If you could have shown this movie in the 12th century, the audience would have thought it was filmed just the other week, right around the corner.
"The Stone Carvers," airing tonight at 10 on Channel 26, pays a visit to the artisans who for 20 years have been carving statues, gargoyles and assorted grace notes into the stones of Washington Cathedral.
They're a good group. At the retirement party for master carver Roger Morigi, the camera catches him and his colleagues in full swing, exchanging toasts and jokes around a plain table in the carvers' shed. Except for a detail here and there, the men could just as well have been sitting around the work shed at Notre Dame or Chartres or Rheims.
And when you listen to the talk, that could have been the same too.
Morigi tells how his stone carver father in Italy had taught him the family trade, first in wood, then in stone, at the age of 11. A still photo shows carvers at work in a mountain quarry where he was an apprentice. Cut to the fac,ade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which he worked on in 1932, six years after emigrating to this country. Cut to the Commerce building, where he worked in 1933.
"You develop your own technique," he says, "even if you have to steal it." He tells how once, as a boy, he lifted a tool from a master at the next table and tried it out just for the feel of the thing, to see if it would put something extra into his own work.
In another scene, Vincent Palumbo, 48, the present master at the cathedral, a carver since he was 9, demonstrates the carving of a stone arm destined for Frederick Hart's huge sculpture of the Creation on the western tympanum.
He starts by lifting a satchel-sized chunk of Indiana limestone in thick hands that can break an apple in two. Then he starts chipping.
"I think I cut too much," he mutters. But no. He matches points on the stone with corresponding points on the full-scale clay model, using a long steel stylus on a rigid frame. "This arm is in here," he says. "I got to take off the stone underneath it."
As simple as that. Slowly the arm emerges, its fingers still braced by strips of uncut stone. He gets down to the fine stuff, smoothing, polishing, limning the lines on the palm, and at last the arm is taken outdoors to be fitted into place.
Stone carvers are fast disappearing from our prefab world. Morigi is 77, and he remembers when there were at least a dozen working on the project. Now there are only a handful, and cathedral authorities worry about having enough left to complete the work.
It calls for a special kind of person: Morigi spent nearly five years carving 44 angels on the southern tympanum. He and the others delight in the jokes they play with the gargoyle rain spouts. One shows Dean Francis Sayre. Another immortalizes its dentist donor. Constantine Seferlis, 55, did a hippie, complete with jeans and torn sweater. Morigi himself is up there, in his golfing cap -- with horns.
The half-hour film, produced by folklorist Marjorie Hunt of the Smithsonian and Emmy-winning Paul Wagner, will also be shown on WETA Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. and Saturday at 5:30 p.m. The Smithsonian will screen it Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. in Carmichael Auditorium.