by Michael G. Sabbeth
IT IS ONE MATTER TO UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY OF AN ART; TO GRASP ITS DETAILS, MASTER ITS THEMES AND APPRECIATE ITS WHIMSICAL RIVULETS. IT’S QUITE ANOTHER TO TIP TOE INTO ITS HISTORY AND WATCH IT BLOSSOM INTO THE FUTURE. I HAVE BEEN FAVORED WITH MANY VIBRANT EXPERIENCES BECAUSE OF MY RELATIONSHIP WITH SAFARI MAGAZINE AND A FEW OTHERS, BUT I SAY UNABASHEDLY THAT NO WRITING ASSIGNMENT HAS AFFORDED ME THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING PART OF HISTORY’S FLOW AS HAS WRITING ABOUT THE ENGRAVERS OF BERETTA’S HIGH GRADE GUNS.
“BELLE ARTI” and BERETTA
The history of Italian engraving is a subset of the develop- ment of structures to advance the Italian language and art. For example, Dante Alighieri (1300), considered the ‘father’ of the Italian language, was the dominant force to have books written in an Italian language rather than in Latin. The Italian ‘language,’ however, was actually an array of several dialects. Regarding the engraving art, from the 1200’s through the 1500’s, Italy could boast of notable artisans such as Giotto. These artists, however, were solitary craftsmen that worked alone and independently, just as writers wrote in different Italian dialects. They were often secretive about their tech- nique and tools.
Beginning in the 1500s, a new structure variously referred to as ‘scuolas’ (schools) or bottegas (small shops or studios) or
academies flourished that institutionalized the apprentice system. Prior to the bottega institution, no structure existed to identify, train and promote the practitioners of the arts or to establish quality standards.
The academy system that began to flourish in the early 1500’s specialized in painting, engraving and sculpture. Collectively, they were referred to as the “Belle Arti” or the ‘beautiful arts.’ Significantly, the bottega/academy system implementated the Italian cultural philosophy that methodi- cal disciplined teaching within a defined structure was vital for cultivating and sustaining the arts.
Illustrative of this unifying structure is the Italian linguistic academy “Accademia Della Crusca,” the most prominent academy in the field of language. Founded in 1583, it served to unify and protect the evolving coherent Italian language first conceived by Dante.
The bottega system germinated at the time that Beretta was established. Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta considers its ‘‘birth certificate’ to be a receipt dated October 3, 1526 from the Doge of Venice to master Bartolomeo Beretta of Gardone, Brescian territory, for 185 arquebus barrels.. Thus, Beretta’s ‘birth’ was contemporaneous with the institutionalization of promoting the fine arts. These two phenomena, one artistic, the other corporate, have sup- ported and elevated each other for a half millennia up to this moment when the engrav- ing art is at its zenith and Beretta has become the art’s dominant patron.
The Art is in the Blood
“Un artista ce l’ha nel sangre,” Giulio Timpini told me. My skillful interpreter, Chiara Pivato, from Beretta’s marketing department, translated: “The art is in the blood.” Giulio Timpini knows whereof he speaks. Past director of the Beretta engraving bottega, he and his family have been engravers for Beretta for two hundred and fifty years.
During our interview Giulio referred to the concept “sensi- bilita,” by which he means the spiritual dimension of the engraving art, that which resides in the heart, the blood and in the soul of the artisan.
The rigorous training of elite engravers encompasses three foundational techniques, which Giulio poetically analogizes to the three classical art forms. The first and most fundamen- tal engraving technique is the use of the hammer. It is com- parable to the basic sculptor’s technique applied to stone. Both employ the same strength, motion and body position.
Bulino is the second technique taught. The engraver uses the fine burin or graver (actually, dozens of different ones) and the loop, a magnifying lens, to remove steel millimeter by millimeter from the object’s surface. Pressure from the hand rather than from a hammer strike guides the graver and makes the cuts.
The bulino technique yields those soul-stirring scenes of ani- mals that have the spark of life and landscapes so vivid you sense the whisper of the wind. Giulio compares the bulino technique with painting and the graver to the painter’s brush.
The engraver employing the bulino technique will usually be seated while the engraver applying the hammer technique will almost always be standing, and will usually walk around the vise with the precision of a ballet dancer to make the cuts.
One of the most daunting bulino applications is the techni- ca chiaroscuro, the darkening and lightening of the steel’s sur- face. The luminescence of oil paint seen in the works of the finest painters such as Caravaggio and Titian is replicated tri- umphantly by the engraver by minutely altering the depth and angle of the removed steel.
Oreficeria, the inlaying of gold and other precious metals, is the third technique. The skills are derived from crafting gold jewelry, the art that led to the careers of many of Italy’s earli- est engravers. The multiple facets of the engraving art can thus be understood as the synthesis of the arts of the sculp- tor, the painter and the jewelry maker.
A minimum of five years is required to become reasonably skilled at these three techniques. Transforming technique into art, however, requires mastery of another artistic dimen- sion – the knowledge of the animals, their habitat and phys- iology and the knowledge of landscape, terrain and sky.
To realistically reproduce the charging lion, the mallards against a misty sky, or indeed, your spouse, your home, your dog or your jet, the engraver must become an artist. The artist must also master the classical styles; Baroque, Romanesque, English scroll and the deep chisel cut. Also to be mastered are what Plato referred to as balance and proportion, not only within the objects themselves but balance and proportion within the physical constraints imposed by the borders and shapes of the object.
The Beretta studio has about fifteen engravers. Their work day begins at about seven in the morning, when the natural light flooding into the studio is bright and direct. Employment openings are rare. A new engraver is hired onl
every five to ten years. Each artist has his or her own artistic strength – scroll, birds, animals, gold inlay. “I let them create,” Giulio says. “Each artist must follow his own path.” Giulio discerns each artist’s passions and strengths and assigns high grade gun projects based on those individual talents.
Beretta’s ‘Cathedral of the Mind’
The artist that works on a vast canvas can illustrate more of his skills than the one confined to working on a small surface. Giulio lyrically analogizes the opulent opportunities on the large canvas to a cathedral. “If you work within a cathedral, the artist can do many things.” The cathedral metaphor also applies to working for a large successful company such as Beretta, where more opportunities to express artistic talent are offered.
“Working for Beretta,” Giulio says, “is like having a cathedral. There are so many different guns and artists and subjects. The artist has the freedom to express what is inside him.”
Chiara helped Giulio refine and clar- ify his ideas and imagery as he strug- gled to express thoughts he said he had not previously expressed. Their faces were luminescent, as if transported to another world as they interacted as flu- idly as an elegant pair of ice skaters.
Making a premium gun is a great responsibility. On all aspects of the pre- mium guns, Giulio has always worked closely with Ugo Gussalli Beretta
(Beretta’s CEO), who he refers to as his mentor. Giulio explains that Beretta has given him the possibility to build a cathedral. With a flourish he adds, “It is the same as when the Pope asked Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Ceiling.”
Giulio shared that he could have earned more money leav- ing the valley and moving to Milan or Florence. He stayed at Beretta, however, because of family and history. “You don’t forget your origins,” he said. “Would I leave?” he asks rhetor- ically. He shakes his head. “No, I will miss my cathedral.”
In addition to its bottega engravers, Beretta contracts with the finest independent engravers. I visited several in Italy and had the serendipitous good fortune to meet with Ken Hunt this October at the third Grand Masters Engraving Program in Emporia, Kansas sponsored by the Glendo Corporation.
Bottega Giovanelli is located high in the mountains in Magno, about ten kilometers further up the valley from the Beretta facilities. The morning of my visit the air was clean and clear and as crisp as chilled apples. The building’s interi- or and exterior are adorned with murals, sculpture and pho-
tographs. The bottega employs about two dozen engravers, one third of which are women. Master engraver and Giovanelli manager Dario Cortini greeted me and Jarno Antonelli and gave us a leisurely tour of the spacious, multi-level offices and work areas.
Directing our attention to different gun actions as we walked through the studio, Dario explained the la tec- nica della linea, where very fine thin lines – molto fine – were used on the game scenes to control the light, a technique mastered by Durer.
Dario identified some advantages of the line technique. The engraver is less likely to make mistakes employ- ing it and the lines are less vulnerable to wear than are the fine points
employed in the tecnica puntino. “It is an honor to be selected by Beretta,” Dario said. It is
the most important firearms maker in the world, he added. No other maker has Beretta’s influence and prestige. But as an artist, more important to Dario than Beretta’s prestige is its philosophical relationship with the engravers.
Beretta doesn’t tell him what to do. No one tells him any- thing like, ‘I need two pheasant, a Labrador Retriever and an elephant to go!’ On behalf of all of its engravers, Dario told me how Beretta allows the engravers to engrave in their own style, asking their opinion about what they can do best. Dario then made arguably the most powerful statement an artist can make: “Beretta trusts me.”
Giacomo Fausti greeted me and Jarno Antonelli like old friends in the main salon of the Creative Art bottega. I had met Giacomo the previous year at the Grand Masters Engraving Program. Creative Art is the second most important bottega that does work for Beretta. Founded only eight years ago, Creative Art has catapulted to the highest world renown. Many of their best engravers started with Giovanelli and many had been students of Giulio Timpini.
Mingling among the busy engravers, I noted several Giubileos, exquisite DT 10 sporting target guns, one 687 EELL covered with magnificent pheasant and yelping dogs and a pulse-raising SO 6 EELL titanium action boasting gold inlays that prompted thoughts of a second mortgage.
Allowed to take the action from the vise, I studied its sur- faces with the respect and care of an angler delicately hold- ing the soon-to-be released trout.
I inquired how the engraver achieved the striking dark shading of the head of a charging elephant engraved on a double rifle. Giacomo explained it is done with meticulously fine cross-hatched lines that capture the light. No ink is used.
My last visit in Italy was with Mauro Dassa of Incisioni Dassa. I have known Mauro for several years and consider him a friend. He is at the top of the craft and is imbued with -a contagious passion for the art. He has engraved many Beretta premium guns, including stunning new SO 10 mod- els, during a relationship that spans several years.
Mauro works with his uncle, brother and father at his airy, scrupulously neat bottega in Collebato, which means ‘beauti- ful small mountains,’ a mid-sized town about one-half hour’s drive from the Beretta offices. I chatted with Mauro amidst the background din of the staccato tapping of his brother’s and uncle’s hammers striking their chisels.
The studio’s several polished wood cabinets overflowed with books on art, engraving and travel. Photographs and small sculptures adorned the shelves like birds in a nest. Desks are covered with calendars and folios featuring its work.
One of the great joys and privileges of this assignment was interviewing Ken Hunt at this year’s Grand Masters Engraving Program. This article gave me the justifica- tion to ask specific detailed questions about the style and technique of this unsurpassed masteroftheart.
Beretta had asked Ken to engrave and adorn one of the surprise ‘birthday’ guns for Ugo Gussalii Beretta. “Of course, it is an honor,” Ken said, “to be selected to create this unique gun for Mr. Beretta.”
Since it was a dominant feature of the birthday gun, Ken patiently explained his unique methods for coloring the gold in exquisite hues and then applying it to the action and the barrels. He described the process as just like painting. The action must first be prepared to secure the gold so that it would withstand the contraction and expansion of the steel
from firing tens of thousands of cartridges. “No one else has used this technique,” Ken said.
Almost all buyers of Beretta high grade guns in the United States work with Peter Horn, the vice president of the company’s retail division. One of the reasons for Peter’s prominence is his close relationship with the elite engravers.
He knows their schedules, he knows their styles and he knows how to align their rep- resentations with the customers’ personal artistic preferences. Peter insightfully notes: “Working with the master engravers in and around Gardone is equivalent to
walking amongst the master painters of the Renaissance.” A unifying theme always effervesced to the surface in any conversation I had with these independent engravers: that Beretta is the dominant artistic force in the valley. Beretta sus- tains the engraving art. It has done so for five hundred years and I expect it will continue to do for so for as long as people value the art of the gun.