I bade farewell to blacksmithing when I drove away from the forge for the last time almost exactly two years ago. Even though it had provided both of us with a living and a home for nearly fifteen years, blacksmithing and I had always had an uneasy relationship: it was much more Blue-Shirt’s passion than mine, although I tried my very best and did eventually carve out a place within it that worked for me. For there were elements of the blacksmithing scene that I enjoyed very much: its creativity, its slightly ‘alternative’ character, but most of all its fantastic camaraderie coupled with its avowedly international outlook. Which is why I have retained a soft spot for the event that has long been the darling of the blacksmithing circuit, the Biennale Europea d’Arte Fabbrile (the European Artistic Blacksmithing Biennial) which for over forty years has been held in Stia, a small and dignified medieval town nestled in the forest-clad hills of Tuscany about sixty kilometres east of Florence. For over a decade it not only provided a good excuse for an extra trip to Italy, but also brought all my favourite bits of blacksmithing together in one four-day-long blacksmithing extravaganza. And two years since our last visit, when it formed the crossing point to our new life in Italy, we have just been back.
You know how it is: you’ve arranged to meet up with an old pal you haven’t seen for ages. As soon as you catch sight of each other at the appointed place you both exclaim “How lovely to see you! You look so well! You haven’t changed a bit!” and you throw your arms around one another in a tangle of hugs and kisses. You are delighted to find your old friend still has the same mannerisms, the same voice, the same dodgy jokes and the even dodgier dress sense. But behind the smiles and whoops there is a tiny knot of doubt. Will we have grown apart? Will we still even get on any more? After all, our lives have taken such a different course over the last two years. So for the last few days we have been seeking the answers to these questions while catching up with this dear old friend.
After checking in at our customary cosy little hotel a few kilometres down the road in the pretty town of Poppi (yet another of the Borghi più Belli d’Italia), we started our visit with a leisurely tour of the town to see how much (or how little) our old friend had changed. The forging area in town’s central square, Piazza Mazzini, with its line of glowing hearths was swarming with the usual mêlée of grubby-faced blacksmiths hammering furiously at their anvils to produce their entry for the competition that is the beating heart of the event. Using just the range of steel stock provided, competing teams and individuals are required to produce a piece of work in response to a set theme within just three hours. The competition is judged by a panel of six eminent blacksmiths from all over the world, and at the formal prize-giving ceremony hosted by the mayor and other local and regional dignitaries that brings the event to a close, the winner is crowned World Forging Champion. While Italian smiths predominate among the 130 or so participants, the competition is a real melting pot of nationalities with smiths from most other European nations, including a strong British contingent, as well as from nations as varied as the USA, Russia, Australia, Chile and Israel. And I was pleased to see that this year was no different: our old friend was in rude health.
As usual, the bank of bleachers opposite the forging area was packed with spectators avidly watching every bend and twist and hammer blow, while an improbable mix of tattoo-ed and dreadlocked smiths, black-clad grannies, ice-cream coated toddlers and self-consciously trendy teenagers mingled in the remainder of the shady square, just taking in all the comings and goings. For while in many respects the biennale might be thought a somewhat niche event, it remains very much a local, community event too and always attracts a huge number of ‘lay’ visitors from the surrounding area. Indeed, as many visitors as participants always peer curiously at the growing number of incredibly diverse pieces that emerge from the fires at the end of each forging session and are laid out on the zig-zagging lines of display benches that run along one edge of the square.
Our daily routine remained the same: having lingered at the forging area for an hour or so and then checked out the latest items on display, we would amble down the hill from Piazza Mazzini and past (and often into) the quirky bar by the bridge over the Arno that provides the best Aperol Spritz as well as the best people-watching spot in town. Our progress on to Piazza Tanucci in the heart of the old town, however, was always slow as every day we would catch sight of another batch of familiar faces en route: a hurried greeting here, an exchange of pleasantries there, and a stream of promises to catch up later. But finally we would reach this long and graceful square whose tall and elegant palazzi looked down onto the customary stage with full sound and lighting rig for the evening entertainment and then take another look at this year’s selection of dramatically lit large sculptural pieces lined up along one side of the piazza. As usual these formed a metal guard of honour that guided us on up the hill towards the narrow alleyway that leads back towards the river and round to the lanificio. This semi-restored woollen mill whose huge, light and airy contemporary gallery space houses one of the event’s other key elements, a professionally curated and incredibly varied exhibition of forged ironwork produced by highly skilled craftsmen (and sadly, I think it was once again only men) from across Italy and beyond. I was gratified to find that there was once again a dazzling variety of styles, techniques and concepts. As has long been the case, though, the works that drew my attention were those whose makers had decided that less is more and focused on the bare essentials, not letting the technical ‘how’ obscure the aesthetic ‘what’. It was those pieces that with a small number of carefully judged curves, angles and shapes managed to convey so effectively abstract qualities such as energy, control, movement, tension, grace or power which once again captured my imagination and stopped me in my tracks. We still had much in common after all, my old friend and I.
Another comfortingly familiar element was the display in a neighbouring gallery space in the woollen mill of previous years’ competition pieces, which proved easily as popular as the main exhibition, which constantly teemed with visitors . Not only was it a pleasure to have the chance to enjoy these pieces afresh, it was also gratifying to know that the event organisers didn’t simply fling the efforts of all those blacksmiths’ hopes and labours onto the scrap heap as soon as the event was over. Most satisfying of all, however, was finding one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s competition pieces among the one hundred or so on display: our old friend, it seemed, had not forgotten us either.
Still there too, and as popular as ever, were the children’s forging activities, along with the trade stands offering an array of tools, equipment and other blacksmithing gadgetry, and also the drawing and design competition that celebrates the journey of an idea from head to hand to hammer. And still there too was the gelateria in the corner of Piazza Mazzini that probably does more business over the course of the event than over the whole of the rest of the year, along with the cheerily decorated and permanently packed pizzeria run by the fierce but tiny Nina that serves piping hot pizza by the slice to ravenous, soot-caked blacksmiths until late into the night.
Indeed, it was all still there, and it all felt just as we had hoped. So despite my misgivings, we had not grown apart and we definitely still got on. But my relationship with blacksmithing has perhaps shifted and is now one those arm’s length yet enduring friendships where contact is infrequent, but which you can pick up exactly where you left it last time. So, my dear friend Stia, ci vediamo in 2021.
For more information on the event, please take a look at https://www.biennaleartefabbrile.it/Biennale