«You have a picture in your mind and in your eyes, but it might take four or five years to complete». Father and son and the search for stones for Florentine inlays
Two and a half centuries after it sunk into oblivion, Bruno and Iacopo Lastrucci rediscovered the site where yellow chalcedony was once extracted — a typical material found in Medicean panels realized with the Commesso Fiorentino technique. The two artisans — a father-son duo — followed ancient maps that led them to the metalliferous hills inland from Cecina, on private property in the natural park. Rucksacks on their backs, they sought the exact spot for years. «At times we would find a stone that was more yellow, other times more violet», explains Iacopo. «In the end we found the exact spot smaller than a tennis court with a vein of rock sticking out just a little from the ground, visible for only a short stretch. This is where they stocked up on yellow chalcedony in the sixteenth century». 76-year-old Bruno Lastrucci heads the last Commesso Fiorentino workshop, which still works stones using artisan methods and Medicean techniques to make true objets d’art. Between the Unification of Italy, when the Opificio delle pietre dure became a restoration laboratory and many mosaic makers who worked there opened workshops, and the end of the twentieth century, there were dozens of these laboratories in the city. Today, Lastrucci is the art’s last bulwark, producing works of art for collectors around the world, not two-bit souvenirs.
Images spring to mind of a master mosaic maker holed up in his workshop. And while this might once have been the case — when others went out to source the stones, combing the surrounding area and selling their finds to laboratories — today Lastrucci starts each project with a search for the prime materials. As the only artisan left crafting top-quality Commesso Fiorentino objects, it comes with the territory. On the rare days during the year when the workshop is closed, Iacopo, and previously Bruno, can be found along mountain paths or riverbeds, scouring for stones. «We know we’ll find good stones wherever there’s copper, iron and, magnesite mines, and we usually find something in riverbeds, too», explains Iacopo. «Some- times we’ll come across unexpected discoveries. A friend who does restoration work once brought us a stone that she found in Conero, in a sort of landslide of milky white blocks that spewed all the way down to the beach. It was a piece of agatella Sabina — a white agate which we’ve only found little of to be bought or bartered at the Opificio and had no idea where to find in nature. We were stunned».
Until the seventies, each searcher of stones had his own network of contacts: country folk who would keep the material to one side when they dug holes or private individuals who allowed pebbles to be gathered on their properties — always in small quantities and without any damage to the environment. In Maremma, some still remember the old Florentine stone searchers: «They were great wine drinkers and they would make contacts in the taverns, so we went to inns and taverns saying that we were on the lookout for good stones», Iacopo tells us. «The oldest among them told us about a tall man with a mustache that used to pass by, but whose name they couldn’t recall. It had to be Beppe Fallani, one of the last stone searchers from whom I learnt a great deal by following on Saturdays as a boy. The old searchers built a network for themselves that would be impossible to recuperate today».
It was one of these searchers that changed Bruno Lastrucci’s life forever, convincing him to become a producer of mosaics before ever proving his ability with inlays. He was known as Rossino Ferdinando degli Innocenti, but he often went by Rossino — a nickname owed to his love of wine — in order to distinguish himself from his father, ‘Rosso’, who was also known to fancy a glass or two. «Their family had been stone searchers for generations», says Bruno. «Rossino supplied many laboratories, including mine, and he became a trusted friend and colleague until and his death in 1972. He was found dead after a week — stone in hand — searching for something I’d asked of him». In that moment, Bruno was struck not only by the loss of a friend and an overwhelming sense of responsibly, but also with the importance of his irreplaceable role. «It was then that I started to acquire, slowly but surely, all the artisan Commesso workshops, so that I could have access to all the best stones extracted and brought to the city by searchers».
With his Tuscan temperament, it’s difficult to pull one over on Bruno Lastrucci, who has long been able to recognize the best stones — he started handling them at the age of eight, after all. He was born in 1943 on a property belonging to Richard Blow, a wealthy American painter and architect passionate about Commesso Fiorentino who had just opened Montici, a company dedicated to the art. Blow’s idea was to bring this type of mosaic back into an artistic dimension, moving away from the repetitive, fashionable reproductions and Medicean lines that had been in vogue for decades, adapting it to contemporary art. The American then involved painters and ar- tisans, opening a store in New York to sell the finished products. He succeeded where the Montelatici brothers had once attempted, linking up with the Liberty painter Galileo Chini and opening the “Arte Musiva” laboratory in 1900, bringing the Florentine mosaic back into the field of art and perfecting the portrait — a craft the Medicis had never, on the other hand, cultivated. «I was born into this environment, there is no date to the start of my love for it», says Bruno. «When I was three and a half, my dad died. He was a great friend of the mosaic maker Nenci, who promised my mother that he would look after me. I used to always go to his laboratory and I remember loving stones from the age of eight: I’d go looking for them, dipping them in water to expose their colors, and later I’d even advise artisans whether or not the pebbles offered by searchers were worth the price. The searchers were clever but not always experts».
In 1957, at the age of 14, he followed the advice of Richard Blow, and started working for Fiaschi studio. Meanwhile, Blow had gone back to the United States where he lost his memory in an accident. «When he came back to Florence having partially recovered, he remembered my ability to pick out good stones. At the time I was working for Fiaschi, but I began working with Montici as well. He trusted my tastes and accepted my advice. I was a good artisan and Blow, as an artist, had that special touch. A rich man, he could also get me stones that were well out of my reach. He once bought a lapis lazuli stone from Tiffany, then gold and diamonds: with Blow as a client, anything was possible».
When his son Iacopo was born in 1968, Bruno Lastrucci left Fiaschi and set up on his own, taking his loyal clients with him and becoming the top mosaic maker at Montici, working alongside the other ateliers that already reported to the American — Menegatti, Fracassini and Fiaschi. In 1972, after the death of Rossino Ferdinando degli Innocenti, Lastrucci started to buy out the other workshops. The last one he acquired — in 1976 — was Arte Musiva from the Montelatici brothers, in Piazza Santa Croce. With the death of Richard Blow in 1983, what remained of Montici also became Bruno Lastrucci’s. For a while, Bruno moved into the premises of the former Arte Musiva space in Santa Croce, but he found it too small and the crowds of tourists interfered with the privacy that many of his clients sought. By 2002, Lastrucci moved his workshop to Via dei Macci, 9, where it remains to this day, in what was once a 14th-century hospital with an adjacent convent and church, later becoming a shelter for “unhappily-married women”. Anyone can walk in nowadays, but its position off the beaten track means that most who visit aren’t tourists passing by, but rather true connoisseurs. At the entrance, visitors find the laboratory with five workstations, each with an artisan at work. Shelves are filled with slices of stones, mosaics at various stages of production, sketches, files and wooden drills of all kinds. In the backroom is a display of their artistic and artisan labors: not only those produced by Lastrucci, but also those by the workshops and companies he’s purchased — a museum-laboratory of contemporary Commesso Fiorentino mosaics.
Production techniques are still those used in the fifteenth century. The few that have been introduced with technological improvements since have been dismissed by Bruno Lastrucci — at least when working with the rarest, most delicate stones and the most important jobs. «One small new introduction during the Fifties was the diamond file — less precise than traditional ones in copper with the finest sand. Diamond files, however, do sometimes cause micro-fractures from overheating — something that doesn’t happen with the copper and sand versions», explains Bruno. «Even cutting the stone using an automatic electric disc was a breakthrough, but it can’t be used for unique stones of value. Those are best sliced by hand, with the saw designed by Leonardo da Vinci, which enables a much finer, precise cut».
Today’s clients are the children or grandchildren of yesterday’s clients, or rich international business people who have heard about the technique by word of mouth or through a gift from friends. On a trip to Italy with President Bush, the McDonald family discovered and fell in love with Commesso Fiorentino mosaics: since then, many in the extensive family have ordered a Lastrucci for their home. The Semans family of entrepreneurs and patrons from North Carolina also passes through Florence each year and comes to buy a piece or two. Even the President of the Italian Republic have commissioned pieces from us. «Our best clients have always been Americans, and recently their requests have changed greatly; they’ve refined their taste, they trust us and feel more like patrons. If the client makes requests that go against our taste or professionalism, we turn them away. The stones and aesthetic quality are at the base of our profession. I recently made two tables for an important authority of Saudi Arabia, each measuring thirty square meters. Their requests caused countless problems, to the point that I no longer intend to work for them. Clients demands sometimes increase for important jobs, for example regarding colors or patterns. We want to have the freedom of choice and time needed to do our job in the best way possible, based on our experience, considering that the raw material must be respected: we can’t change the colors of the stones. A job often remains in progress for months or years while we wait for the right stone. I don’t accept orders from those who want a quick job — there’s no shortage of clients and we’ve never been out of work».
Prices range from tens of thousands of euros for simpler pieces, calling for a few months’ work, up to hundreds of thousands of euros for those taking years. The Medici laws said that the minimum time required for a Commesso Fiorentino mosaic could never be shorter than eight months. These times don’t depend on the size of the piece, but on its complexity. «The most difficult jobs are definitely portraits because they penetrate a person’s inner being, they let you get to know them and scrutinize them. At times I don’t sleep at night», confesses Bruno. «The most complicated was definitely for a friend and longtime client who lost his twenty-year-old daughter in a tragic accident. I remember I sent him a photo of her eyes and he wrote back to me saying, ‘Bruno, you have managed to capture her personality’. For each face you need a different kind of stone», continues his son Iacopo, «for an old person you need a stone with a certain kind of vein, for a young girl you need a smooth one, with a more Raffaello kind of color. One stone we’ve found suitable for faces is Breccia Medicea: starting in Petrasanta and asking old quarrymen and laborers, we ended up in an old quarry under an ancient monastery. Extraction there was halted because it was endangering the mountain, but we only needed a few little stones».
«It is always the stone that suggests the piece, that gives the idea of what can be done. The best jobs happen when you open the stone and you see the colors and structures suitable for a branch or a wicker basket», explains Bruno. «The Commesso mosaic technique is learnt and handed down, but searching for stones and knowledge about them is something you can only learn as you do it, and finding a good stone is always the most exciting thing about this job. A while ago I was walking my dog below the football pitch in Impruneta. I saw a beautiful dark stone, with more around it. I had no idea where they had come from, or who put them there. I picked them up straight away. I have no idea what I will do with them yet. Today I prefer making mosaics that are apparently simpler, faster; I want to see the results sooner. They are, however, long, slow affairs: you have a picture in your mind and in your eyes, but it might take four or five years to complete. We must fight against this unhappiness».
Bruno Lastrucci is a craftsman and visionary art artist engaged in an ancient craft that carries forward with traditional tools and techniques and with extreme passion and dedication. His art focuses mainly on portrait stone; celebrated his work of Joseph Lancaster on permanent display at Lizzadro Lapidary Art Museum, and other important works of art placed in prestigious private collections. This passion and care was transmitted to son Iacopo, whose beginnings are apprenticed to Santa’s workshop, where he learns, size and experience one of the most fascinating and precious art of traditional landscape that lead him to produce works in committed Fiorentino of extreme quality and refinement.IMAGE GALLERY