Sunday, March 13, 2011

At home in an ancient museum

Wednesday, March 9
If one didn’t know any better, a visit to the Museum of the Chestnut Tree, castagno, might sound pretty boring, but it turns out to be my favorite activity of any that our language school has taken us on so far. The museum is significant because castagne, chestnuts, were not just something that one roasted on the fire at Christmas here. They were the most important life-sustaining force for many of the hillside communities in the Garfagnana valley and many other places in Italy.

Homer mentions chestnuts, and the naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century about which kinds of chestnuts were grown in Southern Italy. Chestnuts were one of the few food crops that could be grown on steep mountain slopes, and they were ground into flour and used as a staple in many recipes to provide sustenance through the long winter months. Much of the economy revolved around the chestnut, which people harvested in the fall and worked long into the winter to process, package and sell. The wood from chestnut trees was used to make beams and doors for houses and all kinds of furniture, including barrels for wine and oil. Dead branches were harvested for firewood for cold winter nights. Old stumps and logs were burned slowly under cover to make charcoal for cooking.

With so many uses for chestnuts, the Museo del Castagno has quite an extensive collection of ancient tools. First, of course, are all the tools used to process the chestnuts into food. There are specialized hand tools but also shoes with large metal spikes on the bottom to crush the chestnuts in tubs, kind of like the peasants used to do with grapes, except the grapes were smashed with bare feet. Later there were machines with hand cranks, and then devices powered by water wheels. We also see round paddle-like devices for roasting chestnut cakes over the fires.

Seeing all the tools for wood-working make me think of my dad and uncles. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I remember seeing them working in their company shop using similar tools, but the ones we see here are hundreds of years older. We see saws, grinders and lathes that are driven by hand power, foot pedals and cranks, using leather straps as belts. Some take two people to operate, and there is a picture of a young boy providing the power while his father operates the grinder. How I wish my dad and his brothers Roy, Claude and Rudy—masters of 20th century machines and fabrication—could be here to see these simple yet ingenious devices. We also see a small model wooden chainsaw, and I think of cousin Al Spadoni, who could work wonders with woodworking tools, and who once made us a whimsical chain saw, literally a large chain made out of interlinked pieces of wood, fastened on to a handle shaped like that of a handsaw.

It feels like we have truly stepped back in time, because the buildings we are in and the tools that fill them seem simply to be pieces that were left where the artisans last used them. There are no glass display cases or roped-off areas. We are free to pick up objects and even try them out, something that would not be possible in most American museums. But this museum is high on the hillside of an isolated village, Colognora di Pescaglia, north of Lucca. It is open today only for our small school group, and it is unlikely that it is visited often by foreigners. The people who know this museum exists are most likely to be respectful of the colorful history and culture that these precious artifacts represent.

The connection to the past I feel here is even stronger that I have felt when viewing ruins of Roman, Etruscan or medieval times, or when I see the amazing art of the Renaissance. I think it is because even though I can fantasize about my ancestors being noblemen, sword makers, sculptors or cavaliers, I think that here we are much closer to the truth. My ancestors were most likely hard-working craftsmen who eked out their livelihood through sweat, determination and the use of tools which they sought to improve whenever possible. I feel very much at home in this museum.
This chestnut mill was more modern, using water power.

A drill press

This was part of a blacksmith's forge, with a bellows powered by a foot pedal. Charcoal from chestnut stumps and logs was used to make fire to heat the metal.

This tool took one person to turn the crank and another to use the grinder.

Hand-made nails made by the blacksmith.

A foot-powered lathe used to shape furniture dowels.

Another lathe.

Before power sawmills, this is how planks were made. A saw in Italian is a sega. The person who used this was called a seghiere. Plural would be seghieri. Heard that name before?

Firewood was brought home on horseback using one of these special wood saddles.


  1. Very interesting pictures - what a special treat to see your Grandmother's namesake tool.

  2. Hey, Brother...seghiero is sawyer, right? That opens up a whole new name to research on our family tree, si?!

  3. Ha, so you think we might be related to all the Sawyers, huh?


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