The Geneva-based Michelangelo Foundation is the brainchild of Johann Rupert, who is Chairman of luxury group Richemont, and entrepreneur and cultural expert Dr Franco Cologni. Its lofty mission is to defend the future of master craftsmanship or métiers d’art from the systemic forces of globalisation and the digital revolution.
As the world dives headlong into the tsunami of the information age, it often seems that what is prized above all else is digitisation, efficiency, the growing intelligence of machines and the avoidance of human foibles. Such progress might be inevitable but Johann Rupert believes that it comes at a price: “These forces threaten to eclipse singular human skills and centuries of culture and know-how,” he says, “and we want to make sure that this precious heritage doesn’t get left behind.” Together with co-founder Dr Franco Cologni, South African business mogul Rupert established the Michelangelo Foundation in 2016, with the aim of redressing the balance between the creation of objects of lasting beauty and our increasingly screen-based culture. “More than ever, we are in great need of connection, both to our environment and to one another,” explains Italian author and philosopher 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.”
One of the key objectives of the Michelangelo Foundation is the recognition and protection of not simply art but artisanship. This could take the form of a digital platform for young independent artisans, a Tripadvisor-style series of recommendations, or perhaps providing a forum for discovery and support. Other ideas for practical assistance that the Michelangelo Foundation may offer include underwriting collaborations between designers and artisans, developing a title and recognition at national level for master craftsmen, building networks for like-minded artisans and creating an apprenticeship program to propel dying arts into the future. In this way, the Michelangelo Foundation aims to promote its vision of an age of ‘artisan humanism’ in which artisanal excellence can be defined, recognised and cultivated like a rare botanical.
The Michelangelo Foundation is the latest in a series of charitable forays into the arts by magnates in the luxury sector. For example, Fondation Louis Vuitton rises as a Frank Gehry-designed beacon of contemporary art, music and dance on the outskirts of Paris courtesy of LVMH’s Bernard Arnault and is described as a ‘private cultural initiative’ to support contemporary artistic creation. Likewise, the eighteenth century Bourse de Commerce is set to transform into a museum for the private contemporary collection of Kering’s François Pinault, while Fondazione Prada pitches itself as a cultural institution embodying an interest in literature, art, cinema and philosophy. The focus of the Michelangelo Foundation is somewhat different. Not concerned with the promotion of its artisans into new super-brands, it is fixated on painstaking craft itself as art form, whether the production of linen in an Irish mill, haute couture in Rome, ceramics in Palermo or the restoration of vintage Ferraris in Modena. Expert craft as a last-gasp expression of humanity: slow, lasting excellence. Just like the masterpieces of the Michelangelo Foundation’s namesake, the transcendent Renaissance sculptor who dedicated his life to artistry. Michelangelo once acknowledged that, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all”
THE FUTURE OF BEAUTY
As chairman of a luxury group that owns Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre among others, Rupert has already had his fair share of influence over a culture that venerates exquisite beauty in its commercial form, although he is clear that there will be no relationship between Richemont or its portfolio brands and the Michelangelo Foundation. Rupert told the New York Times in a candid interview in 2016, “Look, we’ve been very lucky and made more money than we ever thought possible out of luxury goods. But uncovering the raw or enduring talent—for me, that’s the best part.” He added that, “What’s not fun anymore is going to Bond Street or Fifth Avenue or Via Montenapoleone where the shops and product all look the same and have done now for the last 30 years because all the smaller, independent artisans have been pushed out by the retail rentals. We have to protect their livelihoods.” The non-profit Michelangelo Foundation is Rupert’s opportunity to turn talk into action. “This will not be a moneymaking thing,” he urges. “It is going to be an open platform, a place where people can explore unique products in the one area where Europe is still better than America or Asia.” In Rupert and Cologni, the artisans of métiers d’art have found two formidable champions.
Pino Grasso makes haute couture embroidery in Milan