We start from the concept of beauty and of art.
In the past beauty was associated to Nature, whilst art had the task to perform what it was meant to do at its best. In that sense, art was what the painter did, but also what the carpenter did.
In the 15th century Leonardo Da Vinci devotes, in sketching his mechanical prodigies, the same love and care that he would employ with his paintings.
The word “art”, as well as the word “handicraft”, stem form the Latin term “ars” meaning “practical method”, that is “technique”. In the Middle Ages the term “artist” did exist, but not the term “craftsman”, meaning an individual excelling in his profession, that is, in his art. Thus the distinction between artist and craftsman in the past was very subtle, if it ever existed.
Only in the 15th century the distinction between major and minor arts appeared, when the treatises by Leon Battista Alberti highlighted the importance of intellect over manual ability.
In the 16th century such distinction became even sharper with the birth of academies which underlined the difference between academic knowledge and all those activities that were carried out in workshops.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, craftsmen would gather in associations; to join one of them, therefore to learn a skill, a youngster would work without being paid under the supervision of an expert craftsman (in fact, one would join a workshop at a very young age, as a child!). Only after a long apprenticeship the young man would start being paid, anyway only after the beginning of a production that would meet the quality standards required by the association he belonged to. In the hierarchy of society, craftsmen would rank just below aristocrats and above farmers.
Such associations were called “Guilds of arts and crafts” and were created from the 12th century; they would protect and regulate the members of a same category. There were strict regulations for the control of raw materials, of processing and of tools, as well as what we would call a war against ‘fakes’. This is where the expression “by the rule book” stems from.
The corporate activities of craftsmen however, have much more remote origins; in ancient Rome they were called ‘corpus’ or ‘collegium’, and they had important political and economical roles throughout the Middle Ages. Just think that the Emperor Diocletian made them compulsory and hereditary in order to ensure social stability after the crisis in the 3rd century A.D. During the Middle Ages political activities were organised according to the structure of the guilds.
Craftsmen in Italy have always been the guardians of a tradition that is passed on from father to son, a tradition that is made up of sacrifice, mistakes and uniqueness. When we buy a hand-crafted item we are purchasing a slice – however small – of history and tradition, the symbol of a system of relations in a continuous exchange of cultural, social and economic experiences.
It is estimated that handicraft in Italy affects the economy by 33% in terms of number of enterprises, by 21% in terms of staff members and by 15% in terms of GNP.
Italian dictionaries define:
Artist: whoever devotes himself or herself to a form of art in the role of creator or interpreter;
Craftsman: whoever creates items that are not mass-produced, both artistic and non artistic;
According to what stated above, the connection between artist and craftsman, art and handicraft is quite evident, as is the ambiguity in the distinction of the two terms.
Item 45 of the body of laws of the Italian Republic (dating back to 1948) reads: ‘the Law provides for the protection and the development of handicraft”
With the law of 25th July 1956 n°860 the Parliament, neglecting the body of laws, deletes millennia of history and culture by creating the symptoms of the current economic crisis, defining handicraft as an enterprise and including mass production – which is typical of industrial activities – in the area of handicraft production.
Workshops from now on will have to be part of the Retail Trade and Commercial Register (REC) just like traders and will be increasingly subject to the tax and legislative treatment that is typical of industries.
Law n° 443/85 reads: a craftsman entrepreneur is that individual who performs the craft business personally, professionally and as owner, by assuming full responsibility of it including all the burdens and risks implied in its management and by performing his work, even manual, within the productive process. Moreover, it is expected that the same entrepreneur may be the owner of only one craft business, while he may be a non operating member within other companies.
Law n° 443/85 therefore, transforms workshops into enterprises. The craftsman then becomes an entrepreneur and loses that highly humanistic feature that has distinguished him for thousands of years. This marks the birth of a new economy based on the ephemeral and on the bankruptcy exchange of credits and debts instead of being based on the exchange of manufactured products.