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The Foundation  of Luminaries


The Foundation of Luminaries

J.H. White

Cultural brothers-in-arms Johann Rupert and Dr. Franco Cologni, founders of the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship. Photo courtesy of Michelangelo Foundation. Photography by Laila Pozzo

Michelangelo dedicated his life to his craft and works, which in turn have inspired humanity for 500 years, from heavenly Sistine Chapel frescoes to majestic sculptures like David. Even in his final, unfinished piece — the Pietà Rondanini — the maestro captures like no other the truly special union of visionary artist and expressive artisan.

“Pietà Rondanini is an unfinished work where the beauty of polished human form emerges from the rough essence of stone, a combination that creates an emotional and thought-provoking sculpture,” reads the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, a new Geneva-based nonprofit that defends, revives, and inspires master craftsmanship around the globe, starting in Europe. 

The Michelangelo Foundation’s founders — Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury group Richemont, which owns brands like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Jaeger-LeCoultre, along with Dr. Franco Cologni — believe that the spirit, values and heritage of the métiers d’art are missing today, and may be lost forever if something isn’t done now.

“We put so much value on personality, on entertainment, and on what is explicitly made to not last,” says Rupert. “It seems healthy to me that we question why we value these things and whether or not it is at the expense of more inherently valuable things: activities or individuals with depth, who focus on something beyond themselves, beyond the moment — people who are humble and willing to continually learn as well as to teach and to do good.”

Cologni ventures to say they’re not simply founding an organization, they’re creating a cultural movement — what he calls “artisan humanism.”

Rupert adds, “Artisan humanism describes a belief that what is distinctly human is present and active in artisanship, and that it provides a way for us to express and assert our humanity in the face of serious threats to it.”


 José Luis Bazan is a master leatherworker living in a remote village in Spain. For the Michelangelo Foundation, territory is an important element of excellence;  S.Pozzoli/©MichelangeloFoundation


No easy way out

“Our economies are in the midst of being taken over by machines,” says Rupert. “In grocery stores, airports, hospitals, banks, drones, driverless cars, computers that think” — people are losing their livelihoods — and life, spirit, humanity — a phenomenon that needs to change.

“The core of the first Renaissance was the revival of the notion in Greek philosophy that ‘Man is the measure of all things,’” says Rupert. It’s humanity’s creativity, individuality, strong character and perspectives that truly endure over centuries and grow into heritage. “Why that concept is important today is precisely because of the unbridled growth of technology and the way it is dominating us. We have to bring human beings back to centre stage.”

Closeup of one of Bazan’s leather bowls; S.Pozzoli/©MichelangeloFoundation

Bazan holds a leather bowl. S.Pozzoli/©MichelangeloFoundation

The artisan — and the intangible qualities he represents, such as lifelong dedication and the pursuit for perfection — are the keys to a proper realignment for mankind.

“Craftsmanship provides a counterbalance to these trends,” says Rupert. “It highlights and represents what humans can do that machines cannot. It also connects us to the natural world and reminds us that ultimately the source of beauty is distinctly human.”

While the efficiency of machines presents the most glaring problem, another more hidden one will be equally challenging for the foundation to face.

These master craftsmen are some of the world’s heroes. They are creating beautiful, useful things that last, things that are made with heart and soul.
— Johann Rupert

“Today, design schools are filled with people who can imagine things but who have never had the opportunity to work with their hands,” says Rupert. This bias that lauds working with the head but not the hands is a consequence of the industrial revolution, where division of labour created specialization, which, in the information age, becomes even more specific.

Elena dal Cortivo in her atelier in Milan with a hand-sculpted parchment rosette used to decorate baroque instruments. Dal Cortivo’s fascination and dedication to detail allows her to keep this extremely rare skill alive. T.Bertelsen/©MichelangeloFoundation

 Haute couture embroidery from the workshop of Pino Grasso. Each creation from the Grasso atelier is handmade with delicate attention to every detail and with exceptional skill. T.Bertelsen/©MichelangeloFoundation

As technology strips away jobs from the workforce, it removes far more than a paycheck — it steers people away from their values and purpose. Artisans are often born with talent, usually aligned with a destiny to create. The Michelangelo Foundation literature reads, “Talent is a natural, innate ability and an intangible gift which, like a muscle, comes with a requirement to be developed or lost. Talented artisans are living treasures with a propensity towards perfection.”

Though it’s an uphill battle, the knighted founders — who have both been honoured as Légion d’Honneur recipients — look optimistically to the foundation’s future.

“Today, more than ever, we are in great need of connection, both to our environment and to one another,” says Cologni. “We have been working in Italy for two decades to create a movement that acknowledges and encourages the work of master artisans and gives young people the chance to enter this world of culture and beauty.”

Paradigm shift

Rupert believes traditional artisanship intertwines classical values and the spirit of humanity, something we need now more than ever.Photo courtesy of Michelangelo Foundation

“These master craftsmen are some of the world’s heroes,” says Rupert. “They are creating beautiful, useful things that last, things that are made with heart and soul. These individuals put a great deal of themselves into their work, and they deserve recognition and support.”

From lacemaking to leatherwork, haute couture to crystal, incomparable musical instruments to the finest porcelain, the Michelangelo Foundation will perpetuate artisanship by creating a global ecosystem of métiers d’art. It will digitally connect virtuosos; facilitate real-world apprenticeships so that generational secrets can be passed on; promote these masters in publications, specialized networking events and online; and, of course, cultivate constant dialogue between the worlds of design and craftsmanship, in hope that creatives today and tomorrow will unify the talents of creative design and master craftsmanship once again.

“We are living in a critical moment of systemic change. The major systems and beliefs that have been carrying us along over the past couple of hundred years are falling away,” says Rupert.

“I think it is our responsibility to take the long view and to build for the future. This is what differentiates human beings from other creatures — our ability to look into the future and to contribute to it.”

Kostia (Constantin Laan), a furniture-maker, works with wood, bronze and lacquer in his workshop.  T.Bertelsen/©MichelangeloFoundation

Ludovic Avenel, a furniture-maker awarded the Bettencourt Schueller for the Intelligence of the Hand in 2007. S.Pozzoli/©MichelangeloFoundation

English Text by J.H. White Produced by Peggy Liu