CHIAVARI, Italy – It was the wooden rocking horse sitting out in front of a small shop on Via Bighetti in Chiavari that caught my eye. It was much like the one my father had made for my own children many years ago and I was curious to know where it had come from. The shop door was open so I looked in and saw a man standing at a workbench carving what looked to be the head of Queen Victoria.
At his feet were the wood shavings he was carefully removing from the block of wood. When he realized someone – me – was at the door he looked up and gave me a big smile. “Come in, come in, welcome to my workshop,” he said. And that’s how I met Maestro Franco Casoni, Master Wood Carver.
Franco Casoni’s workshop is crowded from ceiling to floor with wood sculptures, some finished, some half finished. There is a little bit of everything including figureheads for sailing ships, flying angels, and ornate frames for important portraits. The eclectic collection tells the story of Chiavari and Liguria, of rich patrons who made their fortune importing and trading goods brought into the Genoa harbor from all over the world.
|Inside the Workshop|
Maestro Casoni was born, raised and trained in the fine art of woodcarving in Chiavari. He started young, about 13, and after art school he served two long apprenticeships with Master woodcarvers before opening his own shop. He specialized in furniture making, notably the Chiavari chair and other important pieces. His restoration work of the wooden portions of the Oratory of San Filippo Neri in Genoa, as well as the group of statues of the Holy Trinity of Modica (RG), and the groups of angels found in the parishes of Zoagli and Sestri Levante, here in Liguria, are well known by art connoisseurs throughout Italy.
He also has a lot of awards under his belt. He has represented Italy at the European Parliament, has been a featured guest on many national Italian television programs, he has authored many books on the art of wood carving and a photo exhibit of his work is part of a permanent collection in a private gallery in the near-by town of Lavagna. He has taken part in so many important exhibits and won so many awards, that it began to overwhelm me. In other words, the friendly guy with the smiling face that I found myself talking to Friday afternoon is a living national treasure.
He’s a nice guy. He showed me a photo of his sons and his grandsons, the ones he built the rocking horse for and the little wooden scooter that was parked just inside the shop door. He showed me a photo of a house up in the hills above Chiavari that he bought and restored. “The stones on the outside of the house are red,” he said, “because there is a lot of magnesium in them.”
There were quite a large number of ship’s figureheads, and the Maesto told me that he once carved one for the English sailing ship “Baboon”. There was one piece that fascinated me that was not a sculpture but a collection of old match box covers woven into a table covering that tells the story of the Unification of Italy. “It needs some work,” he said, but it looked fine to me. I have no idea how it ties in with woodcarving, but it doesn’t matter.
|The Maestro Intagliatore - Wood Carver|
One of the Maestro’s specialties are corzetti stamps. Corzetti (aka crosetti, croxetti and curzetti), are flat disks of pasta that are individually embossed using a wooden press. The Genovese have been making and eating corzetti pasta, which were designed to look like the old Genovese coin, the gold Genovino d’oro, since the days of the Renaissance. The noble families of the time would order their cooks to emboss the pasta disks with their coat of arm to remind dinner guests how important their family was and to reconfirm their dominance over the territory.
He had just finished the one he proudly put before me to photograph, telling me it had been ordered by a Genovese Countess. Seems she’s having an important summer soiree soon and wants to mark the occasion with a special stamp on the corzetti pasta that is on the menu. And what could make a more noble impression for a 21st century Countess than corzetti pressed in a hand made corzetti stamp from the hands of Maestro Franco Casoni.
We covered a lot of ground in the short time we talked. I started feeling a little guilty taking him away from his work, but if he was feeling pressed for time it didn’t show. Everything in the shop had a story, including the Maestro who is perhaps the most interesting story of all.