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entry 2003

The Tarsia Sorrentina
© by Herman Chanowitz   

                    of intarsioTarsia
(also intarsio) -or marquetry- refers to the peculiar and fascinating process of making in-laid wood (or wooden mosaic) products. It is both a craft and an art. The craft mass produces plaques, jewel boxes, serving tables, trays, and gaming tables for the tourist trade. The art produces the one-of-a-kind pictorial design which is the result of the artist's sensitivity and creativeness. I have had the good fortune to meet and discuss intarsio with Giuseppe Rocco, one of the foremost intarsio artists of Sorrento, and what follows is based on that discussion.   

Historically, in the late 16th and 17th centuries, the major industries in Sorrento were agriculture and shipbuilding. However, these industries declined, and by the 18th and early 19th centuries the major industries were silkworm farming, mulberry growing and woodworking furniture. The silk industry catering to the tourist couldn't compete with Northern Italy, however, and gave way to lemon and orange orchards. The subsequent loss of trade was a catastrophe for the local economy, and there was a strong effort to find another industry to fill the gap.   

Actually, during the late 16th century the French and Northern Italians had developed ornate furniture decorated with wood mosaics, and the 19th-century Sorrento woodworking artisans were aware of this type of furniture. Sorrento, because of its natural beauty and climate, had always attracted tourists, and the archeological excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum were a major attraction with tourists, who were then eager to find souvenirs of what they had seen at those sites. Thus, a couple of imaginative woodworking Sorrentinos recognized that the frescoes on the walls of the ruins lent themselves beautifully to reproduction in intarsio on plaques using the wood from the lemon tree for white or tan color and the wood from the nut tree for brown or grey ( the same colors used on the frescoes). These plaques turned out to be very popular with the tourists and so the intarsio industry was born.   

Briefly, the method of intarsio involves transferring a mosaic of wood onto a wooden base. The artist first prepares a full-scale accurate pencil drawing of the design to be transformed into intarsio. Next, using transparent paper, the original design is recopied. The artist modifies the drawing into a mosaic form, keeping in mind that each piece will be made of wood of unique color and grain structure and that it is the contrast between color and orientation of grain that brings the design into relief. The original transparency is then used to make transparent working copies which are subsequently destroyed during the process of cutting the mosaic pieces of wood.   

In the true intarsio art form, touching up the wood by painting is not permitted; all coloring and design detail must be the natural wood color and grain structure. The artist has about 50 different types of wood to select from with a color variation from almost pure white as in the wood of the lemon tree to the black of ebony, including all the colors of the rainbow in between. Only the trunks of the trees are used and the wood is imported from all over the world. The color of the wood is derived from the multitude of minerals found in the soil where the trees grow. The tree trunks are treated and aged for a couple of years to remove the moisture and then cut into thin slabs 0.7 millimeters thick. The slabs are classified according to color and grain structure and stored until needed.   

To cut the individual mosaic pieces, the appropriate slabs are selected according to color and grain; they are stacked and a jig-saw is used to cut the individual pieces using the working transparency pattern. Next, the pieces are assembled and glued to a newspaper sheet like a jigsaw puzzle.The sheet with the design is glued, paper up, to the base (table, jewel box, plaque, etc.) and the paper is removed using very fine sandpaper. What remains is the mosaic design glued to the base. This is then varnished, polished or coated with a polyester depending on the desired finish.   

The craft is very labor-intensive with very little automation. The design on a small plaque may have from 70 to 150 pieces while a large intricate design may have several thousand. The industry consists of several larger companies along with numerous small privately owned workshops in the ancient streets of the historical center of Sorrento. Most of the small companies cannot do all the manufacturing steps, so they subcontract such that each performs only a few steps of the production cycle. It is estimated that there are several hundred persons working in this craft.   

I have always enjoyed rambling through the ancient streets, poking into the open doors of a work shop, watching the artisans at work, discussing their many problems and learning of new developments. The reception has always been cordial and you may find your visit to Sorrento more interesting if you do likewise. Incidentally, Prof. Giuseppe Rocco would be pleased to meet with anyone who would like to visit his studio at Corso Italia 226, Sorrento, to learn more about the art of intarsio.

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