The craft of the coppersmith, which flourished in the Tossicia area up until the end of the Second World War, produced a soundscape linked not only to the hard work of the transformation of the metal but also, in the workshops and in the fairs, to the particular language used to name the artifacts, the tools and the actions to perform in order to succeed in the craft. This “copper language” weaves together technical terms, names in local dialects and forms of jargon: a large quantity and variety of work tools, generally designed by the same coppersmiths, the ductility of the processed metal, and also the variety of items produced, the breadth of the tradition, the complicit contact between coppersmiths in different territories and a familial transmission of the secrets of the craft have all helped to give it a well-defined identity.
The language used by the coppersmiths of Tossicia is a sector-based language which has significant cultural relevance, both because it enables us to document a profession that is now gone in the Valle Siciliana and also because it provides a lot of anthropolinguistic and historical information. A recent interview with Goffredo Di Giovanni, the last coppersmith still working, at his workshop which was gravely damaged by the earthquake of 2009, , led to the collection of scores of terms which are sometimes extremely interesting
Although some words such as conca, callara and cùcuma are so widely used, particularly in the dialects of southern-central Italy, that they have been integrated into the Italian language (standard or regional), the noun ruscia (powdered carbon coke used to polish the copper) and the related verb rusciare are iconic formations, intimately linked to the specific manipulative-transforming activity exerted on the metal. Some of the terms are also present in the standard Italian language but are used in this context according to an older and/or more technical meaning: this is the case of fèccia, the grape pomace that was used to polish the copper, or spirale, a term that refers to the spiral decoration present on the bottom of copper containers, both for aesthetic purposes and to give the artifact greater strength. There is no lack of metaphorical terms which show a fundamental interaction between the body of the coppersmith and the working tool, such as cavallo (standard Italian for horse) which is the wooden tripod on which the coppersmith sat to make the conca, a traditional copper vessel for carrying water , or the dialect words lu manaronë (a large ladle for pouring the must into the demijohns) and la manirë (a smaller ladle out of which everyone drank from the conca) both of which can be seen as representations of the hand (mano in standard Italian) that collects the liquid contained in the various containers. There is a wealth of words concerning the different types of hammer, the most widely differentiated instrument because of the various uses it lent itself to: it is no coincidence that the name of the hammer indicates its specific function. Thus, we have lu martillë d’ accannà (the accannà or accannatura is the frieze that decorates the conca), lu martillë d’ arbattë (the hammer for beating the copper), lu martillë da chiuwà (for hammering copper nails made by the same coppersmiths), lu martillë da funnà (for hammering the bottom of the vessel), lu martillë da liscià (for smoothening the surface of the copper vessel) and so on. Different iron bars (palafirrë) also have different names: lu palafirrë d’arbattë, lu palafirre pë fa li manirë, and so forth. Some of the terms related to smaller items are less transparent, such as the vijre (the handle of the callara, or cooking pot), the hiuwira (or “chiodera”, a perforated metal bar for the manufacture of traditional copper nails), and above all la sòsta (a metal ring placed under the hiuwira), which we can interpret as the phonetic evolution of a slang term used by the coppersmiths of Monsampolo (Ascoli Piceno), la sòffëca, defined by Ernesto Giammarco, in a study of 1969, as a “a nut used for perforating the sheet metal”.
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The conca and the callara
The coppersmith Goffredo Di Giovanni shows the two traditional Abruzzan copper artefacts par excellence and provides some of the specific vocabulary, both in Italian and in dialect.
Tossicia (TE), 2018.
Filming by Giovanni Agresti,
Archives from the Centro Studi Sociolingua.
Transmission and conservation
Just after the Second World War there used to be more than forty copper processing workshops in the ancient capital of the Valle Siciliana , distributed in particular in the hamlet of Chiarino and in the immediate surroundings. The workshops were usually family-run and the craft was transmitted from one generation to another. Among the most active families we may remember the Franca, the Vignoli, the Urbani, the Baracchini and the Di Giovanni family to which our informant, Goffredo (born in 1939), the last coppersmith in activity belongs. The craft has experienced a fast decline, for various socioeconomic reasons, dragging with it the evaporation of the language of the industry that survives mostly as a nomenclature.
There is a link documented with the Marche region, in particular with the coppersmiths in Force (Ascoli Piceno), that seems to indicate that among the coppersmiths from Tossicia as well as among the ones from Force there was the use of a craft jargon, as suggested by some evidence: la sòsta derives from the sòffëca (a perforated metal nut), an aforementioned term used by coppersmiths from Monsampolo (Ascoli Piceno); the adjective bèffo (“stupid”), reasonably linkable to bbèffi (“bottom” in the jargon of the coppersmiths from Force), is familiar to our informant from the Abruzzi, as well as the slang words ciafrëgnötto (“small man”) from Force and rëvètta (the “nail to beat again”), a term used in Monsampolo. The relative vitality of the jargon of the coppersmiths in the Piceno area seems to reflect the ability of the coppersmiths from the Marche region to bear the impact of industrialization by strengthening the bonds of the groups of craftsmen.
This was the opinion of Ernesto Giammarco who, in the course of various investigations into the craft jargons from the Abruzzo-Marche area , studied the coppersmiths from Monsampolo, whose jargon he had discovered in the summer of 1968, and also those from Force, while he makes no mention of the coppersmiths of Tossicia while pointing out the jargon of those from Guardiagrele, already reported by Ugo Pellis. The reconstitution of the language of the coppersmiths of the Valle Siciliana therefore seems to be particularly complex: the hope is that the Museum of Tossicia, now closed, may soon re-open its doors, raising a wide interest on the topic, and that new research campaigns, conducted in the Marche and Abruzzo, may allow for the enrichment and a satisfactory documentation of the “language of copper”.