work on you, you will begin to see that each facial expression is quite different, that each of the virgins (You can see one of them below) to the left of this panel has both a different facial expression and her robes are made of a different pattern of draped material, and somehow this is composed of pieces of stone or glass about half a centimeter square.  Then you begin to see the flowers, the abstract designs that embrace every arch and window well, all of which are different.  The invention is astounding.

Standing in these fifteen-hundred-year-old buildings made me see that craftsmanship is timeless in yet another way.  Yes, it speaks to the past traditions, the current practice, the vision for the future.  And yes, the craftsman is not thinking about time but about using their craft skillfully.  But appreciating craftsmanship also takes time.  Interestingly, the days Veronica and I spent looking at mosaics or at art seemed longer than other days, particularly when we sat down for dinner and thought about the day.  It seems that the time you spend allowing a work of art or craft unfold its complexity is time given back to you twicefold--at least.  It's time spent engaged with another sensibility, another worldview, another mind, another delight, and your world and life expand to encompass it.

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