The stuff of fables. “Poor”, yet also surely quite noble. Simply put, the fruit of local genius. It is a one of a kind craft, unique in its creative form and for its particular locus.
"Cartapesta" by Claudio Riso (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt5_n6LOtYs)
The sign of Tradition
Indeed, since ancient times the art of paper mâché has had its roots in the city of Lecce, the city and this craft being inextricably bound together. It is of a kindred spirit with Baroque architecture - that great artistic period which flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries - from which it takes its inspiration and which it interprets, it must be said, with both lightness and disenchantment.
A profound connection with Naples, intense cultural and political fervor, economic growth - all of this has influenced the destiny of the city of Lecce, itself considered the most “sanctified” of the Kingdom, with its guardian saints, the confraternity and its dozens of churches, convents, and monasteries. It was this atmosphere that fostered great religious and aristocratic commissionings of works of art. The demands of the holy dominated this city of perennial spiritual tension. Taken as a whole, the art of paper mâché embodies both spiritual commitment of a religiously conservative and mystical milieu (therefore faithful to the mandates of Lutheran Counter Reform), as well as a pagan and libertarian view, associated with the then-new movement of reformed Catholicism. Thus, if on the one hand the flourishing of Lecce’s Baroque art is tied to to the local schools of the sculptors of the famous Leccese stone, on the other hand paper mâché - with its extraordinary versatility and capacity to imitate more noble materials such as silver, marble or bronze - also transports us back to the era when above all due to religious devotion, a true nobilization of this traditionally artisan practice was realized, and so it came to be identified with the Baroque phenomenon. Thus were discovered noble churches and palaces adorned with ornamental bands, garlands, wreaths, cariatidi (ancient style sculpted female figures, primarily of Greek origin), niches, arches, portals, and more: cherubs festooned with fruit, shells, needlework - all wrought in stone. In the crowded and dusty workshops of the city centre, the triumph of the ephemeral, evoking the stories of Saints, Madonnas, Christ figures and angels, created a counterbalance that embraced the art of paper mâché.
Today in Lecce it is still possible to relive this magical atmosphere in the atelier of Claudio Riso, where one comes face to face with the materials used since time immemorial: irons, glues, straw-stuffed manikins, the grey paper made from rag cloth. A tradition still faithful to and always reaffirming the teachings of the great masters, immutable in time, indifferent to temptations that stray from the ancient values of beauty and charm.
Today, as in the past, the statuettes take their essential form from a manikin specifically created around a slender core of iron wire, which is then lined with curly straw, and bound with tightly wound string. The head, hands and feet, formed from terracotta, are then mounted upon this frame. The statue maker, in addition to knowing how to shape the paper in traditional style, must also be a skillful sculptor and know how to prepare the necessary special moulds. These moulds characterize the work’s imprint, the signature stamp of the individual artist which traces his historic-artistic lineage both to the past and towards future generations - the heritage that he will bestow upon his most gifted students and apprentices.
The manikin thus realized is then dressed with a special type of paper (with a low cellulose content) which has been soaked in flour glue. Next comes the drying phase, and then finally coloration - except for those pieces which are deliberately left “singed”. This is a process wherein the paper is smoothed over with a scorching hot iron, which not only removes wrinkles and imperfections, but also imparts to the figure a lovely natural color.
This is the distinctive stamp of the work of Claudio Riso and of the atmosphere one imbibes in his atelier. At one time there were innumerable workshops like his and even greater numbers of artists who worked in them. Following a period of oblivion, it has only been in recent decades that this particular artisan craft, of which the city of Lecce has long been considered Italy’s capital, has returned.
Born on July 10th, 1966, Claudio Riso was drawn to the world of paper mâché from a young age, frequenting the studio of Master Antonio Malecore in Lecce. Here he came in contact with the materials and techniques of this ancient art, which he then transported to his atelier in the historical city center, reincarnating the rites of this sacrosanct art, just as one of the traditional figures might have been recreated in modern times. His works, representations of everyday peasant life - the elderly man carrying bundles of wood, the woman washing clothes in a fountain, or the man repairing terracotta items - are, in accordance with tradition, ideally placed next to sacred figures, such as in nativity scenes. The works are entirely handmade. No shortcuts are taken; every phase practiced since ancient times is still performed. The pieces are striking in their precision and tastefulness of detail. In an age in which authenticity is more sought after than ever, no other art form has ever been so contemporary.
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