Meet the village artisans keeping traditions alive in Le Marche, Italy

For artisan skill, there’s nowhere in Italy like Le Marche, a central region populated with family businesses that handcraft paper from hemp, weave basket bags for Italy’s biggest fashion houses, and stitch the leather balls used in an ancient sport.

Sunday, September 20, 2020,
By Julia Buckley
Photographs By Francesco Lastrucci
In the village of Treia, craftsman Daniele Rango makes a bracciale ball in his workshop.

In the village of Treia, craftsman Daniele Rango makes a bracciale ball in his workshop.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

I’m peering in through the window of Renzo Castellani’s barbershop in Treia when he rushes out. “You’re not from here, are you?” he says, ushering me in to talk about his beloved town. Renzo is in his 61st year of barbering — and he wants passersby to know it.

Welcome to small-town life in Le Marche, just across the Apennines from Tuscany and Umbria. The Renaissance hill town — all elegant terracotta buildings, narrow streets, and a jewellery box of a theatre — reminds me of Montepulciano, in Tuscany. Only instead of touristy wine shops, there’s a queue at the butchers for herby porchetta, diners crowding out the vaulted-roofed, frescoed cafe, with its stucco Jesus outside. And Renzo. 

Le Marche is often touted as an alternative to Tuscany — it has the same billowing hills and medieval streets minus the selfie sticks and souvenir shops. But it also lives its history — not least through its artisans. Here in Treia, you’ll find such curiosities as bracciale — a tennis-like game played with spiked wooden ‘fists’ that look like torture instruments. Dating back to the Renaissance, it’s largely died out in Italy, but here in Treia, on the first Sunday in August, locals transform a car park into a court where a tournament is played. Each ball costs €100 (£90), says cobbler and ball-maker Daniele Rango, whom I find in his workshop hand-stitching strips of leather onto grapefruit-sized balls. “It’s hard work — it ruins your shoulders,” he shrugs, as if to say: this is Treia’s history, so it must be done. 

Craftsman Emiliano Scattolini at work binding books by hand in the workshop he shares with Luigi Mecella.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Inspired by Daniele, I’m keen to hear more of the story of this central part of Le Marche, as told by its artisans. Thirty minutes later, having weaved around walled medieval towns and through a landscape as rumpled as an unmade bed, I reach the hilltop hamlet of Mogliano. I eat the porchetta panino I’d bought in Treia while admiring the view of snow-capped mountains, and beyond them fields, forests, olive groves and necklaces of terracotta villages cresting grassy peaks. 

At the foot of the hill, Tonino Nardi welcomes me into his garage. “It’s just a tiny business,” he blushes. He, his wife Morena and his brother Dino weave wicker and leather, with help from his mum and daughter. Tiny it may be but the Nardis produce bags for the likes of Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Fendi, overseen by their pet parrot and a photo of the Pope. Their work — I watch Morena weave a Louis Vuitton bag in 90 minutes — is a high-speed blend of dexterity and artistry. Pride, too. “Everyone in Mogliano used to do this,” says Tonino. “It was born from necessity — peasants wove their own baskets.” 

Now there are only four such artisans left in the village. Eight years ago, the Nardis didn’t think they could keep going either, then Prada called and changed their lives. “Before, you were almost embarrassed to say you were a weaver,” says Tonino. “Now it’s being rediscovered, I’m proud. It’s art — and it links our culture to the area.” Dino breaks off from weaving to take me to a nearby 16th-century church, for which the family are keyholders. It’s just the two of us by the frescoed altar, a chorus of birds serenading us as we walk in.

Weaver Tonino Nardi poses with his family (from left: Morena, his wife; Sara, his daughter; Tonino; Dino, his brother) in the streets on Mogliano.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

An hour west of Treia is the town of Fabriano, renowned for its paper since the 1400s. At the Paper and Watermark Museum Fabriano, guide Claudia Crocetti takes me around the workshop, where papermaker Roberto dips moulds into a cotton-water solution and lays the barely formed sheets onto wool to dry off. Upstairs, artist-in-residence Stefano Luciano is busy making startlingly modern prints, when master papermaker Luigi Mecella bursts in. “Have you tried my paper yet?” he asks. Stefano hasn’t.

And so it is that the next morning we all pile into Luigi’s workshop to watch him transform 800-litre tubs of homegrown hemp into paper, while his colleague Emiliano Scattolini binds the sheets and adds leather covers. It’s a process that’s been carried out here in the outskirts of medieval Fabriano for over 600 years. The Marchigiani doing what they do best: living their history.

Explore more photography of Le Marche's artisans

How to do it

Sawday’s has double rooms at La Casa degli Amori, Treia, from €85 (£73), B&B. Ryanair flies from Stansted to Ancona from £50 return.   

More info: Visits to the artisans all by direct appointment. prolocotreia.it

Read more travel guides for Italy

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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