Homo Faber: elevating the handmade in Venice
Words and Photographs Mark Hooper
An inspiring and ambitious celebration of craftsmanship on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore raises the bar for the makers’ movement
With 400 mastercraftsmen, spanning all of Europe, from Iceland to Sicily, the Azores to Russia across 16 separate exhibition spaces, Homo Faber is nothing if not ambitious in its aims: evident in its stunning setting, taking over the entirety of San Giorgio Maggiore island, a short water taxi from San Marco in Venice.
The show is organised by the Michelangelo Foundation, which is ‘committed to supporting the highest expression of craftsmanship’ – identifying ‘authenticity, competence, craftsmanship, creativity, innovation, interpretation, originality, talent, territory, tradition and training’ as the core ingredients of this definition. (All of which, we could add, closely matches the ethos and inspiration that also drives Hole & Corner.)
Curator Alberto Cavalli was infectiously passionate in his opening address to the press, delivered in the former gondola workshop of La Giudecca on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore (built by Palladio, no less). Central to his message was the false divide between technology and tradition. ‘Technology is an instrument,’ he said. ‘The real enemy of fine craftsmanship is ignorance.’ Being able to see the difference in something made with love and care is, Cavalli suggested, the ultimate test.
At the inauguration ceremony, co-founder Johann Rupert, CEO of Richemont, gave a rousing speech that identified the global downturn of 2009 as a pivotal moment at which the West’s infatuation with fast and cheap products was laid bare. On the one hand, he said, it has led directly to the factionism typified by Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of antisemitism; on the other, it has seen a new appreciation of the handmade – in the investment of time, skill, care and expertise that are the true marks value.
His fellow founder, the writer and historian Franco Cologni, was equally bombastic in spelling out the vision for this ambitious exhibition: ‘It is time for a new Renaissance, to join together and forge a dynamic cultural movement centred around the deep meaning and values of craftsmanship.’
And so to the show itself. For sheer scope and scale, it is hard to compare Home Faber with any other show. The sheer theatricality of arriving by boat to the entrance of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, beside the steps of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, takes some beating. But it is the mixture of the grand and the subtle – the macro and the micro – of this celebration of craftsmanship at its highest that makes the show such a success.
Each separate show is dedicated to a different theme – from the self-explanatory Best of Europe space to Eilean, a fully restored yacht dating to the 1930s that was originally built in Fife before falling into disrepair in the Caribbean (but not before starring in the video to Duran Duran’s 1982 hit, ‘Rio’).
Bought by Angelo Bonati, former CEO of Office Panerai, it was was brought to Viareggio in Italy where a team of artisans set to wok on returning it to its former glory, using authentic 1930s materials and techniques wherever possible.
Other luxury brands showcase their heritage craft skills in the Discovery and Rediscovery room – including leatherwork from Alfred Dunhill, saddlery from Hermès, watchmaking from Jaeger-LeCoultre, gold nib crafting from Mont Blanc, bookbinding from Smythson and porcelain painting from Nymphenburg.
But it’s not all about the big names: Homo Faber is, at its heart, heralds the humble maker, whose dedication and commitment to doing things the right way is reward in itself – an embodiment of the infamous 10,000 hours that marks an master craftsmen from an apprentice.
From the exhibition of iconic vases in Centuries of Shape, housed in the magnificent Longhena Library to the Fashion Inside and Out show, wonderfully curated by Judith Clark in the island’s empty swimming baths, the settings are often inspired. And, as Cavalli made clear – technology is embraced where it enhances the end result. Witness the VR displays and imaginative use of split screen film in the Imaginary Architecture room, or Ramy Fischler’s cutting edge scenography displays onto compressed earth blocks in Foundation Bettencourt Schueller’s ‘For l’intelligence de la Main’.
Inspired collaborations in Doppia Firma (previewed at Salone in Milan earlier in the year) couple some of the best new design talent in Europe with master craftsmen, while Restoring Art’s Masters shines a spotlight on the intricate work of restoration, where modern science meets ancient technique.
As Cologne explains, ‘If Michelangelo’s David can still take our breath away, it’s because it is imbued with human spirit and mastery.’ The Michelangelo Foundation demonstrates this in countless wonderful ways at Homo Faber: a reminder that, even in divided times, the skill of the maker can still provide us with moments of awe. The show excels by showing what we can achieve when skill, ingenuity and innovation are at their best; when it confronts the visitor with the simple, therapeutic sight of a true artisan at work. With 400 to choose from, prepare yourself for a few repeat visits.
See our guide to Venice, including Homo Faber Alberto Cavalli’s personal pick of local artisans, here