Alberto Cavalli

High Craftsmanship and Economic Growth

The Director of the Cologni Foundation for the Métiers d’Art reflects on the powerful yet fragile world of Italian excellence, without hiding his longing for change.

In his very famous publication from 1748, Charles-Louis de Secondat – better known as the Baron de Montesquieu – identified the “Spirit of Laws” in that chain of relations, or rather, in that organisation of relations that could give life to a system.

A system, or instead, a series of interconnected relationships that lends identity and originality to actions, changes or processes that would otherwise remain isolated. Creating the system strengthens each element and includes it in constructing meaning destined to become recognizable, thanks to a series of virtuous relations (between capital, trade, art and profession) that have produced a spectacular legacy that still today is potentially fertile for Italian culture and the economy. Fertile, because it is eloquent, authentic, based on creating a value that, in paraphrasing Horace, we could call aere perennius, lasting longer than bronze: one of excellence.
A value that sets the precedent and makes its mark as much as brilliance.

By reassessing the métiers d’art there emerges a spark that potentially adds new energy to our view of this world: because considering high craftsmanship as a competitive advantage allows us to reunite all the powerful yet fragile parts of this world into a single system. Just as it should be, actually, as we hope it should be: a system that has at its core not an abstract evocation of the past, but a decidedly concrete delineation of economic growth destined to influence the country’s structure.
Perceiving, experiencing and understanding the world of high métiers d’art as a “system” means acknowledging that creating value, which always accompanies the notion of excellence itself, does not stem from a barren or ideal context, but rather from a system of meaning, from a physical and cultural setting, from an atmosphere that feeds upon creativity but also research, awareness as well as knowledge.

Italians have always been transformers: we are able to take elements at everyone’s disposal and to create something special. We can add that spark even to the most banal and everyday things and make them special and beautiful. We are able to “look good” even if we have little to work with.

An atmosphere that can not but include a profoundly political dimension, where Italy should be an example of transformative power: because what better laboratory could there be, in the world, to experiment with the ability to direct in the best way possible a series of elements that are not always favourable?
Italy’s past, its quality productions and its best characteristics all head in this direction.
Italians have always been transformers: we are able to take elements at everyone’s disposal and to create something special. We can add that spark even to the most banal and everyday things and make them special and beautiful. We are able to “look good” even if we have little to work with. This extraordinary quality of ours finds its internationally acknowledged testing ground at the Salone del Mobile: creativity and savoir-faire, design culture and mastery of skills have made Italy the unchallenged capital of “transforming” things that is never an end unto itself but has always been a process nurtured by creativity, inventiveness, quality, tradition.
Wisely, though bitterly, Gesualdo Bufalino wrote that “between imbeciles who want to change everything and scoundrels who want to change nothing, how difficult it is to choose!”. And remaining in the realm of high Sicilian literature, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Prince of Salina knew that everything had to change so that everything could remain the same. 

I’m not sure if Saint Augustine would agree but I know that anyone who wants to gaze upon the city of God, while living in the city of man, never fears change: on the contrary, he plans it and makes it begin. And usually he succeeds.

Yet it is sad to note that grand transformers like us are not able to use politics to change politics itself, and society, as a result. Because transformation should be a process of renewal that does not only affect our production capacities. Quite the contrary: this longing of ours for improvement should find its own symmetry in our lives, too. A yearning for change that overcomes laziness and discouragement and which should start from a process and a project animated by wanting to make beautiful things well.
Today, we need to emphasise the elements of a transformation we all feel is obligatory: giving value to the métiers d’art within a living system becomes the symbol of change that renews us, that regenerates us and makes us better, without denying in any measure all the beauty, goodness and truth we created in the past. I’m not sure if Saint Augustine would agree but I know that anyone who wants to gaze upon the city of God, while living in the city of man, never fears change: on the contrary, he plans it and makes it begin. And, usually, he succeeds.

Alberto Cavalli is the director of the Cologni Foundation for the Métiers d’Art, Co-Director Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, professor of Italian Beauty at the Polytechnic of Milan.

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