Material and FormForma by Rich Stapleton
"When I returned to shoot the quarries for a second time, abstractions of human form seemed to echo in the rocks."
An opportunity to visit Florence presented itself last year, in the form of an invitation to participate in an artist residency at Numeroventi, a quiet guest house and art space in a restored 16th century palazzo on Via Pandolfini. My studio there would also be my living space for the duration of the trip, and where I would create a new series of photographic works, titled FORMA.
Forma, meaning form or shape in Latin, was my thread of inquiry for the residency. I embarked on the project with a desire to learn from the classical sculpture in Florence, and to study the relationship between raw material and the human form. I wanted to convey with my own work the way that a subject extends into space, as if sculpted from marble, using the medium of photography.
Upon arrival in the city, I walked without aim, and admired the architecture. The arch of the Duomo framed the sky, which was already hazy, painted with early evening hues. The city has long been considered a place of artistic pilgrimage, and while tourists now crowd its streets, a deep sense of its cultural history still echoes in the piazzas, and along the hallways of its museums.
Before the Galleria Del Academia opened the next morning, I entered a bookshop opposite. The books were stacked haphazardly. I planned a revisit in my mind, one that would likely never materialise, but the promise gave me the comfort to browse without rushing. Inside a folio of Leonardo’s sketches, I found a pressed flower. I bought the book, the botanical find alone worthy of the cover price – 10 euros, pencilled neatly inside the front cover. In line for the gallery, I ate a truffle sandwich on chewy ciabatta, dusted in flour, with delicate, thinly sliced Parma ham. The bubbles from a bottle of San Pellegrino provided refreshment before I shuffled inside, carried by a current of tourists, all eager to see David.
I spent the first hours of the following day sat in a green and wicker seat outside Café Cibreo. I enjoyed an espresso – the hot, marbled coffee bittersweet – before heading to the nearby market of San’t Ambrogio. Here, I found a still life painting – fruits atop a crumpled cloth, some workshop tools fashioned in mahogany, and a copy of Domus, dated September 1989. Returning with these small treasures, I began to decorate my studio at Palazzo Galli Tassi. I arranged my cameras on the marble fireplace, stored my rolls of film in the fridge.
To the west of Florence lie the Carrara marble quarries, high in the Apuan Alps. These pale, ethereal spaces reverberate with a hallowed atmosphere. The single marble slab used to carve David was sourced here, and in 1497, at the age of twenty-two, Michelangelo ascended these mountains on horseback in order to procure the marble necessary to sculpt another of his masterpieces: the Pietà. Wanting to experience this process first hand, I hiked up towards the quarries and descended with a bag full of chestnuts and marble blocks. I spent long hours slowly shaping the rocks, a skill learned from a friend, Lorenzo Brinati, using tools purchased from a small specialist store in Pietrasanta. I also began to work with a life model in the studio, seeking to create the same immediacy in my photographs that might be conveyed by a sculptor’s preparatory sketches, and to capture this relationship between the body and classical sculpture.
Beyond my own thought processes, the residency took on an unplanned rhythm of its own, back and forth between the quarries and the studio. When I returned to shoot the quarries for a second time, abstractions of human form seemed to echo in the rocks, and I contemplated the correlation between raw material and human form more deeply. Michelangelo is thought to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there; I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” The relationship between the two fundamental elements of classical sculpture: the un-mastered, raw marble, and what it would traditionally express – the human form – emerged naturally as an additional focus of the project; the two components seemed to separate, yet still remained engaged in the same age-old conversation.
For the end-of-residency show at Numeroventi’s dedicated gallery space, I placed the blocks of marble I had shaped alongside the photographs, to highlight the connection between the work and the material, and as a tribute to the landscape and traditions that had inspired me. Florence is still a very artisan driven city, with fascinating ateliers and workshop at every turn, each one a testament to a lifetime spent in dedication to a single craft.I had the pleasure of working with one of these local artisans, Paola, to produce bespoke handmade frames for the show.
FORMA is now on display in an extended loft exhibition, until June 2019, installed in the studio where I stayed and worked during my residency. The room can be booked here: numeroventi.it/loft-2
Select fine art prints from the series are also available here: shop.richstapleton.com/collections/forma-2018