HAILING from the Tuscan city of Carrara, famed for its white marble and a mecca for international artists, it was natural for Alessandro Bassi to have become a sculptor.
But he chose to take a different direction at first on his journey in life which has brought him to Sheffield where an exhibition of his pure white Carrara marble sculptures are on show in the gallery he runs with his partner, artist Lara Hirs-brunner.
His father was a goldsmith and jewellery maker and the teenage Alessandro developed a passion for gemstones and metal and went off to Valenza Po, the Italian capital of fine jewellery, and enrolled at renowned goldsmith academy Benvenuto Cellini. Working in goldsmithing workshops as a cast designer, he picked up expertise in different aspects of the jewellery-making process and in 1997 received his diploma as master goldsmith.
He returned to Carrara where he opened his own workshop and developed his first experimental collection of gold and diamonds on marble.
But the lure of the white marble proved irresistible. After a few years, still young and full of ambition, Bassi decided to leave his flourishing jewellery store in Carrara city centre and enrol at the esteemed Accademia di Belle Arti to specialise in sculpture under the tutelage of international artist Pier Giorgio Balocchi and Marco Bresciani, who had undertaken commissions for British sculptor Henry Moore.
While studying he participated in a couple of international sculpture symposiums, designed sets for a production of Alice in Wonderland and organised exhibitions. He was chosen for a commission from the Vatican after a two-year search for someone capable of making a rosary in silver and marble for Pope John Paul II.
After graduation Bassi came over to Britain in 2006 and worked for Sheffield metal designer David Mellor, along with Derbyshire jewellery manufacturers Orlap and the American jewellery company Green Bullion, valuing diamonds for Cash4Gold.
This may not have been the most satsifying job of his career but it was where he met Lara Hirsbrunner, working as a Spanish translator, who encouraged him to return to his first love, white marble.
“For four years I hadn’t been able to sculpt,” Bassi explains. “Marble for me is like steel for someone from Sheffield.”
“As soon as he went back to Carrera he exploded into a work frenzy,” says Hirsbrunner.
“ I came across a statement on Carrara which I think sums it all up: ‘there is a continuity of people having to go back to the same place for the material, which is irreplaceable’.”
Bassi agrees that being away from Italy helped him value white marble more. “It’s like your backyard, people kick it about. If it’s all around you, you don’t value it. In Carrara everything is white. When it rains it runs through the streets like milk. You don’t want to have a black car.”
So he began to see marble with a fresh eye and meticulously scrutinised blocks before selecting them for his sculpture.
He quickly built up a body of work and a spreading reputation with a piece permanently installed in a square in the Sicilian city of Messina.
Incorporating the intricacy of jewellery-making into marble design, he uses black marble (Portoro or containing gold) and Travertino as well as Bianco Statuario (pure white marble).
Although it’s the material that Michaelangelo used for sculpting his David and is, for example, what the lions outside Buckingham Palace are made of, people are unfamiliar with it, contends Bassi. “Even in Sicily people don’t know what white marble is.”
At least it should be better known in Sheffield thanks to the H&B gallery he and Lara Hirsbrunner have opened on Abbeydale Road now that around 50 sculptures, some weighing over 80 kilos, have been shipped across here.
Also on view are paintings by Lara Hirsbrunner, who has an equally colourful background.
With a Swiss father and Uruguayan mother, she grew up in Canada and Florida, trained as a doctor in the Caribbean and has lived in various parts of Europe before settling in Sheffield with Alessandro Bassi, whom she is content to give the limelight to for now.