This past week Luigi and I were having issues with some old electrical wiring in our kitchen. Just a simple job of replacing one ground fault circuit would fix the problem (so we thought), but if you’ve ever lived in an old house, you know that simple jobs are NEVER really simple. Before long the sink, stove and kitchen counters were all removed, and our muratore (stone mason), Edu, was chiseling out holes and channels with a jackhammer – creating a thick cloud of dust that makes me shudder just writing about it. (Can you picture that heavy dust settling on top of everything? ugh!) But then we got a surprise.
Along the walls inside our house (that was once the stall of a large casale dating to about 1600), there is a sort of second wall – about 6 feet high – that juts out a few inches into the room. All the walls were stuccoed years ago – long before we came along – and we always believed (as did our contractors and neighbors) that this inner wall was concrete and block, and was probably build during the 1960s to cover pipes and wires inside the house when it was being renovated. But we were wrong.
As Edu jackhammered into the wall, he uncovered stone and brick sandwiched with mortar made of clay. As soon as we saw that beautiful old stone, our electrical repair became a “this old house” renovation. Edu (grinning from ear to ear, because he loves this kind of thing as much as we do) began removing thick layers of stucco that had covered the original stone walls for the last 50-60 years.
But how much to remove? And where, exactly? Luigi outlined a few areas on the wall with pencil and the rest of afternoon we listened to the pounding noise of a jackhammer and watched the dust settle – quite literally – all to uncover a bit of a chapter of a very old story.
I’ve always been enamored with the old, abandoned farmhouses that dot the countryside throughout Italy. When I drive past I can’t help but wonder about the stories of so many lives, fading away into history behind crumbling walls. So for me, discovering and uncovering a bit of our own house’s story is precious gift, but you have to look beyond a bunch of old stone and bricks to really see it.
The stones, for example, are beautiful gray and golden river rock – some striped with ribbons of quartz – worn smooth by rushing water over thousands of years. The nearest river, 4 centuries ago, ran along a valley about 10 kilometers away. The medieval castles of Fabro and Carnaiola (both of which remain intact) acted as sentries, protecting river traffic, so the large, heavy stones were probably carried from the river valley up through the hills by donkey or oxen cart. To build the casale and its stale for animals, some stones were used intact, while others were split in half and expertly placed by skilled stone masons and “cemented” together with clay.
The long, flat mattoni (bricks) used to form the windows, doors and archways in our house, were made from a particular clay that can still be found in the nearby hillsides. They were made by hand, of course, so they’re wonderfully uneven and misshapen, and were probably baked in small, wood-fired kilns. (In fact, our friend, Fabrizio, still makes handmade mattoni this very same way.)
But my favorite part of this particular wall’s story is along the brick doorway – about 2/3 way down. Here the sharp corners of the mattoni are worn completely off, rubbed smooth by countless animals – probably pigs or cows – that brushed against the bricks as they scuttled in and out of their stalls over the centuries. Can’t you just picture it? Makes me smile!
So now I gaze at those worn mattoni and think also about the farmers who tended those animals … and about the families and their workers who were born, and who lived and who died within these walls. Uncovering (with the help of Edu and his jackhammer!) a piece of a chapter of that story is truly a beautiful thing.
Pamela Haack is an Italy travel consultant and author of Off the Beaten Strada: Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites. She specializes in creating group trips and personalized experiences for travelers who enjoy active vacations in Italy – off the beaten strada.
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