Cannella: Dwarves, sheepskins and unexpected discoveries
The image in the catalogue is that of the so-called “Apartment of the dwarves”, the space in the Ducal Palace in Mantua commissioned by Ferdinando Gonzaga in the seventeenth century and which is a miniature reproduction of the Scala Santa in Rome’s San Giovanni in Laterano.
The beige colour of the rooms portrayed is from the Cannella raw earth collection and it is a highly individual shade, similar to that of the typical chamois leather used to polish cars (the collection was previously called Suede).
Thinking back to it today however, it was perhaps not the right choice. In addition to the aesthetic and colour coherence, we had chosen that photo for its striking theatrical power: the dwarfs are not visible (and never have been), but rather there are the masks of a legend gradually built up over time. However, other masks and other colours are also linked to this earth and so we must therefore take a step back.
Towns and cities with a significant architectural or archaeological raw earth heritage can now register with a national association and effectively three areas are involved. One is in Abruzzo between Pescara and Chieti and more precisely the Casalincontrada area, a small town which is home to the “Centro di documentazione sulle case di terra cruda” or “Raw Earth Houses Documentation Centre” is located. Another one is in Alessandria in Piedmont and the third is the Medio Campidano in Sardinia, an area with a highly unusual natural and geological conformation.
The earth for Cannella, one of the first we have ever used, comes from a quarry in that area and today five of our fourteen clay variants come from Sardinia, a land to which we are very attached and a true cradle of raw earth.
In recent years I have been there many times, not least because over time an authentic cultural debate about the material has been going on, fuelled in part by the local university faculty with which we collaborate (in particular with Professor Maddalena Achenza).
In addition to being one of the richest mining areas in Italy, Sardinia has a particularly ferrous soil and it is precisely the iron oxide in different chemical conformations - ferrous oxide, ferric oxide, or iron oxide – which is the component that most determines the chromatic qualities of the clay. In that area a vast range of shades is available, so much so that it is possible to extract four or five different shades from the same quarry.
This is in direct contrast to the typical alluvial clays of the Po Valley, carried downstream as debris from the Alps and the Po and lacking a great variety of colours.
Our new start-up envisaged by the benefit company project will also be based in Sardinia. This choice is partly due to the fact that most of the raw material we use comes from this area and partly because it is a way to be closer to the territory. I still don't know Sardinia as well as I would like and apart from work reasons, I don’t think I’ve spent more than two summers there on holiday.
However, one particularly vivid memory remains from one of these. I was with my two children who were still quite small (they must have been six and eight years old) and we were near Arbatax. Quite by chance, we had come across a village festival similar to a carnival. I remember that we stood by the side of a main road where we were told the Mamuthones – the typical local masks - would pass. It was a unique opportunity to see them live. We thus organised ourselves and waited impatiently by the side of the road while the children sat at my feet. The wait was not very long, but the heat and tension in the air made it seem more vibrant.
Suddenly, we saw them. They came round the curve, with shiny black wooden masks and wearing bristly sheepskins that were even blacker. Jumping from side to side, they vigorously shook the cowbells attached to the sheepskins on their backs, producing high-pitched, clanging, almost hypnotic sounds. I remember that the children were so frightened they clung tightly to my legs and didn’t let go.
Later, after the intense tension created by their passing had disappeared, we went and saw them up close. They had already taken off their masks and we discovered that, surprisingly, they were all very young lads. Their faces were drenched in sweat and still showed all their fatigue and discomfort: even though it was now late evening, the temperature was in the low 30° Cs and the costumes, including cowbells and sheepskin would have weighed a good 30 kgs. Although they looked completely shattered by the effort, I still remember the guts and spirit they showed, the strength that was evident in every gesture, even if slowed down by fatigue. They almost looked like pagan gods to me, and seeing them in front of me was pretty impressive. As I watched them, I thought back to how those rites were ancient and ancestral, like earth, iron and fire. I felt a little dizzy, and had the absurd feeling, for a split second, of being outside of time. To work the earth on which we tread, those dry and drawn faces told me, you have to be as primitive and brutal as the earth itself, like Hephaestus who forged the weapons of Achilles with iron and fire. Because in the end, the nature of the earth is a question of iron and fire, of temperature and pressure: their actions generated not only the earth's crust and minerals but also the clay itself, even if subjected to a lower intensity of pressure and heat than the rock.
In addition to being a primary substance, earth is also the final part of a process, the beginning and end of matter, since it is produced through the disintegration of rocks and organic material which when shattered, become gravel, then sand, then silt and finally clay.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Thus we read in the Book of Genesis. The material of origins, from Adam and Eve onwards and from which every artistic gesture starts, is also the result to which everything returns, including the most precious artifacts. I am always fascinated by the idea of dealing with such a generative substance, whether it is giving life to a new product, a new business, or perhaps simply tracing the nuances of a new colour. The tree which cannella or cinnamon comes from is native to Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka) and a place from whose name the term “Sinhalism” or “serendipity” is said to derive and which indicates an occasional and unexpected discovery. The discovery of Cannella, with its clayey tones similar to the oriental spice, should then lead to other discoveries linked to a territory and its culture. Sometimes, some more unexpected than others; like that concealed behind black masks, on a black midsummer night.