I vacationed in Tuscany recently, and between all the art museums, shops and great restaurants, it’s surprising that what I’ll probably remember best was a visit with a local blacksmith named Carlo.
His family has worked out of this same shop for more than 200 years, and Carlo claims that the furnace fire has not gone out once in all that time. (I believe it, and I’ll explain why, below.) Carlo is the real thing — he really does this for a living. He’s not some historical re-enactor. He mainly makes garden tools, kitchen knives and other implements. I bought a spade (sans handle) for 10 Euros. Not bad.
Now, it’s not like a blacksmith is THAT amazing. We’ve all seen them before, at least in re-enactments. But his shop is one of the most ingenious setups I’ve ever seen. You see, before this was a “blacksmithery”, it was a mill, powered by water. More than 200 years ago, one of Carlo’s ancestors figured out how to turn it into a blacksmith workshop. See the giant hammer and anvil in the photo? It’s powered by water. The furnace? It’s stoked by a constant flow of air —powered by water (and no moving parts, so it never stops blowing, which is why the fire’s never gone out). Lights, when he needs them, are run off a generator. He even has an arc welder—yes, powered by water. (I think that’s a more recent addition!) I can’ t describe how it all works in this short space, but it was utterly brilliant engineering, all created before electricity and internal combustion engines. Our guide told us that, as far as anyone knew, this technology was unique to this one little valley in Tuscany. There used to be several blacksmiths with similar shops in the area. Today, only this one remains. We like to think we’re smarter today than we used to be. Seeing this reminded me that’s not so.
Carlo is the last in the family line of blacksmiths. He’ s considered a local treasure, and once he’s gone (not to be morbid, but he’s 76 years old) there are plans to preserve the work shop. But it’s sad that he has no child to carry on—his son has vision problems that prevent it). It was a privilege to meet him, and touch this connection to another time.