Son of a craftsman, goldsmith and coral cutter, Platimiro Fiorenza took his first steps in his father’s workshop. Born in Trapani in 1944, it was as a child that he began to work gold, silver and coral, to cut his first gems, to get to know semiprecious stones. A craft that he has mastered and that he practices with great skill, producing sumptuous works of art, rich in detail and contemporary in appearance. One of his most prestigious creations is now in the Vatican Museums. For his undisputed expertise and as a worthy heir to an ancient tradition, Platimiro Fiorenza was awarded the title of MAM (‘Master of Arts and Crafts’) in 2018.
Tell us your story
I’m the son of an artisan, a goldsmith and coral cutter. I grew up in my father’s workshop, and started to work gold, silver and coral, to get to know semiprecious stones and to carve them at the age of just seven, attracting the attention and interest of the sculptor and painter Domenico Li Muli of Trapani. The last true curaddaru (coral cutter) was my father Pasquale Fiorenza. In his workshop the profession was conceived in the old-fashioned way. The work started with sketches and was then brought to completion: the artisan has to be able to draw, carve and set. When I was fourteen I enrolled in the school of arts and crafts in Trapani, then located in the little square of the church of our ‘Holy Father’ San Francesco di Paola. My favourite subjects were ornamentation and plastic art. My favourite subjects were ornamentation and plastic art.
I was taught the latter by Professor Li Muli, whose studio I frequented for about five years. I suggested to the professor that I carve a few cameos, but the school lacked the necessary materials, and so I told my father that, content with my experience of work, I was going to sharpen for myself a scarpina, a graver with a flat cutting edge. What I was setting out to use was a technique that the teachers had only heard about and the curiosity I stirred was immense.My passion for art also led me to try my hand at painting. At the age of twenty I left for Milan, where I began to work with the great sculptor Giò Pomodoro. After gaining even more experience, I decided to go back to my city as I was homesick for Trapani. I opened a new workshop that I turned into a school for many young people, from all over Sicily, who wanted to learn the art, passing on my skills and secrets to them with passion. And today I am still in the same workshop, teaching and working with great enthusiasm.
Why are you so fond of coral? What do you feel when you work this material?
I love coral for its distinctive forms that give me inspiration every day for the creation of truly unique objects. Each day brings a new challenge, that of succeeding in turning the material into an image or an object. What I like most about it are its colours, ranging from white to bright red, the red that in the past was associated with the blood of Christ. I still experience deep emotions when I’m working and great satisfaction when I finish what I’m doing.
How do you go about collecting and selecting the coral?
For centuries the tool used to harvest coral has been the ingegno [i.e. contrivance] made from two thick pieces of wood arranged in a cross [St Andrew’s Cross], from which hang clusters of nets to collect the pieces of coral uprooted by the ingegno. The device was lowered into the sea and dragged along, sometimes at a depth of 150 metres, and pulled up and down. This movement, together with the movement of the boat, led to the branches on the rocks being caught in the nets and torn off. In the 1970s I was one of the first to denounce this invasive method of fishing. Even though I work coral I have a great respect for it and I’ve always considered this system of harvesting wrong and destructive. Fortunately since 1994 the EEC has issued strict prohibitions on the use of the ingegno or St Andrew’s Cross, which destroyed entire reefs to harvest only a tiny amount of coral, and has passed regulations requiring the harvesting to be done by a scuba diver. This system is much more selective in that the diver uses his pick to cut just the coral, greatly limiting the damage and pointless waste and removing the branch without harming the whole bed. Once the branches have been harvested they are selected both for quality and for colour.
Where do you get the inspiration for your works?
My main source of inspiration is undoubtedly linked to the whole history of art. I’ve always thought that the really great masters were the artisans of the old days who managed to a create true masterpieces by rudimentary means. When I make an object, even ones in a distinctly contemporary style, I always try to employ those techniques and skills of the past that allow the object to become a unique piece of great value.
What is the most incredible work you’ve ever done? How long did it take you to do it?
It was in 1988 and I took six months to make it: a 33-cm-high chalice made of gold, coral and precious stones using the typical Trapani technique of marquetry called retroincastro and commissioned for Monreale Cathedral by the archdiocese on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the appointment of Mons. Salvatore Cassisa as archbishop of Monreale. In 1993 I took nine months to make the most prestigious work for the diocese of Trapani: a 34-cm-high Madonna di Trapani, in gold, coral and precious stones that is now on display in the Vatican Museums.
Do you have successors in the workshop?
There are many young people who have emerged from my workshop. At present my main heir is my daughter Rosadea, who in 2013 launched the cultural project ‘RossoCorallo’, born out of an idea she had in 2012, with the aim of spreading knowledge of the Trapani region through my artefacts, through the artistic tradition of the working of coral, which has always characterized my city. This project has expanded greatly over the years and has given a lot of exposure to my craft. There’s also a young man who has been working with me for about 20 years now. He was my student when I was teaching and after taking his diploma decided to join me in my workshop.
What does it mean being a MAM?
For me being a MAM is a great honour, I’m very proud of the award that I’ve received and I have a wonderful memory of the prize-giving ceremony. I still have the award and the book on display in my workshop. For me it’s a great satisfaction to have received this recognition of excellence, which supports and encourages us producers of the Made in Italy brand in a period so difficult and in decline for the whole craft industry. I will take advantage of this interview to thank all of you who through your work are helping to safeguard endangered crafts like mine.