The language of copper
The lexicon of the coppersmiths from Tossicia
From sunrise to sunset, with a gentle and constant cadence, the resonant beating of the coppersmiths spread through the countryside of Tossicia, between Chiarino, Palozza and Paduli, filling the valley with the sound of metallic clangs,and chimes. It was a familiar and reassuring sound, an integral part of the landscape and the social life; Via Batterame and Via Calderai (coppersmiths’ streets) are the ever-tangible signs left over from this centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship, in small rural villages where the copper workshops and everything that revolved around them were the daily mainstay of recognition of the community.
In the area of Tossicia, the ancient capital of the Valle Siciliana, at the end of the Second World War there were more than forty copper processing workshops, distributed in particular in the hamlet of Chiarino, and in the immediate neighborhood, where a workshop for copper smelting run by the Marconi brothers had operated since the nineteenth century, although it was replaced by a copper workshop in Villa Tordinia, near Teramo, in 1857.
The practice has very ancient origins in central Italy, and the use of copper has corresponded for thousands of years to the needs of a culture based on agriculture and breeding, for the construction of vessels not only suitable for containing and transportating substances , but also for cooking food, due to its conductivity of heat. This use has also influenced and transformed the food culture, leading to the production of multiple varieties of containers and utensils, suitable for the most diversified purposes.
The anthropomorphic conca of Abruzzo, studied by Paolo Toschi and Giuseppe Profeta, is among the most well-known recipients made by means of stretching and beating the copper, with a biconical structure and a high and accentuated bottleneck with large handles, and it was used, for example, for the transport and conservation of water for domestic use, before the water distribution reached all the houses in the second half of the last century. Starting from a foil and from a semi-finished product obtained by the ramiere (copper workshops) using water-driven mechanical instruments (different types of beating hammers) and melting furnaces, the conca was an object that was precious, and indispensable, functional to the use that was made of it but also with an extraordinary balance and an elegant and exquisite workmanship from an aesthetic and decorative point of view. They were made through a repetitive sequence of interdependent processes, , transmitted in the families of the coppersmiths of Chiarino and of Tossicia until a few decades ago. Fausto and Domenico Vignoli, Aldo Tudini, Angiolino Di Girolamo, Achille Urbani, all residents of Chiarino, or the adjoining village Palozza, used to beat the copper incessantly, with hammers made of fig tree wood or polished stainless steel with the aid of two different wooden stands, one with a metal plate and the other with the anvil column. The metal was actually stretched and thinned, finely moulded according to the needs and purposes of the created object. The conca was thus created through the narrowing of the unfinished vessel, obtained by various hammering steps, the cleaning with diluted sulfuric acid, trimming the edge with the nailing of a reinforcing strip, the application of the handles, the riveting necessary to give strength to the object and to embellish it with particular stylized ornaments, the internal tinning, the polishing with wet wire wool mesh, and finally the washing and drying, at the end of a process carried out with extreme skill and craftsmanship.
The coppersmiths also used to be itinerant workers: they would export objects and labour, attend fairs and markets and travel around in order to make repairs and carry out tinplating in a wide area of central and southern Italy, including the regions of Molise, Lazio and Marche.
Fausto Vignoli making the nails in copper foil, and attaching the handles to the conca, .
Palozza (TE), 1990.
Footage by Ali Reza Movahed, Archive of the Museum of Tossicia. (24’14”-25’29”)
Copper working with the methods traditionally used in the area of Tossicia can currently be considered almost entirely extinct. The only artisan that in the last few decades has still carried out some of the processing phases is Goffredo Di Giovanni, now very elderly, operating in a small workshop in the centre of the town. The establishment of the Museum of Tossicia in 1986, and the successive stages of preparation of the site at the Palace of the Marquis represented, especially in the first phase, the attempt to document the last coppersmiths still active in the old generation, the descendants of families devoted for centuries to the exercise of the profession, hoping to promote the continuity, at least in part, of the ancient art. In this regard the director of the museum at that time, Giuliano Di Gaetano, undertook , extensive and accurate, ethnographic research, gathering evidence from all the artisans who were still active and from the smelters from the copper factory of Villa Tordinia, a complex structure located along the banks of the River Tordino and a wondrous nineteenth-century work of industrial engineering that supplied the coppersmiths of Tossicia with semi-finished products until its closure, which took place at the end of the 1980s. The Museum has dedicated an entire section to copper, promoting initiatives and publications, among which the catalogue – with a long chapter on copper – and a documentary entitled The coppersmiths of Tossicia, which was directed by the same Di Gaetano and produced in 1990, in which ample space is devoted to the activity of copper smelting in the copper factory of Villa Tordinia which was still in use when the film was made.. The Museum also catalogued the objects and documentary materials collected during the research according to ministerial guidelines and the reference cards are kept at the Central Institute for Cataloguing and Documentation in Rome.
Additional initiatives and research, even project-oriented, have been implemented by the anthropologist Annunziata Taraschi, who has collaborated with the museum for many years. Since its establishment in 1976, the Mountain Community of the Gran Sasso, which was subsequently suppressed in 2013, attempted to draw attention to the importance of a continuation of the practice by promoting the documentary of 1990, dedicating promotional activities to the art of copper working and including some digital materials at the Documentation Centre established at its headquarters, in part accessible online.
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