Renzo Maggi. Poetic Sculptor

By Roberto Bernabò
photo di Nicola Gnesi

In his conversation with Roberto Bernabò, Maggi tells us about his training and his collaborations, but also about politics and his relationship with marble, a connection built from pathos and poetry.

When we meet - via Skype, in the way the pandemic has forced us to manage social relationships - Renzo Maggi jogs my memory. It is a flash of lightning. That face sculpted by the strong signs that enhance the different elements, I see it there, in a painting by Virio Bresciani that I hung in the living room.
Virio was an introverted and solitary painter from Pietrasanta, he was an investigator of the depths of the human soul, who sadly left us in 1990. Perhaps the affinity ends here, inside that portrait, because Renzo Maggi, a man who has lived 76 years in the Quecerta countryside, is a man who loves life, who dreams and who seeks new tales of humanity in stone. Illuminated by Elena’s love - “it’s all in my life, she has dedicated intelligence, beauty and dedication to me; if I hadn’t had a person who loved art and spurred me on in hard times I don’t know what I would be today” - he conveys passion, light and warmth.
But it makes me think, as we speak, that he too, had to work hard to conquer in his homeland, the dimension of the artist that belongs to him. Because Pietrasanta and Versilia, in their provinciality, end up bowing to the artistic dimensions of the stranger rather than that of those born from their womb. Perhaps because stonemasons, ornatists, sculptors - as they shared, simplifying, in a sort of social scale of skills - have always given hands and technical knowledge to the artist, but thought of themselves as something else, basically excluding creativity from the scope of their craft.
And so I find a trait that returns to link not only the picture, but the lives of Virio and Renzo.
A journey into art with Renzo Maggi can only start with the boy who has always breathed marble and beauty. From his roots in this land which has been defined since Michelangelo by quarry and art. A matrix that for a few decades, in the last century, lost its way in industrial production. But which today, has found a balance by intertwining technology with the new expressions of culture.

Roberto Bernabò: When did you get the feeling that you wanted to be an artist? Is there a beginning to a life with many faces like yours?
Renzo Maggi: My maternal grandfather was head of security in the Henraux quarries; my paternal one rented a quarry above Massa. My father, on the other hand, was a specialized stonemason. His dream was to have three boys and for one of them to be a sculptor. The Institute of art, and Academia were the escape from the class and the dream. At 5 or 6 years old, I helped to polish marble jars or letters on the kitchen table with pumice. This was my childhood in a world of strong feelings and sober lifestyle. A powerful world that moulded you through the dignity of work.

R.B.: The history of your training was a journey in a craft that continued with your studies followed by work in the artisan’s workshop. How important was it?
R.M.: It was everything. At the age of 15, while attending the Istituto d’arte, on the advice of Professor Franco Miozzo, that summer I went to the studio of the sculptor Leonida Parma, Leò. This was the place of my training: professional, cultural and political. I spent three years modeling clay. I made copies of the greats from the past, I studied anatomy. But it was much more: I took what was left of the atmosphere of the Renaissance workshops. We were focused on beauty and I devoured the books of Leopardi, Foscolo and Dante. I listened to Rachmaninov and I went to see the films they recommended. I also spent time with Romano Cosci, Leonidas’ main assistant: he was six years older than me and he would become a famous sculptor.

R.B.: Growing up in the workshop, you matured early and had the courage to leave Pietrasanta at the age of 19.
R.M.: Yes, the sculptor Vincenzo Gasperetti was looking for a person for his workshop in Milan to model roundels that celebrated great Flemish painters for the coinage of Brazil. They were modeled with plasticine. It was a beautiful job and I was well paid. Milan was a school, I was a thin provincial boy and, without mythologizing, I thought: “Damn, what a nice ride”.

R.B.: This experience in Milan led you to Switzerland to model mannequins. Tell me about that job.
R.M.: I went to make high fashion mannequins for the Schläppi AG factory. In contact with fashion magazines. I worked with models with beautiful bodies. But, for heaven’s sake, I didn’t understand anything about women. I was totally focused on beauty for 15 years. I made the models in clay and then they were reproduced almost as unique pieces. It was the tradition of window mannequins that had spread in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. And we did them for the windows of department stores in Germany, France and the USA.

R.B.: This work certainly underlined your relationship with the human body and beauty. But Switzerland, with thanks to politics, was much more important in the progress of your formation.
R.M.: I met the sublime aesthetic of the nude that has since distinguished me, there. I do not conceive of female beauty in a carnal way, but like the ancient prehistoric Venuses she is the great mother to me. Then I became enriched by visiting the great museums and knowing the art.
Switzerland was also a political commitment. I joined the Communist Party in Zurich along with many other Italians. It was the era of Eurocommunism. I became section secretary and director, from 1977 to 1981, of the fortnightly “Realtà Nuova”. I am passionate about politics with the dream of a socialism of equality. I was a reformer against dictatorships. And also against schematisms in art. That party was not obscurantist, but instead inspired by hope.
The political passion was born from the years in Leonidas’ workshop and then from a confrontation in my time in Milan with the sculptor Gigi Supino who made me read from Tolstoj to Dostoevskij. In Switzerland, as an emigrant, I fell in love with Russian, French and Shakespearean poetry. And today, when I read contemporaries I immediately feel a different depth and I stay away from it.
And so, this was my Switzerland and life in Zurich. Then in 1992 I came back to Pietrasanta with Elena and my one year old son Ariele. I was a consultant for a Swiss design company. After 5 years everything ended and then I definitely chose the path of sculpture. I did funeral art, I started to make faces, to engrave. I acquired a deep technical knowledge of the tools, which then allowed me an extraordinary freedom of expression. Like a pianist who has to play ten hours a day in order to play Chopin, I learned the technique and today I can sculpt live. I draw with charcoal on the stone and I let myself go to my dreams. In short, I have resumed with strength and obstinacy a path that I had started many years before. In Zurich I had already sculpted a lot. I had a small studio downtown, I knew people, I was a character. I came back here, to my Versilia, to be an anonymous sculptor.

R.B.: The meeting with Henraux, which represents the history of marble and which is experiencing a new season in its life, seems to me to reflect another phase of your life. How did this fruitful relationship come about?
R.M.: In 2003 Paolo Carli became the majority shareholder of Henraux. I went to a party in the quarries with the first catalog of a 1999 exhibition in Populonia. We talked and it was love at first sight. From there we began to collaborate, experimenting for example with the production of the complex sculptures of Tony Cragg in a time before robotics. He wanted to grow Henraux using the myth of Erminio Cidonio, of those years in the sixties in which the company was an international center of contemporary sculpture. In short, the idea of a factory that is also a beating heart of the culture of a territory. Alongside the traditional marble processing, Carli understands clearly the need for a connection with art. He knows what marble can say, he knows its expressive power. Over the years he became outraged, seeing polished tiles that sold for less than ceramic. Marble is the history of humanity! Mediterranean culture begins with the Parthenon and the sculptures of Egypt with Lisippo, Fidia, they are men who shaped our world.

R.B.: It is a processing of marble, that is not only technical, but cultural, it is a breath of time. Innovating in technology but with a soul, a mixture of history and present. Here, I would say that Maggi within this industrial context is the breath of thought that keeps the worlds united.
R.M.: I’m pleased by the definition. You see, for a decade, more and more, advanced robotics has arrived. Carli has invested in robots and engineers who understand the possibility of these machines. But at the same time he has believed in sculptors who come from all over the world; he created the Henraux Prize, the Foundation, the magazine and the fundamental connection with design that rules in the showroom. Thus, marble has become a precious material and beauty has become an absolute value.
Today Henraux has surpassed me: new machines, sophisticated techniques, rationality, order and cleanliness. I feel that I am inside a new world that I struggle to penetrate. Because I remain a sculptor who works with his hands. But man is immortal because he has thought. And I get up every day and think, I invent. My youth is in my ability to dream.

R.B.: Thought, dream, creation. Understanding its paths has a great charm. Your work is made from a direct aggression of material. Why?
R.M.: Because a model limits you. Picasso said: “I don’t search, I find”. If you already have a pre-established model when you sculpt, you arrive where you left. Let’s think about poetry: it is the moment of writing that makes the mind explode. So it is for me with sculpture: I want to be a poetic sculptor. So I am very critical of contemporary art that does not sculpt. It seems to me more design, street furniture. This is also true with some art critics: writing about a work is not describing it but exploring the genesis process. The great critics of the past studied deeply, many today are celebrities on TV.

R.B.: Let’s return to marble, its strength, its poetry. What is the connection between the material that you choose and the dream which gives it shape?
R.M.: To begin with, I did not like white marble, I found it cold, frigid. Then on the Cervaiole, in the “Russian quarry” where at the end of the nineteenth century they extracted marble for the church of Saint Isaac in St. Petersburg, I discovered this pure white but flesh-colored marble, with a transparency and a unique crystal. The Greeks gave things meaning: marmaros means shimmering, transparent. In that marble up there I found beautiful scales and I made sweet, carnal sculptures. I realized that this was Greek marble, like that of Paros. Only the marble of the Cervaiole has this poetic possibility. But it doesn’t acquiesce. You cannot skip even a small step or the result is denied.

R.B.: And what sometimes drives you to using other materials?
R.M.: Surprise. Stone is easier to work with. It is sweeter, less superhuman. With a bursting blow or by leaving it raw it already tells its life through color. White marble is not easy, if you do not give it its full form, if you do not strip it, it will not give itself. And then the speed: in one day you pull out a female bust from travertine. With marble, to get to Heaven you have to go from Hell, just like Dante.

Marmo 9, pag 66

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