The charcoal-burners of Bondone

Autor: Alberta Voltolini

The fires of the poiòt burn once more

Until the mid-1970s, charcoal-burning was the main occupation among the inhabitants of Bondone.

The sound of charcoalIt’s the moment of truth. The slow process of wood-burning that has taken place inside the poiòt (or poiàt, the charcoal pile) is complete. But in order to determine whether the wood has been transformed into high- quality charcoal, it has to pass the test.
Dario Scalmazzi, himself a charcoal-burner from a family steeped in the trade, does the honours. Pulling two pieces of charred wood out from the poiòt, he grasps them firmly in his hands and knocks them together. “Hear that?”, he asks. With each knock comes a vibrating ring, almost like music. “That’s a good sound”, says Dario. “It’s done, we’ve got our charcoal”.

The charcoal-burners of BondoneAnd with that, the embarbesà (the charcoal burner, or literally “the one with the sooty face”) is satisfied. We’re in Valle del Chiese, in Bondone, the picturesque village with an idyllic view of Lake Idro whose historical quirks have earned it a place on the famous “Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages” circuit. Enjoying a strategic position on the border with the province of Brescia, it can also boast the presence of an imposing manor overlooking the lake from a craggy perch: Castel San Giovanni, which once belonged to the powerful Lodron family.

Yet what makes Bondone truly unique is the experiences of its inhabitants who, up until the mid-1970s, were charcoal-burners. This trade has been handed down through families for centuries, perhaps millennia. And working as a carboner truly was a family affair: when the men set off to make charcoal (andar a carbonar), which kept them far from home for long periods of time, their whole families would follow them. The hardship and difficulties of that work and that way of life, and the dignity with which they were faced, is evident in the pride Bondone’s last charcoal- burners take in continuing to light the poiòt. They are lit three times a year in Plos, an area just below the town, and to mark the Festa del Carbonaio festival at Malga Alpo on the last Sunday in July.

In Plos, the poiòt of the carboner of Bondone still has plenty of fire in its belly. The last charcoal pile of the year, which was lit on 2 October 2023, burned bright with the ancestral knowledge and memories that have been handed down across time and generations.

TAKE A JOURNEY BACK IN TIMEBetween the end of March and beginning of April, when the highest mountains were still covered with snow, the families of charcoal-burners would set off for the valleys of Trentino and Brescia. There they would remain for around eight months, first gathering fir or beech wood and then stacking it in preparation for burning, before finally transforming it into charcoal by lighting the charcoal pile. The sites used for gathering wood and producing charcoal, according to the tales of the very oldest charcoal burners, were at altitudes of 1,500- 2,000 metres in the mountains.

They would only come down on 9 September, a special day dedicated to the Madonna col bambino in braccio (Madonna with the Child in her Arms), when a procession was made from Bondone to the little shrine in Plos in memory of a vow taken during times of pestilence. Finally, when winter was at the door, they would return to their homes on 8 December. The charcoal produced was sold to buyers from the province of Brescia for use in industry, up until charcoal was replaced by oil derivatives. “To get 100 kg of charcoal, you needed at least 500-600 kg of wood”, with a single family capable of producing between 30,000 and 60,000 kg in one season’s work, explains Dario Scalmazzi in the book Le terre della fatica. Viaggio nell’anima del Trentino (Lands of Hardship: a Journey into the soul of Trentino) by Alberto Folgheraiter and Gianni Zotta. The sale price, again as remembered by Dario Scalmazzi, was 22 lire per kilo.

BUILDING THE POIÒTCharcoal piles are built on a wide circular space called the aiòl or aiàl. A stake is positioned in its centre, around which a sort of scaffolding is constructed, with small pieces of timber wedged together rising from the bottom to the top. Next, the wooden branches gathered in the woods, big and small, are carefully piled up in multiple “rounds”, one after another. With each round, the poiòt grows bigger and begins to take on its traditional form: a dome which generates heat and transforms the wood into black charcoal. In a later step, the charcoal-burner takes earth and leaves and uses them to carefully seal up the gaps between the branches. Finally, at the bottom, fir wood is used to outline a perimeter which serves to contain the fire. When the pile is ready, the stake is removed and the carboner can begin to fill the open space left with burning embers. In this way the poiòt begins to burn, at a slow pace due to the lack of oxygen.

It will stay burning for four days and three nights, more or less depending on the quantity of wood to be transformed. The charcoal-burner sleeps close to the poiòt, keeping an eye on its progress and adding a little wood or as fuel now and then. “If it takes too much fuel”, the charcoal-burners explain as they keep careful watch over the pile, “that’s not good, because it means that the wood is burning too quickly. At the end, when there’s no more smoke, it has to be cleaned well, then we remove and replace the earth so that it will cool down for the morning after”. Only at this point can the charcoal be extracted with a rake and the final result assessed.

THE WISDOM OF THE CHARCOAL- BURNERSMansueto Scalmazzi, the son of charcoal-burners, learned the “art of charcoal-making” to help Dario Scalmazzi and the few others who remain with their demonstrations. “By getting involved with this”, he says, “I’ve realised that you never really stop learning in life. You always follow the same process to build the charcoal pile, but one wood pile works out this way, the next one works out that way, one poiòt turns out well, the next is only half done. In order to sell it it couldn’t be wood when it came out, but charcoal, otherwise it wasn’t fit for sale”.

A STRONG BONDToday, the bond between Bondone and the charcoal- burning tradition remains strong. That’s clear from the attentions of the town’s Municipal Administration, the cultural initiatives promoted by the I carboner Association and the research and education activities carried out in collaboration with Muse (Trento’s Science Museum). The Municipality of Bondone has paid tribute to the trade of the charcoal-burners in its statute and supported the Al carboner monument, a bronze work of art made by Don Luciano Carnessali in 2002 and located in the piazza in town. The poiòt also features in the municipal coat of arms, along with the tower of Castel San Giovanni against Monte Calva and Lake Idro and the lion rampant, in memory of the ancient border between the Prince-Bishopric of Trento and Veneto.

In the modern era, their faces are marked by soot, fatigue and dignity, just as they always have been.

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