“Do you know that I found her? She was there waiting for me. To give me a sign,” artist Crocifisso “Croci” Sisinni tells me as he points to a small stone angel mounted in his shop. It looks like a putto, just a winged head, peering out from the wall over Croci’s life’s work. His bottega, as he had earlier corrected me when I had erroneously labeled it a negozio (a bottega is a creative workshop whereas a negozio is a retailer of non-original items), is small, built into a cave-like space underneath an old church in Ostuni.
“We were digging out a niche for a bathroom when one of the workers yelled to me. I came over to see what all the fuss was about and there she was, trapped in the stone, right there!” Croci talks with his hands and smiles with his whole face. When he looks at you, he really looks at you, as only an artist who learns with his eyes can. “She wouldn’t budge for anyone, but I was able to get her out. It was that day I knew I had followed the right path.”
Croci’s path is made of white limestone, Ostuni’s signature mineral that’s the base of the paint the famed White City uses to keep its buildings brilliant for travelers in southern Puglia. Using dental instruments and other delicate utensils, Croci carves intricate scenes of his hometown by hand onto select slabs of the bright white stone. He then meticulously fills in the vignettes with jet-black acrylic (the only paint stone absorbs), a simple but striking pairing that does justice to the quaint scenes rendering provincial life in rustic Italy.
When he’s not carving and painting, Croci is choosing the perfect hunk of limestone to file down to a smooth canvas or surveying the streets for new inspiration. Croci knows Ostuni down to the last window pane, and represents it so precisely that one could use his artwork as an episodic map. His sense of every nook and cranny in the Greek-style hill town is so complete, that he was able to give me flawless directions to the next attraction by pointing from piece to piece, like exquisite road signs on his grotto walls.
Signs play a large part in the artist’s life and he’s happy to share his experience with visitors to the Bottega d’Arte di Croci Sisinni. The angel is one of many omens that he believes have been sent to guide him through his life. He was once dropped-in on by a couple named Cesare and Judita, who have since become good friends.
“I’m Crocifisso (“Crucifix” in Italian) and they were Cesare (Caesar Augustus) and Judita (Judas). They completed the triptych!” Croci laughed. Usually, Italian nicknames are taken from the end of a name, e.g. “Giuseppe” becomes “Peppe” for short. He, on the other hand, goes by “Croci” because he wanted to maintain his association with the cross. His home and workshop are providentially wedged underneath a church on the Via Cattedrale.
Perhaps the biggest sign in the artist’s life came in the form of a crisis. Croci used to paint scenes on multiple surfaces, but felt disjointed and wanted to narrow his artistic focus. Then, one night, his shop was robbed of every last work and Croci was forced to start again. He had recently taken to painting on stone and interpreted the robbery as providing him with a clean slate. He hasn’t looked back since.
When I asked him if he was afraid of losing everything again, he smiled and shook his head. “You know, my daughter once asked me the same thing when she saw a group of Asian tourists taking pictures of my art. She said, ‘Daddy, aren’t you afraid they will steal your idea?’ I told her, ‘They can steal what’s here,’” he said, waving his hand across the surface of one of his stones, “‘But they can never replicate what’s in here.’”
As he stood there with his hand over his heart, I was struck as having stumbled upon the patron saint of Ostuni. A guide for the traveler who searches for a deeper understanding of a place through the eyes of one who that place has inspired. I was glad to have crossed his path.
Bottega d’Arte di Croci Sisinni ~ Via Cattedrale 5-7, 72017 Ostuni (Br), Italy