Franco Cervietti has sculpted Michael Jackson, Saddam Hussein, and Michelangelo’s David.

Pietrasanta, Italy

In Pietrasanta, Italy, the local skate park is made out of marble. Surrounded by some of the world’s finest marble quarries, this village has long been known as the place where Michelangelo handpicked his own stone in the early 16th century. Filled with skilled sculptors and artisans, today it attracts commissions from the world’s best contemporary artists.

“This sculpture is made of many pieces: the hand touching the hair, two pieces for the hair, the eyebrows, the eyes. It took six months to do it,” explains Franco Cervietti. In 2009, the master sculptor received a visit from British artist Marc Quinn, who commissioned him to create four busts of Michael Jackson for an exhibition to be held in London the following year. Cervietti remembers being invited to the opening: “It was full of strange people I didn’t know about, like transvestites.” Cervietti has worked for several contemporary artists, including Colombian Fernando Botero and  US artists Jeff Koons and Yoko Ono, and has also sculpted a three-meter-high statue of Saint John for the Vatican and two busts of Saddam Hussein for the former Iraqi government. In his studio, alongside plaster molds for replicas of Michelangelo’s David and Quinn’s Man in the Mirror, work 15 specialized sculptors: a scalpellino is in charge of the statues’ architecture, a pannista creates drapery, scultori refine and detail the human figure, while an ornatista refines everything else. According to Cervietti, “If a sculptor today wants to make a sculpture on his own, he just can’t. He has no skill. It would take him a year. With an art market that works so fast, one can’t afford this amount of time.”

Contemporary art is rarely made by contemporary artists. Canadian Patrick Traer hires an experienced seamstress to make his embroidered drawings, while New York-based Alexander Gorlizki’s signature miniature paintings are, in fact, painted by a team of seven men working with single-haired brushes in Jaipur, India (he supervises the work via the postal system). Other artists look for hard labor rather than skill: Takashi Murakami’s studios in Japan and New York employ 100 staff members to execute his ideas and British artist Damien Hirst has painted only five of his 1,400 “spot paintings”; assistants painstakingly fill the remaining canvases with evenly spaced dots at Hirst’s studio in Stroud, UK .

“Paint by numbers,” is how John Powers, a disenchanted former “studio serf” at US artist Jeff Koons’ atelier, described his US$14-an-hour labor on Cracked Egg, which eventually sold for $501,933. But if some artists’ employees feel frustrated about the lack of recognition and creative freedom, Franco Cervietti doesn’t mind. “We are simple artisans,” he says. “Look at this Botero model. He had the idea; I just copied it, bigger and in marble.”



From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.