Today I walked into the courtyard of a local monastery looking for the hidden entrance to a tiny archeological park, one of the many explorations I take on my daily 10,000 steps walks. The tree in the middle of the cloister was a twisted elder. Elder was the name of the street I lived on for 16 years in the neighbourhood. The cloister is tucked behind the Orthodox Romanian Church, the offices of Cultural Heritage and a beloved plants nursery I visited just last week.
I inspected the locked gate. “The park is closed on Mondays,” a kind voice said behind me. When I turned, there was Piero, white-haired, hands in the pockets of his blue overalls. He took a long look at me and then asked if I knew the work of Alik Cavaliere. The sculptor! I said, remembering some exhibition of his bronze works from years ago. “His workshop is down there, if you want to have a look,” he said placidly, and then walked slowly across the cloister as if sure that I was following him.
Alik Cavaliere died 18 years ago, and I had no idea his main archive of works is still on display in what used to be his atelier. Bronze trees taller than a tall man, intricate metalwork representing leaves and fruits and human figures half-trapped in cages and half escaping, pointing towards the sky. An allegoric Narcissus made entirely of metals and mirrors, including discarded rearview mirrors. There’s a downstairs, and an upstairs, and a magical garden with an apple tree, a persimmon tree, a weeping willow and a prune tree, all around a square of manicured lawn that Piero created with his own hands, digging former building waste out of the ground and carrying ‘good earth’ for the plants. Roses, too, because Alik loved roses, he dipped them in wax before recreating them in bronze and a group of roses meant ‘family.’ Piero picks a persimmon leave to show me how the real trees were a model for the sculptures.
After a few minutes, I realize he is not only the guardian and gardener of this secret, eerie place, but that he used to work with Alik on his sculptures everyday. A former mechanic, he worked for a big brand of yoghurt when he met Alik as he was still working in his former studio near the Faculty of Economics. Then the Big Snow of 1985 happened, Alik’s workshop was damaged and the space at the monastery was made available to him. Alik asked Piero if he would like to help him, and they became collaborators. Piero built all the metal cages following Alik’s sketches, welded bronze branches, and he is the only person who knows how to disassemble and reassemble the largest works for exhibitions (“you always keep them vertical, you build a platform and make it slide under the bottom, the branches you protect by dragging the sculpture only with the help of old elastic bands of rolling shutters”).
All of this, Piero is not saying. I excavate it from him the way he excavated the bricks from under the cloister. If you leave it to him, he’s only going to talk about the silence in which they worked, the way every day the sculptures reveal new things to him, or the way Alik wanted him to interpret the works as he pleased. It’s like the two are still talking. Piero helped students of silent dance set some of their dances in the garden, and he replays the scenes for me, gesture by gesture. To this day, he is the only person who can still weld a bronze apple back on its branch, or faithfully reassemble a found sculpture from a black and white photo on a catalogue. “I’m old now, so I’m training a young apprentice who someday will take my place. But you need to be in love with this place to do this job.’
As he leads me around the garden, he remembers what happened with every single fragment of every sculpture, what came first, what seemed to be on Alik’s mind when he worked on it – his devotion to nature, his memories of suffering during Second World War, his political preoccupations. After Alik’s death, his wife told Piero he must meet all of his other friends. “And I met them and they saw him the same way I did, so I could say I came to know him 100%.” He shows me the intricate bottom of a sculpture – it looks like a jumble of roots, most of them real roots that Alik knew how to burn, clean of the ash and make into bronze casts: ‘There’s a little figure of a child down there, and a little book with real pages, under the roots. I only found out long after Alik had died. Sometimes I still find one of his handwritten notes hidden in the crook of a branch.’
Piero is spare, slow and deliberate in every gesture. To spend some time with him is to fall into his pattern of precision and detail and slow walking from tree to tree, from work to work, as if the world outside had disappeared. Suddenly he says, “Alik was a gentleman. And he had so much will to work. So much will to work.” And if you look closely, work is everything, he seems to say. As I sign the guestbook and turn to him to thank him warmly and say goodbye, he’s already busy with a cardboard box, cutting and folding, chasing some idea.