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Examining the Art of Silver Smithing

Aired May 20, 2012 - 14:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: 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 silver smith 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 through 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 centuries-old practice.

With his craft fading fast, one question remaining 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, SILVERSMITH: I am Ubaldo Vitali and I am an artist.

I do believe that the biggest gift that we have is to converse with a work of art, the way we interact with a work of art. 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 you walk into a museum and look at the young people, especially the 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 work that it took and the lessons that I have learned.

That is why I tried to give lectures, because this interaction is going to disappear. In recent years, 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 that it cannot 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 fulfils a specifically 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. 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 and obsession of mine. One of the misunderstandings about metal work and so on is that the way used through the traditional methods of working, people never realize that they were actually the cutting edge of technology.

From the first dimensions, I believe in alchemy not because I want to make gold. I believe in theoretical alchemy. That it is the power to redefine nature. It's the power to study nature to the finest most minute essence and be able to reorganize it, re-combine it, transform it.

Often, people bring up the fact that I am a four generation silversmith. I basically fell into it, though I must say, being and becoming a silversmith was my own choice. I was never forced to do it. 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 thing to my own spirit was silversmithing.




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. From my great grandfather, his son, my grandfather became a silversmith and so did his brother, and then my father and my uncle and so on.

By each one of them had their own workshop. Usually when you reach a certain age, you went on your own. Not as a competitor, but 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 where I study sculpture, I met this beautiful American girl who 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 the Tiffany and I was advised, actually, by the Tiffany workshop, by the manager at the time, to go on my own.

They say, you do not belong here. And that's how I start 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 work and I do conservation and restoration.

KEVIN TIERNEY, SENIOR CONSULTANT (SILVER DEPARTMENT), SOTHABY'S: I think Ubaldo Vitali's probably the best restorer that, probably, that we know of in this country for early silver. This little cup here, this 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 item through my life, I look at this thing not the greatest work of art and 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 them 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 play a role with Pete Dandridge in the making of a documentary on Aqua Manilia. Aqua Manila are vessels for pouring water of the middle ages, usually in the shape of dragons and beasts.

DANDRIDGE: That was a project that we have with BARD. We have a cooperative agreement with BARD. They had been very anxious to have a medieval show. So Peter suggested that we focus on the museum's collection of Aqua Manilia.

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 manufacture and the fabrication of the Aqua Manilia.

The replication process with Ubaldo was extremely time consuming and long and required an extensive amount of work. We have a great reference for the middle ages, in the 12th Century manuscript who wrote extensively on metal working 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 and the crucible.

When we took the crucible out of the fire and it had cold 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 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 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, before I touch anything, my study for three or four months, it does allow me to penetrate the past better, by penetrating the past, you can produce, you can be reborn.



GUPTA: The McArthur Fellowship is some 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 a 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 know 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, ingenious.


VITALI: The 2011 was a strange and fulfilling year for me. Out of the blue, I get a phone call on my cell phone, telling me if I had 20 minutes to talk, then they proceed to tell me are you familiar with the McArthur Foundation?

And I say yes. And they said, are you familiar with the fellowship, the Genius Fellowship? And I say, no, I'm not. He proceeded to explain, well, it's a fellowship we give to genius. And I told him, I'm neither a genius and this is a joke.

And he proceeds to cite the long list of things about me that I have done, the various aspects of my interests from alchemy to history towards conservation. After a while, I told him to stop, because I said, you're going to make me cry.

DANDRIDGE: The McArthur 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 reward was interesting, because it just came out of the blue. And 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. I don't mean just the last 50 years, I mean the last two centuries. I think Ubaldo got the McArthur Foundation prize because there's nobody like him.

JANET ZAPATA, FORMER TIFFANY AND COMPANY ARCHIVIST: The committee who chooses the McArthur 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 a monetary award over a period of five years of $500,000 and she says, it's a joke. I hope I can thank them with my work, with my dedication.

I have collaborated with many, many architects, designers. I like mixed media. I like to put glass and wood and all different stones in my work, you know, semi-precious stones.

And while I can do the woodwork, I need somebody, a true artist, that worked in glass and I found -- in Leonard, I found a soul mate and somebody can -- I don't have to tell him anything, because I just let him do what he feels, and that's a true collaboration, it's a partnership right there.

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 when you put the two of them 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 his modern water pitchers, if you actually look at the top of it, it is in fact the outline of a 17th Century column cross section. So you'll find even in his most adventurous designs, you'll find this core of traditional rules which are part of his identity.

DINARDO: You know, 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 anybody can learn. And some of the technique associated with silversmithing is by hammer and anybody can learn those things. It's combining those things through your spirit, through your heart, to produce a work that transfers and transmit emotions and narrates a story.




VITALI: Since I believe that the path of people's life cross for a reason, all the people that work for me have very specific reason to come into my life. 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 cross sometimes the oceans to come here. Armit, for instance, he came and asked to be with me.

And how can you refuse somebody, they ask from such an exotic and faraway 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 craft, and I didn't know anything about it. I couldn't keep up with him. I couldn't do it. How the heck 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 kind of all came together.

VITALI: In alchemy, you would only teach your secrets, mysteries to another and the other dedicate himself to enter the temple, a kind of a monistic kind of concept. All the people that worked with me, they've entered the temple. They have crossed a threshold and dedicated themselves to it.

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

The past, is 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. All I have to do is turn my head and see the coal, and 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 hands of a skilled craftsman like Ubaldo Vitali, who's a craftsman and a scholar at the same time, there's 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 like 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 traditions, studied mastery and stunning commissions lining bolted 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 arts is far from over.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to and join me on my live stream at You can see my videos, blogs, and tweet as well as behind the scenes photos. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back here next Sunday.