The “craftsman’s hand”

In my early 20s, I was captured by the romance of craft. What could be better than doing a tough job, doing it expertly, having it look good, and getting some appreciation. Being a good “mechanic” was the term of highest praise among my crowd. In George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a tough carpenter wins the girl’s hand after some struggle. It was in fact class struggle, and I relished being on the workers’ side. The progression from apprentice to journeyman to master suited me fine, though I barely got into stage 2. It was a counterpoint to the happenstance privilege climbing that my fellow university students followed. I sought to master the wood plane, and had an old British book Planecraft to follow. After an hour planing hard, I held the smooth plane at my side and saw my muscles and sinews straining maybe like the right arm on the statue of David.

Then, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I went to architecture school. It was there that my construction experience and woodworking knowhow got closeted because, I was told, it did not lead us to creating art and becoming an artist. You don’t “become” an artist–you had the gift or you did not. And the school would let you know where you stand, in good time. My craftsman’s apprentice / journeyman / master linear trajectory had no parallel in architecture school. We did not become artists via serial progress, but by hitting upon some random convention-challenging intervention that grabbed attention. Common sense and convention was the enemy—abandon common sense all ye who enter here. I played their game, then quickly begged off the art quest. Not my classmates. For them, the art prize drove everything. My studio colleagues, for whom drugs were a boon, were ditzy Don Quixotes fantasizing the next project. I was the Sancho Panza shaking my head and saying that’ll never work.

All this left me with an eye out for any writing that speaks of art and craft. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may be the most endearing pair in all of literature, but is this any way to deliver a building?

My paternal grandmother’s name was Eunice Browning. She came from Texas with her sisters to the Canal Zone to find fortune and family. And it became part of our family lore that we were related to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Who knows? Once I grew a beard, a scrawny decrepit thing, and my brother Jim noted it looked just like Robert Browning’s when he was my age. 

Robert Browning, 1865, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Browning wrote the art/craft poem I’d been looking for. It is one of Browning’s dramatic monologues, “Andrea del Sarto, or the faultless painter.” His source was Georgio Vasari, who was actually del Sarto’s student for a while. The painter, who is the narrator, is in his studio with Lucrezia. She was a young widow who had become his wife and the model for the painter’s madonnas. Vasari notes how del Sarto was vexed with jealousy “and one thing and another”, and how Lucrezia would not leave his students alone. So the dramatic monologue has this mid-life painter musing on his wife and on his craft. “Craft” is del Sarto’s term, or the term assigned by Browning.

Andrea sel Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A little context. Andrea del Sarto lived primarily in Florence, except for a short time in France under Francois I, that had an unfortunate shady outcome at Lucrezia’s prompting. Florence also saw Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Raphael for much of their time. Vasari put these three artists in a top-tier class by themselves. So did Browning, four centuries later.

To the poem: Del Sarto agrees to a commission for Lucrezia’s “friend’s friend”, where he’ll “accept too his own price / And shut the money into this small hand / When next it takes mine. Will it? Tenderly?” He’s not getting the tenderness, the respect, he wants and feels he deserves. “A common grayness silvers everything— / All in twilight, you and I alike.” 

Does his work merit a high regard?

I can do with my pencil what I know,

What I see, what at bottom of my heart

I wish for, if I ever wish so deep—

Do easily, too—when I say, perfectly,

I do not boast…

At any rate ‘tis easy, all of it!

No sketches first, no studies, that’s long past:

I do what many dream of, all their lives,

–Dream? Strive to do, and agonize to do

And fail in doing. I could count twenty such

On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,

Who strive—you don’t know how others strive

To paint a little thing like that you smeared

Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,–

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says

(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!

Well, less is more, Lucrezia

Wait a minute! “Less is more” comes from Browning, not Mies Van Der Rohe! And this phrase—less is more—is the turning point of the poem. We often take it, as Mies did, to refer to the minimalism of early 20th Century architecture, following on Loos’ remark adopted by Le Corbusier, that “ornament is a crime”. Does it speak to Renaissance painting as well? Del Sarto is obviously very skilled. Who are these others, who do less, but somehow it counts for more? What is it that he is missing?  Here we note that the voice of the poem has shifted; it is now the poet’s not the narrator’s. He goes on:

There burns a truer light of God in them,

In their vexed, beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,

Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt

This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.

Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,

Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me

Del Sarto has mastered his craft, he is the most skilled of any in Florence. But art, for Browning, aims for something besides excellence, besides a surfeit of skill, besides rendering the draping of cloth in light (hmmm…del Sarto is, in Italian, “of the tailor”).  Here we need to take a look at the artwork itself. And the “less” part of “less is more” becomes obvious. Mona Lisa, David, and the Sistine Madonna are all sharp, sparse, direct. They have backbone, structure. By contrast, del Sarto’s work has composition and turbulence. The Mannerism that followed the Renaissance played off del Sarto, and became serpentine, swirly, disfigured, bluffing. Browning makes it clear later in the poem that the big three form the contrast to del Sarto, though I find it hard to picture them with stuffed and stopped-up brains.

When I was in architecture school we called it That Special Something (TSS). TSS may come or it may not, despite one’s efforts toward competence, then excellence, then mastery. We don’t need, and probably don’t have, That Special Something. I don’t lay claim to having TSS. We deal with architects, for whom TSS is actually That Special Everything. We seek to become competent, then better, then excellent, then masters. And it seems odd that there are those for whom less is more, and a heaven opens to them which is shut to us. Should I be jealous? Well, let’s see how the poem progresses, in particular, can skill and mastery win the big prize—the heart of the lovely Ms L?

                        Somebody remarks

Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,

His hue mistaken: what of that? Or else,

Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?

Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?

Here we have one clue about a craftsman’s striving for excellence—what does the mountain care? Suppose we deviate from skillful correct representation—the mountain doesn’t care.

The next line is often quoted, and it apparently actually did come from del Sarto:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

I’m not sure I know what to make of that line. I’m dying to hear about the sullen and disenchanted Lucrezia.

Del Sarto tells stories of Rafael and Michel Agnolo, and how the arm is wrong. He goes on and on gossiping about his contemporaries who somehow don’t hold him in the esteem he feels he has earned.

See, it is settled dusk now; there’s a star…

Come from the window, love,–come in, at last,

Inside the melancholy little house

We built to be so gay in…

Let us but love each other. Must you go?

The Cousin here again? He waits outside? 

Must see you—you and not me? Those loans?

More gaming debts to pay? You smiled for that?

There’s no telling who the “Cousin” is, but it represents a life, probably one of excitement, beyond the walls of the melancholy little house.

You loved me quite enough, it seems to-night

This must suffice me here. What would one have?

In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance—

Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,

Meted on each side by the angel’s reed.

For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me

To cover—the first three without a wife

While I still have mine! So—still they overcome

Because there’s still Lucrezia,–as I choose.

Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go my love.

That’s how the poem ends. Now maybe you wanted our craftsman to win the jackpot and melt the icy heart of his inattentive wife, and find contentment in his work alongside the more prominent commissions of his rivals. And perhaps you hoped you’d find a rewarding ending for all us strivers after competence, in a world (a mountain) that just doesn’t seem to care. Sorry, no dice. But hey, blame it on my ancestor, Robert—he wrote the poem, not me. From what I know of art history, da Vinci was a bit too old for Lucrezia. Michelangelo wasn’t her type. That rascal Raphael, who knows? The student, Vasari, plays it coy.

This blog is just getting underway, and there will be a lot more to say about art and science. About educating architects, builders and building scientists. About building scientists being the wingmen, the Sancho Panzas to architecture’s Don Quixote. So next time you hear “less is more” you may once again revisit the birth of modernism. Or you may put yourself in Lucrezia’s shoes, yearning to be close to excitement, or close to That Special Something. 

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