The artisans of Sorrento part I: Maestro Giuseppe Rocco
I visited one of the top local intarsia artisans, Giuseppe Rocco, at his studio at Via San Nicola 30 (next door to which the Intarsia museum has since opened—which can't be bad for business).
Maestro Rocco was carefully arranging delicate slivers of olive, walnut, myrtle, rose wood, orange, poplar, quilted maple, chestnut, elm, mahogany, and ebony to create woody mosaics of surpassing beauty.
Rocco explains that His Holiness had actually been in the region to tour the delinquent-plagued city of Castellammare, but while he was down this way he "took a little tourist spin to Sorrento and Capri."
"We have nothing important here," Rocco says, setting aside his wood inlay work for a few minutes to chat. "Just a beautiful setting and hard-working people." He goes on, proud of his work on the papal doors.
"We could have made doors in bronze to commemorate his visit," he says. "But we decided to make use of this local craft, which we been doing for more than 200 years."
He gestures to the intricate wooden mosaic half-finished on the table. "I hate it when people say 'Oh, it must take so much patience.' That means they're just looking at the manual labor of it. There's so much more to this. It's an art as well as artisanship." Rocco pauses to pick up a handful of carefully shaped wooden slivers in various colors.
"They just see me sticking little pieces of wood. But it's the design, the scene, the care that I put in." Rocco explains that he was a painter before taking up intarsia in the late 1970s. "The design, the image, and the composition are all more important than the craft."
I gesture at finished works scattered around the studio. "I like how all your scenes are complex," I say. "Real scenes with delicate leaves and little lizards hiding in corners. Most of what I see around town are small, simple images of abstract, blocky houses and seascapes."
He smiles at me and holds up a finger. "Ah, but make no mistake: there are two kinds of craft in town. Those that you see in all the shops, those are made for commercial purposes, made quickly and cheaply for a tourist market that wants cheap, quick souvenirs."
"Then there is this," Rocco gestures at the scenes he has been working on, a still-life of sorts with fruits, vegetables, and vases in the foreground left, and a faraway landscape spilling back of broken columns on checkerboard fields, a shoreline, and a distant island. He titled it "Metaphysical Suggestion."
"This is intarsia," says the maestro. "This is art. Those others make what tourists want. I make what I want. I don't do 20, 30, 50 identical copies at a time. I do, at most, six—like here." He pauses to straighten out the nearly-finished panels before him and seems to relax a bit from his hard-nosed philosophical line. He smiles.
"Sure, I do commissions. I do what's wanted—art is art, but a man must also eat!"
"I can do this," he points at a tall, monochromatic sea stack of caves and dripping vegetation—Mediterranean details on a Southeast Asian scene—suspended in a field of royal blue. "And if nobody else likes it or buys it, well, then I've still made something that I wanted to make."
He looks at a six-foot-long, two-and-a-half-foot-high flat box propped against the shelves nearby. "It's a shame I already packed this one up. I should have liked to show you this one. But you can go to Attardi, you'll see one very similar." (He was referring to the nearby shop of Gilberto Attardi, Via Giuliani Padre Reginaldo 45, tel. +39-081-878-1291)
I explain that I understood his point of view, that, as a journalist, I write for others what others want to make a living, but I still try to find time to write for my own fulfillment.
Eventually I excused myself.
"I'm going to go find a bar or cafe to sit down and write for myself a little while."