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THE NEXT LIST

Ubaldo Vitali: Master Silversmith and Conservator

Aired January 29, 2012 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Innovation is often closely associated with industry and technology, but what happens when one man rooted in history makes the unexpected impression of a lifetime?

Ubaldo Vitali, master silversmith and also recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, is on THE NEXT LIST as an agent of change, because in a world where the speed is stuck on "run," he's teaching us to stop, listen and look to unparalleled pieces of art, informed by history and polished with clever invention.

In the next half hour, you'll come to understand the inner workings of an artist's craft that stretches back four generations and pushes forward through the innovation of a century's old practice. With his craft fading fast, one question remains - is there enough time to teach the art of observation before it's overwhelmed by the age of information?

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is THE NEXT LIST.

UBALDO VITALI, MASTER SILVERSMITH AND CONSERVATOR: I am Ubaldo Vitali, and I am an artist.

I do believe that the - the biggest gift we have is to converse with the work of art, the way we interact with a work of art. Paracelsus, the great alchemist, used to say true knowledge does not come from books, but it comes through your feet as you walk through life. I hope I can communicate it to the young people.

When I walk into a museum and I look at the young people, especially young people because they are the future, looking at the works of art and I see their face illuminated by pleasure, part of me wants to, perhaps, help them, to share with them the walk that I took and the lessons that I have learned. That is why I try to give lectures, because this interaction is going to disappear.

In recent years, to the computer, the great computer age, we are losing in a certain way interaction with real objects. I mean, the computer can capture everything, but basically there is one thing this - it could not capture. Computer doesn't feel any pain, it doesn't feel any joy, it cannot suffer. Those things can only be learned through human contact, not through the books and not through the computer.

Art fulfills specifically that aspect of life. Art can communicate all of those things, all of them, in a very quick and easy way. Just look at them, look at the work of art. It doesn't matter if it's a painting, listen to a work of art, communicate with it. They're talking to you, just listen and answer.

Alchemy has been for several decades a fixation, an obsession of mine. One of the misunderstanding about silversmithing and goldsmithing, metalwork and so on, it is that the ways use the traditional metals of working. People never realize that they actually were the cutting edge of technology from the first dimension.

So I believe in alchemy not because I want to make gold. I believe it's already (INAUDIBLE). I mean it is the power to redefine nature, there's the power to study nature to the finest, most minute essence, and be able to reorganize it, recombine it, transform it.

Often people bring up the fact that I am a fourth generation silversmith. I basically fell into it. Though I must say that being and becoming a silversmith was my own choice. I was never forced to do it. I was - not even in college, I was just introduced to the beauty of art in general, no matter what it was - paintings, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music. And then I was let loose to make my own choice. Obviously, the closest things to my own spirit was silversmithing.

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VITALI: My family is from Rome, Italy, and regarding goldsmithing we go back four generations. My great grandfather's name was Ubaldo, just like me. He opened his own shop in 1886 in Rome, in Via De' Iacovacci (ph).

From my great grandfather, his son, that would be my grandfather, became also a silversmith, and so did his brother, and then my father and my uncle and so on. But each one of them had their own workshop.

Usually, once you reach a certain age, you went on your own. Not as a competitor, but to - to be free, to be able to express yourself in your own way, not to do the things that your father did or your grandfather did. So I grew up in a family of goldsmiths, but connected to all of the arts.

I came to America because at the academy, while I was studying sculpture, I met this beautiful American girl that was there for a year to study painting, and when she came back to New Jersey, I decided a few months later to come here.

When I first came, I applied as a draftsman for Tiffany, and I was advised actually by the Tiffany workshop, by the manager at the time, to go on my own. He said you do not belong here. And that's how I started actually my business here.

I do not know if my work - since coming to America, if my work has changed. I have changed and, therefore, the work reflects who I am today. In two different areas, because I do both creative type of work and I do conservation and restoration.

KEVIN TIERNEY, SENIOR CONSULTANT (SILVER DEPARTMENT), SOTHEBY'S: I think Ubaldo Vitali is probably the best restorer, certainly, that we know of in this country for early silver.

This little cup here, a simple little cup, is English Provincial. It's actually dated 1677. I found this in the West Side, in a small antique shop, and it was frankly you could have used it as a tea strainer or a sieve. It was full of holes.

Well, if you have a look now, there are no holes. He's done a fantastic job of cleaning this up and making it both good looking and also usable.

VITALI: When I receive a work of art that has been like an icon to me through my life, I always looked at these things as the greatest work of art that suddenly shows up in my shop asking for help, basically. It is my grandparents coming home. I want them - to bring them to the doctor. I want to give them the best care. I want to take care. I want to give them medicine. If they need surgery, they will get surgery. They will get the best care because I want them to be with me for the rest of their life and for my grandchildren, the next generation, for the rest of their life.

PETE DANDRIDGE, CONSERVATOR, THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: I'm Pete Dandridge. I'm a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ubaldo is someone who has worked with both the curatorial staff here and with us on numerous occasions. What is really extraordinary about him is that he has this historical context, both in his own studies but also in his own upbringing.

VITALI: I was very fortunate to have a role with Pete Dandridge in the making of a documentary on aquamanilia. Aquamanilia are vessels for pouring water of the Middle Ages, usually in the shape of dragons and beasts.

DANDRIDGE: There was a project that Peter Barnet developed with Bard. We have a cooperative agreement with Bard. They had been very anxious to have a Medieval show, and so Peter suggested that we focus on the museum's collection of aquamanilia.

We also thought that it would be really wonderful to be able to try to replicate the original casting technology that was associated with the manufacturer and the fabrication of the aquamanilia.

The replication process with Ubaldo was extremely time consuming and long, and it required an extensive amount of work. We have a great reference for the Middle Ages, this 12th Century manuscript by the monk Theophilus, who wrote extensively on metalworking processes. He had described the casting process, and there's a moment when you actually are making the alloy itself, where the zinc oxide volatilizes and goes through a solid state reaction with the copper in the crucible. When we you took the crucible out of the fire and it had cooled enough so that we could take the top off and look at the underside of the crucible lid and see the zinc oxide crystals that had accumulated on that surface, and then to also see what had been the - the original copper blanks that now had a golden brassy quality, it was sort of this magical moment. And no one really had replicated that process since the Middle Ages. It is the mystery of alchemy that - and the science of that particular time, represented in that crucible that was quite fabulous.

VITALI: Because of my experience as a conservator and my studies as - you know, before I touch anything, I study for three or four months. It has allowed me to penetrate the past better. By penetrating the past, you can produce, you can be reborn.

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GUPTA: The MacArthur Fellowship is one of the most prestigious honors in the world, encompassing a staggering $500,000 gift to the talented recipient. It's been given to psychologists, technologists, poets, painters and the humbly grateful silversmith.

While much of the selection process is secret we can glean the extraordinary qualities of Ubaldo Vitali from his work and from the colleagues that known him best. Vitali has colored Italian and American culture alike in a style that is both modern and classic, architectural and expressive, in a word, genius.

VITALI: 2011 was a strange and fulfilling year for me. Out of the blue, I got a phone call on my cell phone telling me if I had 20 minutes to talk. Then he proceeded to tell me, are you familiar with the MacArthur Foundation, and I said yes. I know vaguely. Are you familiar with a fellowship, the Genius Fellowship? And I said no, I'm not.

And he proceeds to explain, well, it's a fellowship that we give to genius and I told him I'm neither a genius, you know, and this is a joke. And he proceeded to recite this long list of things about me that I had done, the various aspects of my interest from art and from history (ph) to conservation. After a while I told him to stop because I said you're going to make me cry.

DANDRIDGE: The MacArthur grant is a grant that anybody working in research or in the arts is aware of. It is just an extraordinary honor and it's an extraordinary opportunity.

ANTHONY CAVALERI, ASSISTANT: The foundation award was interesting because it just came out of the blue. And it was something like that is nice, just to realize that people appreciate what you've been doing through your life.

ULYSSES DIETZ, CURATOR OF DECORATIVE ARTS, NEWARK MUSEUM: There's no one in the history of this country that's done what he's done and I don't mean just the last 50 years, I mean the last two centuries. I think Ubaldo got the MacArthur Foundation Prize because there's nobody like him.

JANET ZAPATA, FMR. TIFFANY & CO. ARCHIVIST: The committee who chooses the MacArthur Grant look for people that are doing innovative research or looking at things in a new way, kind of pushing the field forward. And Ubaldo, to me, is one of the foremost silversmiths in this country, if not in the world.

VITALI: I told my wife, Anita, there is some monetary award over a field of five years of $500,000 and she said it's a joke. I hope I can thank them with my work and with my dedication.

I have collaborated with many, many architects or designers. I like mixed media. I like to put glass in wood and all different stones in my work, you know, semi-precious stones. And while I can do the woodwork, the lapidary work, I needed somebody, a true artist, that worked in glass. And I found - in Leonard, I found a soul mate and somebody - I don't have to tell him anything because I just let him do what he feels, and that's a - that's a true collaboration is a partnership like that.

LEONARD DINARDO, GLASS MAKER: My name is Leonard DiNardo. I'm a glass maker. I've been working with glass for 40 years. Silver is a beautiful material. Glass is a beautiful material. So the two of them, when you put the two together, you can't miss. It's a great combination.

The collaboration that was the most fun for me was the coffee and tea silver service setting. It required having glass handles and then the finials on top are formed and then ground and polished and fitted on to the top.

ZAPATA: Ubaldo does create his things much like an architect does. You can see the forms as they decrease in size up to the very top.

TIERNEY: His cultural association with the history of Italy makes him to some extent very aware of architecture. One of modern water pitchers, if you actually look at the top of it, it is in fact the outline of the 17th century baroque column cross connection.

So you'll find even in his most dramatic and adventurous designs, this core of traditional rules which are part of his identity.

DINARDO: After people like Ubaldo are gone, these things are going to be very rarefied objects that we're not going to see too much of. I'm just thrilled that he's got a chance to do what he wants to do and has the financial means to continue on with his work.

I hope he does some more pieces with glass in them.

VITALI: The technical aspect of whatever we do is in material. That is something everybody can learn. And some of the techniques associated with silver smithing, you know, raising by hammer or chasing or something everybody can learn those things. It's combining those things through your spirit, through your heart, to produce a work that transfers and transmits emotions and narrates a story.

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VITALI: Since I believe that the path of people's lives cross for a reason, all the people that work for me have a very specific reason to come into my life. So each one of the people that has worked for me - with me, I should say, not for me, have been very special people. They're not somebody that I picked out of, you know, advertising for an apprentice or anything like that. They crossed sometimes the oceans to come here.

Amrit, for instance. He comes from Kathmandu, Nepal. He asked me - to be with me and certainly how can you refuse somebody, they ask from such an exotic and far away place, and he's also a four generation silversmith himself. I decided anybody that goes to that extent must be a very special person, and he certainly is.

Anthony has been with me 38 years.

CAVALERI: His genius was scary right from the beginning. Here I was, 25 years old. He's got four generations of a craft, and I didn't know anything about it. I couldn't keep up with him. I couldn't do it. Like how am I going to do this?

The hardest thing I had to learn that he taught me was not to be afraid of the metal. Not to be afraid to melt it, not to be afraid to bend it and do what you had to do to get it done. And I just stuck with it and eventually it just all kind of came together.

VITALI: In alchemy, you will only teach your secrets, mysteries to an adept, and the adept, that he gets himself to enter the temple, that kind of a monastic kind of concept. All the people that worked with me, they have entered that temple. They have crossed the threshold and dedicated themselves to it.

I usually refer to art as a continuum. Historically we judge artists innovators (ph) when they go up to the step of their time and then they jump at it to the next step or in a different direction. However, they jump from the step that they climbed.

The past is not a handicap. It's a lesson. It is something to follow.

I have a Medieval furnace, actually the same type of furnace that was used by the Romans and before. It was used in the 18th century. That's my connection to the past. It is not just for the furnace, for everything that we do in life, we often forget where we come from. So it's very easy for me. I would have to (ph) turn my head and see the coal and I will - I know exactly who I am, I know where I'm coming from, and I know where I'm going.

DIETZ: I think in the - in the hands of a skilled craftsman like Ubaldo Vitali, who's a craftsman and scholar at the same time, there is a link between the past and the present that is unique in the work he does. He represents a craft that is changing dramatically. There are very few young silversmiths coming up who are looking to make the kind of thing he does or do the kind of thing he does in terms of conservation.

So I think he represents a standard at a very high level that may be endangered at the moment. I liked to think not forever. He represents a moment in American craft history that is - that has passed, and yet he really also represents a standard that I hope doesn't evaporate.

GUPTA: Art, as Vitali says, is a continuum, and for a legend like him the years past tell a rich tale of tradition, studied mastery and stunning commissions lining vaulted halls. The years ahead offer a hopeful view, because of Ubaldo's quiet dedication, rare talent and persistent invention, it would seem the conversation between man and art is far from over.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to CNN.com/TheNextList, and join me on my life stream at CNN.com/Sanjay. See my videos, blogs and tweets, as well as behind-the-scenes photos.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back here next Sunday.

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FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, ANCHOR: You're in the CNN NEWSROOM. It is January 29th. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.