The Art of Evolving

A family business moves from hand-crafted to machine-made.

In Canavaccio di Urbino, a suburb of the university town, a factory welcomes visitors with a sign that reads “Artista del Legno”—Artist of Wood. Inside, countless hand-crafted, three-dimensional wooden pictures hang on the walls of the hallway and offices. The intricate inlays depict scenes of towns like Urbino, farmers, musical instruments, and the Cross; the products of patience, time and quiet craftsmanship. But behind a closed door at the end of the lobby, come the harsh noises of enormous machines. Nowadays, the factory makes laser-cut plexiglass and wooden goods such as display shelves and boxes.

After 20 years of selling the ancient craft of wood marquetry, the Ricci family has a new business.

Ricci prepares a shipment

Ricci prepares a shipment. “Before, I had to struggle to sell the wood pictures,” he says. “Now, whatever we make sells immediately.” Unlike many Marche businesses, the Ricci family’s laser-cut factory has weathered the economic crisis well.

Intarsia, also called wood marquetry, is an inlay technique that spread a thousand years ago from Islamic North Africa through Sicily and Andalusia. Later, the art of inlay expanded into the rest of Europe and slowly developed into true marquetry.

The technique uses different shapes, sizes, and species of wood fitted together to create a mosaic-like picture with an illusion of depth. After selecting the wood, the artist individually cuts, shapes, and finishes every single piece.

“It is sort of a puzzle, yet not as easy as a puzzle. You must create your own puzzle,” says Ubaldo Ricci, 74, describing the craft he practiced for almost 50 years.

Urbino holds a remarkable example of inlaid wood in the Palazzo Ducale’s studiolo, where the woodwork on the walls depicts library shelves and windows open to hilly landscapes, creating a effect that is so three-dimensional it makes visitors want to open a bookshelf’s door and grab a book.

For survival, we had to reinvent ourselves. Whatever we make now sells immediately. Before, I had to struggle to sell (the wood pictures).

“This subject has been dismissed for so many years,” says Ricci. Fewer and fewer people practice inlaid woodwork; one of the last strongholds is Sorrento, a small town near Naples in the Campania region, that is known for its southern-Italian style woodwork. “I was in Sorrento thirty years ago,” Ricci says. “There were plenty of workshops. Yet, I was there a few years ago and there are many fewer than there used to be.”

As a boy from a peasant family with few opportunities, Ricci wasn’t as sophisticated as his fellow students. But at Scuola Artistico-Industriale di Fano—the school of art and industry of Fano—he learned the art of inlaid wook. “I was very good at artistic subjects. My talent made me an outstanding student during my studies,” he says.

After graduation in 1958, he ran a furniture company with his three brothers, reserving his wood marquetry talent for a hobby. In 1987, still working at the furniture company, he turned his handcraft into a business. Ricci’s wife, Irene, and his daughter, Barbara, were in charge of marketing; his son, Lorenzo, and he were the craftsmen.

It was a hard, tiring life. There were no free weekends, and many nights were filled with work. For almost 20 years, Ricci was divided in two, running two full-time businesses. The family lived like vagabonds, running to fairs all over Italy to sell Ricci’s wooden pictures, and working year-round without a vacation.

As time passed, the market for Ricci’s craft began to lag. Travelling to fairs was exhausting, and supplies became more expensive. Customers were not willing to pay higher prices. Specialty woods became harder or impossible to obtain, particularly protected species from the Amazon. The Ricci family decided to shift to a business as different from wood marquetry as night is from day.

Ubaldo Ricci displays one of his wood carved pieces.

Ubaldo Ricci displays one of his wood carved pieces.

“For survival, we had to reinvent ourselves,” says Ricci. “Whatever we make now sells immediately. Before, I had to struggle to sell [the wood pictures].” The laser-cutting factory, one of the few in Le Marche, employs three workers. Almost every day they ship huge loads to their clients all over Italy, including major stores such as Armani, pharmacies, supermarkets, and perfume shops. Though they decline to give a specific figure, they say that the financial picture is excellent. In a 2010 report on distinguished entrepreneurs of Le Marche, the company reported annual revenue of 431,206 euros.

As the conversation deepens, Ricci speaks about a favorite subject of his wooden pictures: the “civilization of farmers,” meaning peasants working in the field, for instance, with wooden plows and sickles. He says, “You cannot find these scenes nowadays, it doesn’t exist anymore, but this is where we came from, it is our reality and our roots.”

A former customer of “Artista del Legno,” 68-year-old Vincenza Inguscio, shares Ricci’s excitement about farm life. Inguscio spent her youth in the big city of Torino before moving to Canavaccio, her husband’s home town, and adapting to rural life. “I was very impressed when I moved here to Canavaccio, that people were bonded so strongly to their lands,” she says. Now she owns two of Ricci’s works. One piece shows farmers taking a lunch break, the wife bringing food to her husband who stands in the shade of a tree.

My father- and mother-in-law worked in the fields. So I was witness to this scene. I found the reality in this picture. What’s more, the materials and colors symbolize ‘terra’—the land. The wood comes from the land, it all fits.

“My father- and mother-in-law worked in the fields,” says Inguscio. “So I was witness to this scene. I found the reality in this picture. What’s more, the materials and colors symbolize ‘terra’—the land. The wood comes from the land, it all fits.”

Apologizing that he cannot demonstrate his craftsmanship because ten years ago he got rid of his tools and materials, Ricci says of his new life: “Now I am calmer, we have less worries and more money in our pockets. Our customers are more reliable, we get paid beforehand, and consequently we have certainty. Despite the present crisis we have been working quite well.”

Meantime, the laser machines keep working. Like other dying crafts, inlaid woodworking becomes a memory, preserved in examples scattered around Italy, and by a few remaining practitioners.

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About Funda Tekin

Several experiences of study abroad, and working as an interpreter in Istanbul project 2011 lead me here, in Urbino, an outstanding Renaissance city, surrounded by a great nature. This experience has been different in terms of studying hard while trying to enjoy Italy, and being here with no familar faces at all. I came with a lot of worries, such as, thinking that I wouldn’t fit in with the group, having hard times to report in English. However, it hasn’t turned out as I thought, met many great people, welcoming me, both American and Italian. As a journalism student never reported in English before, I had chance to improve my journalism skills, and overcome the difficulties by the attention of our special professors. It was a one-time experience, with a lot of great memories and absorptions, which I will miss!