The Artisans and Ancient Traditions of Le Marche, Italy  Posted on July 16, 2017 by Barbara Weibel  1 Comment

There is a place in Italy where things are still done the old
way. Where value is measured by the preservation of ancient
traditions. Where life is often difficult, but luxuriously slow
and overflowing with simple joys. That place is the region of
Le Marche.

My first inkling that Le Marche would offer a different kind of
Italian experience came at Ristorante da Uto , located in the ancient
market town of Mercatello sul Metauro. With a flourish, owner
Umberto Sacchi set bowls of Passatelli with black truffle
Alfredo sauce in front of us. Like any self-respecting
American, I am intimately familiar with spaghetti, linguini,
lasagna, cannoli, ravioli, and tortellini. Having recently
visited
Bologna, where the exact dimensions for Tagliatelle are guarded
in the Town Hall
, I even knew about this ribbon pasta. But
Passatelli was new to those of us sitting around the table. The
fat noodles were more reminiscent of German Spaetzle than
Italian pasta.


Passatelli with black truffle Alfredo sauce at Ristorante da Uto

Passatelli with black truffle Alfredo sauce at Ristorante da
Uto

Umberto was delighted. He rushed off and in a flash returned
with two kitchen instruments. The first, a traditional potato
ricer, he pronounced as adequate for making Passatelli. “But
the ferro per passatelli is much better,” he insisted,
holding up a slightly curved, perforated steel disc with wooden
handles on each end. He mimicked pressing down on a ball of
dough, forcing the noodles up through the holes. “Of course,
you know all about truffles from Le Marche?” he asked. We
admitted to having only passing knowledge about truffles and
the pigs that hunt them.


Umberto Sacchi offered a different kind of Italian experience when he offered to take us n a truffle hunt. Here he displays truffles dug up by his exceptionally well-trained truffle-hunting dog, Nina

Umberto Sacchi offered a different kind of Italian experience
when he offered to take us n a truffle hunt. Here he displays
truffles dug up by his exceptionally well-trained
truffle-hunting dog, Nina.

“No, no, we do not hunt them with pigs,” he said in horror.
“The pigs are so big and strong that they would eat the truffle
before we could take it from them. Here we use specially
trained dogs.” Again he rushed off, returning with a hand-held
slicer and two black lumps that looked like giant warts. He
made the rounds of our table, adding heaps of paper-thin
truffle slices to each of our bowls. I speared a forkful with
dread. I had tried truffles once before and found the taste so
revolting that I quickly spit them out. But these were
magnificent. Their earthy aroma was reminiscent of mushrooms,
but not overly strong. Paired with the pasta and cream sauce,
they were heavenly. Seeing us swoon over his food must have
melted Umberto’s heart. “All of you must come truffle hunting
with me!”

And so it was that I found myself at the edge of a forest early
the next morning with Umberto and his dog, Nina. Umberto
confessed that it was not the height of truffle hunting season,
so he had buried a few truffles to make sure we would see Nina
in action. The moment he released the dog’s leash, she was off.
She raced from tree to tree, sniffing the air and rooting in
the dirt with her nose. Suddenly she stopped and began digging
furiously between the roots of an enormous oak tree. Umberto
rushed to the hole, dug a bit deeper, and came up with a fair
size black truffle. Surprisingly, it was not one that he had
hidden. I sniffed the black lump in his outstretched palm and
involuntarily recoiled. “The smell is very strong,” he agreed.
“Nina finds them easily.”


Emanuele Francioni of the ancient hand-carved wooden blocks used to stamp patterns on linen, as well as a photo of a traditional linen coat for a pig

Emanuele Francioni of the ancient hand-carved wooden blocks
used to stamp patterns on linen, as well as a photo of a
traditional linen coat for a pig

Later that week, I was assaulted by another pungent smell when
I stepped across the threshold of Antica Stamperia Carpegna. Owner Emanuele
Francioni took a break from mixing ink made from wine vinegar,
wheat flour, and rust, to tell us about his family’s shop. For
six generations the Francionis have been printing patterns on
linens with ancient hand-carved wooden stencils. Until the
1960’s, the Le Marche region was home to dozens of such shops;
today Antica Stamperia is one of the few that remain.


This old wooden stamp is inked up and ready to stamp patterns on linen

This old wooden stamp is inked up and ready to stamp patterns
on linen

In the early years, his family dyed the wool, pressed it to
make felt, and stamped patterns on the finished goods. Their
work with felt ended in the 1950’s, but Emanuele still creates
all his own patterns with scores of antique wooden stamps he
has collected from around the region. One in particular holds
great meaning for him. The yellow cloth draped over his
worktable is one of the oldest pieces in the shop, made by his
grandfather in the 1940’s. He found all the old stamps that
were used to make it.


The yellow cloth on the worktable at Antica Stamperia Carpegna was made by Emanuele's grandfather in the 1940's. Since taking over the family business, Emanuele has located all the antique stamps used to make it.

The yellow cloth on the worktable at Antica Stamperia
Carpegna was made by Emanuele’s grandfather in the 1940’s.
Since taking over the family business, Emanuele has located
all the antique stamps used to make it.

Emanuele turned his attention to a chef’s apron waiting to be
stamped. He picked up one of the heavy carved stencils and
repeatedly dabbed it in the ink. Each time he raised the block
from the ink pad it sounded like lovers smooching. “That’s how
you know the ink is ready,” he explained. He lowered the block
to within an inch of the apron and dropped it in one swift
motion, then tapped the top it with a heavy metal rod to ensure
an even distribution of ink. Carefully he peeled off the block
to reveal a rust-colored pattern of leaves and fruit on the
pocket of the apron. He repeated the process in the center of
the bibb before turning the apron over to show us how the ink
had bled through to the back side. “This is how you know that a
fabric has been printed by hand. Machine prints do not bleed
through the fabric.”


Making a postcard with antique wooden stamps at Antica Stamperia Carpegna

Making a postcard with antique wooden stamps at Antica
Stamperia Carpegna

In addition to making goods for the retail market, Emanuele
offers workshops for customers who want to design and print
their own products. I wasn’t in the market for linens or
clothing, but to my delight, Emanuele let me choose one of his
stencils to print a post card. I struggled to get the
surprisingly heavy block into position and drop it onto the
paper without smudging the ink. After pounding all four corners
with the metal tamper, I held my breath and peeled it off.
Perfect!

We left the village of Carpegna and headed for the medieval
town of Urbania, famous for its ceramic art. During the
Renaissance, more than 40 ceramic kilns in the area supplied
the needs of the Duke of Urbino, and later, Pope Urban VIII.
Some of the most exquisite pieces of Majolica pottery ever
known were produced in Urbania, and ceramics that have survived
from this time are exhibited in the world’s greatest museums.


Primary colors used in the traditional Renaissance ceramics at La Bottega Ceramiche d'Arte are orange, yellow, and blue

Primary colors used in the traditional Renaissance ceramics
at La Bottega Ceramiche d’Arte are orange, yellow, and blue

Ceramics as an art form, however, have suffered in recent years
in Urbania. Ten years ago, there were just 12 ceramics shops in
the town. When the Italian government subsequently stopped
subsidizing potters, that number shrunk to four. One of them,
La Bottega Ceramiche d’Arte, is the passion of
Gilberto Galavotti and Giuliano Smacchia, better known as the
“twins of ceramics.” The two artists graduated in 1987 from the
Urbino Art Institute, and Giuliano later received a second
decree in scenography from the Fine Arts Academy. For the next
eight years they studied the technique of Majolica, until in
1995, they opened their own shop.

Stepping into the showroom at La Bottega Ceramiche d’Arte was
like walking through a field of brilliant yellow rapeseed under
a sapphire sky. The artists have stayed true to a tradition
that required Urbania’s Majolica ceramics to be painted
primarily in orange, yellow, and blue. But the back room was
even more intriguing. I found Gilberto Galavotti there, wedged
into a tiny space, surrounded by jars of paint and brushes. In
his left hand, he grasped a bamboo shaft. His right, which held
the brush, was balanced on top of the bamboo pole. Using tiny,
delicate strokes, he painted a wreath of miniature flowers
around the neck of a small vase.


Gilberto Galavotti paints design on a vase at La Bottega Ceramiche d'Arte in Urbania, Italy

Gilberto Galavotti paints design on a vase at La Bottega
Ceramiche d’Arte in Urbania, Italy

Galavotti was all concentration; I doubted he even knew I was
in the room. Just as I was about to step back out he looked up,
smiled, and invited me to ask questions. The blue color, he
explained, was historically required because it was the
official color of the Duke of Urbino. As has always been done,
each piece is thrown by hand on potter’s wheel, dried, coated
with white glaze, painted, covered with powdered glass, and
fired in a kiln. And the bamboo shaft? A technique he
adopted from his teacher, who used one to steady his hand.


A charcoal kiln is ready to be covered with soil and charcoal ash

A charcoal kiln is ready to be covered with soil and charcoal
ash

My hosts had kept the best for last. Our final artisan
experience was a visit to the coalmen of the Metauro River
Valley with Tonino Mosconi, a fine art
photographer who has spent years documenting this vanishing way
of life. Often covered from head to toe in black soot, these
carbonai, as they are known, use an ancient process that turns
wood into vegetable charcoal. In earlier times, carbonai lived
in the woods in order to be near the source of the hardwoods
required to produce charcoal. They rarely saw their families.
Even washing clothes was a luxury.


Carbonai Pietro Cruciani prepares to cover the kiln with soil and charcoal ash mixture

Carbonai Pietro Cruciani prepares to cover the kiln with soil
and charcoal ash mixture

Life became easier once automobiles appeared, as they could
transport wood from the forest to a central processing site.
Still, the life of a carbonai is anything but easy. Medium size
branches are carefully stacked into a high cone-shaped mound,
which is then covered with a mixture of charcoal powder and
soil. Vent holes are dug in the soil and the wood is set alight
so that it smolders for five to six days. If the wood burns too
fast or slow, the resulting charcoal will be worthless, so the
carbonai must watch over the pyre night and day. If the wind
kicks up, some of the vent hoses must quickly be closed. If
there is little wind, more vents may need to be opened. The
carbonai know from years of experience exactly what to do; even
a slight shift in the color of the smoke is significant. When
the fire finally burns itself out after 20 days, the soil is
removed and the charcoal is harvested. For all this, the
carbonai will earn slightly less than $900.


A kiln ring in the foreground awaits wood for the pyre, while the one in the rear burns down

A kiln ring in the foreground awaits wood for the pyre, while
the one in the rear burns down

Sadly, the coalmen are a vanishing breed. Today, no more than
five remain in the region. In the middle of the last century,
cheaper charcoal from Eastern Europe entered the market. The
imported charcoal is produced by burning with gasoline, which
speeds up the process and keeps prices low. Carbonai are quick
to point out that gasoline adds carcinogens that contaminate
anything cooked with it, but fewer and fewer customers are
willing to pay a premium for the slow-fired Italian charcoal.


Finished charcoal, right out of the kiln

Finished charcoal, right out of the kiln

I would have loved to stay in Le Marche a few more days. I
longed to enjoy a view of the landscape depicted in
Piero della Francesca’s painting
“I Trionfi” at the organic
farm, La Pieve del Colle. And workshops offered in the town of
Fabriano, renowned for the art of paper making, sounded
intriguing. Unfortunately, my next reservation was waiting. I
feel quite certain, however, that tourists will continue to
overlook pretty Le Marche in favor of its better known
neighbors, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. When I return, Le Marche
will still offer a different kind of Italian experience – one
more fascinating, more unspoiled, and more real than in any
other region of the country.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Palazzo Donati during my stay in Le Marche,
Italy. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary
items or services will never influence the content, topics, or
posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth.

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