Handmade Tales

Published on 22 March 2024 at 13:36

Most of my life I have gravitated toward unique objects that are made by human hands. Perhaps that’s one reason I pursued architecture as a career. But certainly, buildings aren’t the only thing that can be crafted by personal skill with beautiful results. Everyday items can lend themselves to that as well. However, in the last 200 years of industrialization, automation, and recently simulation, hand-crafted things are more difficult to find. That very fact makes them precious and valuable.


One reason we chose the region where we now live in Italy is because of the abundance of handmade items produced farms, small factories, studios, and home-based workshops – often with traditional methods that go back centuries. During visits to Italy in past decades, some of these were obvious. The art. The foods. The wines and liqueurs. The blown-glass pieces made on Murano Island in Venice are one specific example. All of these are immediately evident to someone spending even a few days in Italy.


But so much of Italian culture and artistry is like the proverbial peeling of an onion. The more layers you remove, the more you find beneath. With some, it takes time to find the luscious center. And you can easily snag yourself along the way on some unexpected impediment. Perhaps in Italy’s case, the onion is not the best metaphor, but rather the artichoke -- with its outer thorny leaves protecting the richly tasting heart.

Like many Americans, I had not known much about the Marche region. It was merely a remote part of the country somewhere that was difficult to reach. Indeed, the formidable looking Apennine Mountain range forms a psychological, if not physical, barricade from the westerly parts of Italy that are popular with tourists – Rome, Tuscany, and Liguria. Even Venice to the north seems like a different world, with its magical watery wonderland only a few hours away from us.


I recently came across an infographic map that proportionally depicts regions in Italy that are most visited by tourists. It’s a curious diagram in that it is scarcely recognizable as Italy. Of the country’s twenty regions – each having a distinct character and culture – only four regions dominate the map as a wildly truncated and misshapen boot. A few other regions are recognizable by their shape and size. Most are barely visible pinheads. Its still possible to have secrets hiding in plain sight. In the middle of Europe, no less.


I suppose one reason is that many travel writers keep writing the same stories over and over. Its always “Secrets of the Cinque Terre,” “Discovering Venice” or “Five Great Places to Visit in a Week.” Which are always the same five, no matter the author. Surely, after centuries of attracting tourism, most people can name those places by now without the help f an online travel magazine. Maybe some writers should get off their computers and maybe…um…actually travel to some other spots? What a concept.


The Marche region is one of many parts of Italy that offers delights unknown to most people taking the modern equivalent of a two-week “Grand Tour” of Italy. There are hundreds of places that are all wonderful to visit. A wide range of hand-crafted items in this region alone can be found, sometimes in small, out-of-the-beaten-path villages. Locals are fiercely proud of their long-held and refined artistry.

Six years ago on a visit, we discovered a village that excelled in exquisite, custom-made hats. We purchased several that we use for both for special occasions and every day. Subsequently, we learned about shoe-making artisans in another village. Shoes crafted of fine, buttery soft leather. Artisanal shoe


factories can be found throughout the largely pastoral countryside. Sleekly modern, retail showrooms carrying specific local brands, line the coastal highways where they have good exposure and easy access.


Wineries abound in all directions. Some have labels that never leave the region, much less the country. There is even a unique wine in this region – known as vino cotto -- made by people in their homes, using the leftover must from the larger producers. From time to time, our neighbors give us their handmade vino cotto in recycled liquor bottles. To me it tastes like a fine, well-aged port. Its served at community dinners held outside in the big piazza by our city hall every summer.

We can see the town of Montettone from our windows, across the rolling farms and fields in the broad valley between us. That town has a long history of producing functional pottery. Not like the delicate, well-known, highly decorative type made in workshops in the Umbrian town of Deruta. But rather plates, serving dishes, pitchers, cups, and bowls meant to be used daily. The basic shapes have remained constant over decades, but the glazes have been modernized, with intense colors and free-form splashes for contrast.


The hand-thrown and kiln-fired pieces are a nice blend of classic and contemporary techniques. We have been slowly building a collection that we bring out when having meals with guests. They are sturdy, basic, and beautiful. We have come to know the Bozzi family, one of the families that has carried on the pottery-making craft over multiple generations. Their workshop is a rabbit warren of spaces carved out of the massive medieval city wall. Walking through it is like going back in time a couple of centuries. One of the original hand-built wheels is still sitting in a prominent position among all the pieces lined up to cure on thick, wooden shelves mounted to the rough stone walls.

Grottazzolina is a small hilltop town that contains a hand-made clothing store in its historic center. On a trip in 2016, we met the gentleman who owned it. He was around 80 years old, was meticulously dressed, very gracious, and energetically talkative. He proudly showed us his workroom in the back, filled with old Necchi sewing machines. I bought a beautifully made raincoat. Sadly, when we returned a couple year later, we learned the man had passed away. His equally affable son, Alessandro had taken over.



Offida is a town few people outside this region have likely heard of. Its much larger than our villages, with a grand opera house, several excellent restaurants, a well-known regional winery, and some ancient monuments and churches. We recently had a splendid lunch of risotto with fungi while overlooking the central piazza where school children noisily horsed around while waiting for a small yellow scuolabus to take them home.


Offida is known in this region for a unique type of lace called tombolo. Various shapes and strips of intricate lace are made on little tufted work benches that resemble stools with long legs. The artisans rapidly work a cluster of small sticks with their fingers to weave designs in white threads of varying thicknesses. This handcraft is unfortunately, becoming a lost art, with some older women artisans having passed away. A lacemaking village in another region no longer offers its craft, as the last person who knew how to do it died.


In one tiny shop, we chatted with a slender, elderly woman who owned it and was focused on making a lace item as we entered. She was alert and spry and launched into a lengthy lecture – In Italian -- on the ancient craft. Of course, she said her own lace was the best in town. We winked at each other. We purchased an item and definitely plan to return.

In recent years, the traditional lacemakers in the village have added a fascinating twist to their craft. They weave fine filament wire into bracelets and earrings. Tiny details are created using small beads and

colored wires, sometimes mixing gold and silver together. The result is delicate-looking but very strong jewelry. I had never seen anything like it.


These traditional crafts help make this region a continuous experience of fascinating new discoveries. We feel fortunate to be surrounded both by amazing talents and deep traditions.


Now if only I could find a place that makes an artisanal substitute for chicken enchiladas…

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