Italian handcrafts: Soapstone

Italian handcrafts: Soapstone

  • WTI Magazine #90 Apr 14, 2017
  • 254

Soapstone carving began in remote times. Pliny the Elder already mentions it in his Naturalis Historia, in relation to Valtellina. Hundreds of old soapstone quarries can be found In Valmalenco and Valchiavenna, two of which are still in operation. Studies on archaeological discoveries of soapstone artefacts show that the activity probably dates back to the prehistoric iron age period.

Soapstone carving certainly began in Chiavenna and was taken up centuries later in Valmalenco, if we consider the 40 quarries that were excavated and the 50 lathes discovered along the Mallero, Sassersa and, particularly, the Giumellini streams. Over a thousand artisans were involved in this work between Valtellina and Valchiavenna.

The stone was quarried from the rock in wintertime using a double-ended pickaxe called an “asisc”. The extracted block, which had a truncated cone shape, was called a “ciapùn”. A series of so-called “lavècc” pots were obtained from a single block, by separating each one from the next, first cutting the vertical “side” section and then the base, which is the most delicate part, with a special hooked tool called a “sedùn”.

The use of this soft stone in the Alpine valleys was something perfectly normal, because it was needed, in the absence of metal, to make heat-resistant containers and storage jars for household needs.

Even today, thanks to the stone’s structural formation, “lavècc” pots are very popular and have excellent culinary properties that are not found in other, more modern utensils. 

It is particularly good for cooking braised meat, stews, gravies, game, jugged dishes, fondues, tripe and soups, and preserves all the organoleptic properties of the food. “Ollare”, the Italian name for this stone, was a technical term used in Roman times for all soft stone that could be easily turned, from which they obtained pots and containers for foods and oils, called “olle”.

The stone is a variety of serpentine and is mainly composed of magnesium silicate; it is divided into two main groups: talc schist, the main component of which is talc, and chlorite schist, mainly composed of chlorite. These differ in their crystal, granular and lamellar structures and in hardness and color. 

Talc schist is greyish white and is found in abundance along the Italian Alps. A very rare variety of it is found in Valchiavenna, with a unique colour and consistency. It is used for both turning and sculpture, as can be seen from the beautiful baptismal font in Chiavenna, which was made in 1156 for the Collegiate Church of San Lorenzo. 

Chlorite schist, typically green in colour, is much rarer: it is found in four areas of Piedmont, but the most important vein is in Valmalenco. The chlorite schist from Chiesa, known as Pirlo green soapstone, has a dense felt of small green scales that intersect leaving voids, thereby forming a compact rock with great thermal properties.

Soapstone

Soapstone is a rock formation ranging in colour from dull green to grey, with dark and light veins and occasional blue nuances. It is very soft and therefore easy to carve, especially on a lathe. 

The particular quality of this material is that it is highly flame resistant and retains heat for a long time, allowing slow cooking that is ideal for stews and soups, but it is also useful for grilling meat, on a “pioda” (a soapstone or serpentine slab). In recent decades, traditional soapstone carving has tended towards artistic production, with some artisans decorating it with hand-etched designs or sculpting it to obtain highly desirable ornamental objects.

Thanks to its special thermal properties, soapstone remains a very useful item in the kitchen, offering unparalleled benefits for healthy eating: excellent thermal retention and transmission; immunity to acid and alkaline; very high tolerance of both heat and cold; excellent non-stick properties and no product deterioration over time.

The manufacturing technique is still the same as that used in the first century AD: a manual process requiring great patience and skill. 

There are very few artist-artisans who know how to work with this material today, so each soapstone pot is therefore a unique piece.

The beauty, naturalness and strength of soapstone have inspired the creation of products that allow us to rediscover ancient traditions in modern forms, as decorative items for both indoors and outdoors.

Thanks to the “historical” nature of soapstone and its products, and its association with local tradition and culture, Confartigianato Imprese Sondrio has been able to file the “Pietra Ollare della Valtellina e Valchiavenna” Geographical Collective Mark, a symbol that is synonymous with quality and respect for tradition. 

Only products made in the province of Sondrio, in full compliance with the product specifications, can use the Geographical Collective Mark.

The Local Area

Valtellina is an Alpine region corresponding to the basin of the Adda River upstream from Lake Como in Lombardy. Valtellina, together with the territories of Monferrato, Langhe and Roero, was officially nominated for inclusion in the UNSECO World Heritage list.

The valley separates the central-eastern Alps from the south-eastern Alps, and is 120 km in length and 66 km wide.The Adda River, after descending from the Cancano Valley, runs through Valtellina until it flows into Lake Como. 

It borders with Trentino-Alto Adige in the east, the provinces of Bergamo and Brescia to the south and the Swiss territory of Graubünden to the North. Some of Europe’s highest mountains are found here, including the Bernina Massif, Mount Ortler, Monte Cevedale, Königspitze and the Adamello-Presanella group.

The valley is divided into a series of basins, enclosed by bottlenecks where two mountain ridges come close together. Towards the end, the mountains almost close the valley, leaving only a small and difficult access to a final, huge amphitheatre that forms the Bormio Basin. 

The main city and provincial capital is Sondrio, which enjoys the presence of excellent thermal waters known since antiquity (Terme di Plinio).

Interesting facts

A miraculous stone: In the 11th century, St. Peter Damian tells of a miner who was imprisoned in the Soapstone Quarry following a cave in. It was a year before his companions managed to reopen the passage, but they found him still alive. 

The man said that a dove had brought him some white bread every day, except for one day when his wife did not go to hear mass for him.The oldest soapstone object found during an archaeological excavation is a small carved idol dating to the Neolithic period.

Lard will keep for 50 years in soapstone containers placed in a “crotto” (a typical Valchiavenna cellar where a subterraneous wind called the “Sorel” blows at a constant temperature of 8–9 degrees in both winter and summer).

by Camera di Commercio di Sondrio