Interview with Elio Bormioli and Vincenzo Richebuono, Altare
by Marina Paglieri
When you arrive in Altare, you are struck by the ruins of the old glassworks, vestiges of a glorious past that remain in the center of the town. Because this town, which is 13 km from Savona and the gateway to the Bormida Valley in Liguria, has been dedicated to the art of glass-making since the eleventh century, and developed around it. The memory of this is kept alive in the Glass Art Museum, housed in an Art Nouveau building which was built in 1906 by a local priest, Monsignor Bertolotti, for his sister and designed by the engineer Nicolò Campora. Glass-making skills have been passed down from generation to generation, preserved by the elderly who seek to transmit them to the young people, but not without difficulty. The world has changed and today drinking glasses, once made so carefully in ovens, can simply be bought at Ikea. And, with some exceptions, their production has ceased. We spoke about this story, made up of hard work, tenacity, technique, and a lot of talent, with Elio Bormioli, born in 1934, a retired master glass maker who almost every day passes by the museum and oversees the guided tours, workshops, and demonstrations, and with his pupil Vincenzo Richebuono, who has also had a lot of experience in this field. Knowledgeable experts on the collection are the curatrix Giulia Musso, and Irene Piccardi, the director of the museum's activities.
Elio Bormioli, how did the modern glass-working activity in Altare come into being?
"That is actually a story that began long ago. Before the 1800s, each family had their own oven, it was a trade that was passed from father to son and an activity regulated by statutes. In 1823, since the glass makers did not pay taxes, the population rebelled and this led to the abolition of the statutes by the Savoys. Many people from Altare then left here to make their fortune elsewhere: such as the Bormioli family, who went to Parma where their name was linked to the well-known containers for food. Those who remained, in order to be able to continue to work, founded the first guild created in Italy, the Artistic Glassmaking Company (AGC), on Christmas Eve in 1856, which remained active until 1978. My surname is Bormioli, it's a common name in these parts, and as you see, I'm still here."
How did you come to be a glass maker?
"I began working at the AGC when I was fourteen and I continued to work there for forty years. Like everyone else, I started out working at the furnace: closing the molds and taking out the glass. Then as an apprentice, I went on to the "first square" (brickyard), which was the most important place. As you can guess, the square is the area around the furnace where one works. I made glass objects, windows, household items, bottles, and drinking glasses, because that was the characteristic here at Altare: if you wanted to undertake artistic productions, you did so on your own, out of passion, or you moved elsewhere. Actually, working at the first square, I mostly made chemistry and pharmacy glassware, for example, drying jars or stills."
Is it a difficult profession?
"Yes, in fact there were people who, after having worked for 30 years, could no longer do anything. It takes talent, strength, and passion. If I had used even only a fraction of the passion that I put into my work for studying, I would have earned my degree. It was a tough job, you're working in a hot environment with the furnace that can reach up to 1,000 degrees, but I always did it willingly."
Vincenzo: "I just want to say that Elio is too modest. He made very large, complex objects: for example, he made a cylinder for the grain silo, with a mass of 22 kilograms. He took on huge responsibilities. It's really difficult because you have to work the smooth molten glass that must be rotated so that it does not become deformed; just think how much strength is required for working on large objects. Then it takes a sharp eye to control the consistency of the glass and great skill in giving shape to the glass with the ancient and ever valid technique of blowing."
Elio, were you the boss?
"Look, there weren't any bosses. Each square had three masters, two blowers, and an opener, then there were four apprentices, the so-called third parties, who did the lifting, or took out the glass mass and carried it to the masters. The main production took place in the ‘first’ and ‘second squares’, then there was the 'bastard square’, where the rest was done. And there was the ‘slaughter-house’, given that name because it was so close to the furnace. In the daily schedule, everything was regulated by a 'score'. There were three shifts: morning, afternoon, and night."
How were the relations among those of you working in the square?
"We would kid around all day and at night, too. It was a cheerful atmosphere, even though we weren't making a lot of money, because the industry has always been in crisis. Let's just say, we didn't get rich but we got along well. As I told you, I stayed on here, instead my father opened a glass factory in Florence and also worked there."
Who would buy the objects you produced?
“Sales representatives, who took them to the stores. There wasn't the clientele here that you could find in Murano, where the activity had been going on much longer. Speaking of commerce, many people from Altare were working in the glass industry, but then there was also the linked industries: the production chain also included basket weavers, carpenters, and packaging manufacturers."
Giulia: "I would like to add that from 1856 until the thirties of the 1900s, this place went through a golden age: glassware from Altare was presented at national and international exhibitions, and a large vase exhibited in the museum in 1911 won the Grand Prix at the Universal Exhibition of Turin. Then there was a longer period of closure, when there was the matter of borosilicate. Then in the fifties, along came the automatic machines - some of them are kept in the museum garden - and the production changed once again."
Elio: "Even after the war, things were going well after insertion of the machines. Among other things, for a long time the jars for Nutella made by Ferrero were produced here in Altare ... But today the concept of everyday objects has changed, in fact there's Ikea and that's a totally different thing."
Just out of curiosity: why did the glassworks come to be built here?
Vincenzo: "Firewood was needed for the furnaces and there are many woods around here. Then it was a transition zone between the Cadibona pass, which is actually named Bochetta d'Altare (Altare's Nozzle), and the port of Savona. So in short, Altare was an ideal, strategic place, crossed by a river that was always full of water."
Elio: “However, the glassworks got its water from the Bormida river."
Vincenzo: "The danger was the risk of fire: in fact, glassworks were not wanted in town and cities, even in Venice, where since 1200 they have been on the island of Murano. The glassworks have been here since the 1300s, when the Marquis Enrico Del Carretto built the road which then became the main road from the Monferrato leading to Savona. Before that there are only legends, like that of the Crusaders who had come to Bergeggi, where the Benedictines, so they say, called upon their families to do the glassmaking. There is also talk of the seal of a pope who attributed the possessions of Altare to the monastery of Bergeggi, where the monks then began to live. But these are legends: until 1200, there was no definite news. The glassworks in Altare was another world, a microcosm, filled with unique cosmopolitan characters: such as Bernardo Perotto, who went to France and worked at the court of Louis XIV."
Production that came from far away: so what is there now?
Irene: “There are still some commercial enterprises here, the most important and completely Italian one is the Etruscan Glassworks, Vetreria Etrusca. But on the whole, especially compared to how it was once, there is no longer any production here in Altare. Every year in July and August, there is the Glass Fest, a meeting of European glassmakers who come from Murano, Tuscany, France, and Bohemia: they are all happy to come because Altare has a good reputation. Then there are demonstrations for schools and other groups: there is a furnace in the garden that we open especially for school children and for those whose hobby is glassmaking techniques, and Sundays are dedicated to families. People and school groups come, mostly from Piedmont and Lombardy, but also from the Savona area. We have a lot of supporters, especially from the glassworks in the area. Of course, since we would like for the museum to become better known, we are active on the social networks. We are open all year round, with annual events including "Christmas under glass". In a sense, we were rewarded because in 2015 we had 7 thousand visitors. We seek to collaborate with other local museums: we have printed a brochure in common, and now we would like to create itineraries involving all the various places."
And the young people?
Irene: "It has not been possible to start a school: there are no discounts on gas excise taxes, to make use of the more economical methane furnaces, and a serious course, not just for hobbyists, is expensive. It takes from five up to ten years to form a master glass maker."
Elio: "And then there's the Chinese competition."
Irene: We're going ahead with our activities anyway, because carrying on the tradition of glassmaking is one of the museum's missions."
Taken from Piana Crixia
In an inlet of the river to the south of the town Piana Crixia, the Bormida river forms a small lake, partly covered by a rock once known by the name Papalino (according to G. Casalis). It is said that a long time ago, a man named Zagaglia Piana was the first person who had the courage to delve into the cave where the lake ended to fish for the rich fish fauna that was to be found there. The foolhardy fisherman undertook his feat one night by swimming into the natural cave. Since he did so in the deadof night, he was no longer able to find the exit "though he had first tied a rope to a tree, which he had then tied to his foot”. So Zagaglia had to stay all night inside the cave where, nevertheless, he was able to breathe and "did not suffer any serious harm". Casalis concludes, referring to the story, that "as soon as first ray of light came into the cave, he was able to see the exit and escaped from the labyrinth of the winding cave, carrying a huge amount of good fish with him".
Ever since then, it has been called "Lake Zagaglia".
According to popular tradition, the unique stone mushroom rising from the cliff at the foot of the town of Piana Crixia resulted from the Great Flood.
The legend tells of a lightning bolt that orthogonally rent a cross-split in the rock, thus giving rise to a cross on the part of the mushroom cap facing the hill. Miraculously, oil began to drip from the cross in the rock, which was collected and used to fuel the lamp of the Blessed Sacrament in the nearby parish. According to the narrative, it happened that one day a local woman whose sow was ill thought she'd collect a bit of that oil, believed to be miraculous, to heal her pig. But at that very moment, the wellspring dried up and the miraculous balm never gushed from it again.
There is another legend that is related to the passage of the French army troops in Bormida Valley. Since Napoleon wanted to appropriate the Stone Mushroom, as he had done with everything beautiful in his path, but since there was no way to remove it, it is said that he had decided to demolish the megalith. When the cannons had already been placed on the hill facing the Mushroom and were ready to be fired, a dense fog arose from the Bormida river below that enveloped the entire mountain, thus obscuring the view through the eyepiece lens.
The fact was immediately interpreted as a bad omen and the mad destructive intention was abandoned.
Gemma Del Carretto (interview transcript)
Vitichindo (Widukind) was Duke of the Saxons. He lived in the eighth century A.D.
Known for the anti-Carolingian struggle, he captained the resistance of his people for religious and political independence from 772 -785 when, on Christmas Day, he was baptized in the royal palace of Attigny, after the final defeat of the Saxons by the Franks.
The Franko/Saxon war, albeit with a few breaks, lasted for thirty years and ended with the annexation of the huge German territory to the Carolingian Empire, whereby Charlemagne also averted possible risks of invasions from the east.
Despite his capitulation, many legends have flourished around the historical figure of Widukind. He was the forefather of Aleramo, the founder of the house of Aleramici, from which the Del Carretto family descends.
Vitichindo was born a heathen and was later baptized by Charlemagne. There is a city in Saxony where there is still a national holiday on January 7th in remembrance of his death. He was a wonderful man! He was born three generations before his descendent Aleramo.
He was a Saxon, he lived among the animals with their own beliefs and was venerated by his descendants. With the arrival of winter, he used to go into the woods and carve the trunks of larger trees into statues in the shape of an elf, which it was said kept the wolves away. Women at that time would work straw into round balls that were then dried and hung in the trees where the elves had been carved. The longer the straw balls hung from the trees, the better the year would be: they would win their battles and the land would yield a better harvest. When the first snow fell, he would go into the woods with torches to control the balls hanging from the trees during the night.
I think that perhaps this legend then gave rise to the Christmas tree. Because even today we hang colored balls on that tree from the Nordic origin, so loved by Queen Victoria. We also add some cotton wool to remind us of the snow, and there are always the little lights to remind us of those torches.
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