Interview with Lord Aurelio Vitrisoni

The Oak recently interviewed Lord Aurelio Vitrisoni regarding his display at Kingdom Arts and Sciences (KASF). Lord Aurelio’s work and citations can be found as well on his website: 

The Oak (TO): Please start by introducing yourself and a little bit about who you are within the SCA.

Aurelio Vitrisoni (AV): My name is Aurelio Vitrisoni, pleasure to meet you! I’m a member of The Shire of Roxbury Mill, but this is actually the third kingdom I’ve called home over the years. I got into the SCA in 2011 in AEthelmearc, moved to the Midrealm in 2015 for a job, and finally here to Atlantia in 2020 to be with my wife. I was primarily a rapier fighter for many years, but longed to find an A&S niche that I really felt at home in. Only in the last 18 months have I discovered that in lapidary. 

TO: What exactly is lapidary? What got you started in this form of A&S?

AV: Lapidary is the art of cutting, shaping, and polishing both precious and semiprecious stones. It’s also the name for the type of artist who does those things.

Honestly, I have been in love with gemstones all my life. But growing up, I’d always thought that learning how to do it myself was locked away in secret schools and apprenticeships and that I’d never be able to learn it. (Ironically, for a large part of history, this would have been correct!) During the pandemic, I came across an article about “the gemcutting masters of Renaissance Venice” and that was all it took to drag me down the rabbit hole. It led me to articles and books about amateur/hobbyist gemcutting, and that took me to looking for local rock clubs. After that, it was all over for my free time and disposable income. 

TO: Tell me a little bit more about the Colmar Treasure. What draws you to that as inspiration?

AV: My wife is Jewish, and I wanted to make something that was reflective of her heritage. I knew she had a ring that was a replica of one found in a “Jewish Hoard”, which were stashes of valuables secreted away by Jews in the Middle Ages, usually because they were being driven out by various persecutions. I was curious as to what other hoards looked like and what items they contained.

When I found the Colmar treasure I was immediately struck by the brooch. Not only was it gorgeous, it was a perfect heraldic match for my wife’s colors. It also looked achievable, being made of components I already understood but in a more complicated arrangement. That made it the perfect project; one that would stretch my skills and also one that I could make a personal connection to.

Also amusing was later talking to the person who had given my wife the ring, and learning that the hoard ring it was modeled after also from the Colmar Treasure!

TO: Do you have any aspirational/big Someday projects? If so, can you share some pictures and a little bit about what makes them so special?

AV: So, currently I’m in the middle of the project I was showing off at KASF, which is the Evolution of Faceting Designs. It’s not explicitly covered by that endeavor, but intimately related to why gemstones were cut the way they were is how they were able to be cut. Therefore, the Evolution of Faceting Designs is partnered inseparably with the Evolution of Faceting Technology.  My most aspirational project would be to recreate one of the faceting benches from the late 16th century and cut stones live at events.

So, the tools and equipment that humans used to cut stones evolved several times during the SCA period. It would have started with a gemstone secured to a wooden handle by wax or rosin, shaped by either a sandstone wheel or a stationary flat surface and abrasive powder. This would produce domed cabochons very nicely, and allow a cutter to follow existing crystal geometries to polish the natural faces of a stone. However, all of the stability would come from the cutter’s ability to maintain a steady grip and doesn’t enable a lot of precision. You can see one of these wheels in this woodcut from the 1400s:

Eventually, this progresses to a hand-cranked, horizontally-spinning disc that is charged with abrasive powders and paired again with a gemstone held by hand. This is how faceting as we would call it today really got its start, as cutters moved beyond simply polishing existing crystal faces. Metal discs and finer abrasives also allowed for easier, more complex cutting. You can see an image of that sort of lapidary bench in this woodcut from 1498:

In the mid-1500s, however, there’s a step-change advancement in the form of a handpiece that is able to provide another level of precision. As a sort of combination between clamp and protractor, it allowed a lapidary to set his angle and rotation of the stone and fix it in place, rather than having to rely on the repeatability and stability of his hand.

This new technology enabled much more complicated cuts than were previously possible. It has been the fundamental basis for all modern gemcutting equipment, and is still used almost entirely unchanged in some parts of the world.

But really, it’s this image below that is my dream A&S display:

If I can get to the point where I can come to an event, set up a bench in the style of those “master gemcutters of Renaissance Venice” that I read about by chance in 2020, and cut a stone on site… then I will really feel like I have “made it” as an SCA artisan.

TO: What is your favorite non-lapidary A&S project that you’ve done and what makes it your favorite?

AV: Revenge of the Stitch was definitely the most rewarding. I joined up very late in the process because they needed one more person and I wanted to help out. The team was composed of fellow Roxbury rapier fighters making 16th Century Italian garb, so I felt like even not being a very prominent sewist I would fit in decently well. It was an incredible experience, all told. I had been only tangentially involved in the research leading up to the event, but to jump into the trenches and spend 24hrs straight in the actual execution was one of the most satisfying SCA experiences I’ve ever had. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, and my team was phenomenal to work with. We all came together and supported each other through the whole thing.

And in the end, our model looked like he’d stepped out of a Moroni painting. That made all the sleeplessness and caffeine jitters more than worth it.

TO: You’ve lived in quite a few kingdoms. What would you say stands out as the biggest differences between A&S in Atlantia and A&S in those kingdoms? How about similarities?

AV: Honestly, “formally” participating in dedicated arts research is a new endeavor for me. All of my arts and crafts projects prior to Atlantia were all personal and undocumented. I made things because I needed them or liked them, without any interest in documentation or competition. So while I have opinions on the relative strengths of the cadet system vs the Academie d’Espee, everything I learn about how A&S “works” is a brand new experience for me.

TO: Do you have a favorite strategy for approaching projects when you start them? Take us through a little bit of your process for A&S projects.

AV: I start by getting obsessed with something. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. In Adam Savage’s autobiography, he spends a chapter talking about a philosophy he calls “digging through the bottom of the rabbit hole”. Essentially, he describes allowing (and encouraging!) yourself to get a bit obsessed with stuff. There’s no better motivation available to you than that kind of sincere passion, and it’s really been true with me and lapidary. It’s why I never really did more than one-off dabbling before I got involved in stone cutting, and why I am constantly finding myself reading more, trying more, exploring more now that I have.

The key is to always be curious. Try something new whenever you have the chance. Embrace the dabbling and exploration of subjects, tools and materials. And when you find something that really catches you, give yourself the permission to be dragged along for the ride.

As for turning the mess of enthusiasm into a sensible and approachable document at the end? I’ll get back to you when I figure it out, haha.

TO: What resources would you recommend for someone interested in any of the many forms of A&S you do?

AV: If you’re at all interested in stones and precious metals, I can’t recommend Patuxent Lapidary Guild strongly enough. It’s a makerspace-style instructional space in Annapolis. They have loads of equipment, supplies, and enthusiastic instructors whose whole purpose is to help people get better at making beautiful things. I learned how to cut cabochons, smith and solder precious metals, and cut faceted stones from their shop sessions, and having their tools available makes it way easier for me to take on projects without being limited by what I have space for in my own home.

I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without all that they’ve taught me, and I’m happy to share that opportunity with anyone interested in lapidary. 

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