It is no coincidence that among Zeus’ numerous offspring, born of more or less clandestine affairs, are the nine Muses. Defenders of the arts and sciences, they are the daughters of Mnemosyne, the personification of Memory with whom, legend has it, the king of the gods spent nine nights. These nine sisters, all high-ranking in divine hierarchy, have been evoked by centuries of writers and poets as the guardians and defenders of culture.
Many suggestions have been made to introduce a tenth member to this sisterhood. Homer and Plato suggested Sappho, in honour of poetry. The famed French gastronome Brillat-Savarin cast his vote in favour of Gasterea, who presides over the pleasures of the palate and who “could claim to master the universe, for the universe is nothing without life and all living things need food.” These days, we appear to have reached a tacit agreement that the title should go to the art of film.
Nomination of the Métiers d’Art to UNESCO
And the eleventh Muse? We believe this role belongs to the defender of a traditional activity such as craftsmanship and its highest form of excellence: the Métiers d’Art, which represent a savoir-faire that cannot be reproduced, nor easily exported, and must be safeguarded. With this is mind, in June 2017 Italian craftsmanship was nominated for inclusion on the list of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. Because cultural heritage does not end with monuments and collections of objects; it extends to living traditions inherited from the past: the performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events.
UNESCO explains how intangible cultural heritage is fundamental to maintaining cultural diversity in the face of globalisation. An understanding of this cultural heritage helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. Its importance is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.
Italian artisanat employs close to a million people and generates revenue in the region of €260 billion.
Currently, UNESCO has inscribed nine Italian “skills” on its list of intangible cultural heritage. Of them, only one is a form of artisanat, namely traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona, renowned for the making and restoration of violins, violas, cellos and contrabasses. This is certainly not the only aspect of Italy’s excellence in artisanship that warrants such a tribute; an excellence we should not underestimate. As a sector of the economy, it employs close to a million people and generates revenue estimated in excess of €260 billion.
A basic human impulse
Just to be clear, this isn’t about exhuming traditional crafts and gazing upon them with rose-tinted glasses; this is about characterising what makes an artisan, a man or woman who observes the rules of their art, who applies themselves to setting a higher standard, and who can take pride in pointing out the quality of their work. There is a reason admiration for a job well done is one of the rare emotions to survive the world over.
In his best-selling book “The Craftsman”, sociologist Richard Sennett writes that craftsmanship “names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” He suggests we re-examine training as well as the social and economic conditions that encourage individuals to do something well and to improve over time. How? Certainly not by lamenting trades of old, nor by considering them as part of some quaint representation of life a hundred years ago. In doing so, we only risk losing the interest of young people who are already little interested in professions that seem out of touch with a fast-moving modern society.
The message must be a different one altogether: how to enable a contemporary artisan d’art to be the protagonist of the new international work rationale? This is the challenge that is ours and that we must transmit through a strong message to UNESCO. And, why not, through the legend of the Muses.
- Clio: Muse of history
- Euterpe: Muse of music
- Thalia: Muse of comedy
- Melpomene: Muse of tragedy
- Terpsichore: Muse of dance
- Erato: Muse of lyric poetry
- Polymnia: Muse of pantomime and rhetoric
- Urania: Muse of astronomy and astrology
- Calliope: Muse of epic poetry