What do Americans like about Italy? I’m convinced it’s all the extraordinary things people do without big industrial machinery. It’s the vernacular architecture of an Italian hill town, the small farmer who raises the celebrated beans of little Bigliolo, the lace-makers, the artisan carpenters who craft those Italian shutters, and the knife-makers.
Yes, let’s cut right to the cutting edge. The knife-makers. Italians couldn’t make a scooter without style, why would you expect them to make a butter knife without it? Knives and even scissors can be, and are works of art in Italy.
My mother had knives. I guess all mothers do. She had two drawers full of them. They were all made in a factory, probably by political prisoners, of indestructible steel and plastic. They were ugly, flimsy, and looked like all the other mother’s knives I had seen in Illinois.
She bought them cheaply. She discarded them when she tried to cut something and found she’d been had. By “discarding” I mean she washed them and put them in the “use to pry stuff up” drawer. Thus two drawers full of dull, cheap, industrial “knives”. If she hadn’t bought all these knives she could have bought 3 or 4 good ones. But industrial crap knives always hold the promise of the magic knife; the next one will be better. You will be able to cut your car in half with one and then butter your toast.
You don’t want just a good knife, do you? You want a work of art. One that doesn’t cost like it was designed by Michelangelo and made by God’s favorite angels though. Where would you look for a knife such as this?
Seeking the Italian Hand-Made Knife
Ok, here’s the deal. It’s Italy. You went to little Bigliolo for your beans and nobody has ever heard of it, so expect to have an adventure in a place tourists don’t go because Rick Steves didn’t send them. Take Sardinia. They have a large production of artisan knives because the shepherds use them daily and need their utility. The knives in the picture above were produced by a single man in a little place called Gavoi up in the Barbagia mountains of Sardinia. Go there. Stay in a place on the edge of town called Sa Posada and awaken to the most incredible homemade breakfast spread in the universe.
Another famous place that in which the residents still need a decent knife is the called Molise where the little town of Frosolone has produced knives and scissors since the time of the Kingdom of Naples, and is home to a museum dedicated to the craft. (See: Knives of Frosolone). A peek in one of the shops there reminded us of all the kinds of knives that are useful in a place where people do the work instead of machines, and where foraging is still a major occupation. There are vineyard knives, mushroom knives, beard-trimming knives, cigar scissors—and you’ll just have to go to the Molise if you want to know the rest.
But it’s not just hard working folks in fields who need knives. Surgeons need them as well. Pistoia in Tuscany is the site of one of the oldest continuously operating hospitals in the world, Ospedale del Ceppo founded in 1277. Martha recommends:
Take the Pistoia Underground Tour to explore the history of Pistoia along a pathway that follows the old riverbed and see crafts that were practiced there from the milling of grain to metal working that produced one of Pistoia’s specialties – knives, especially those used in the hospital and anatomical theater.
In fact, Tuscany is a sort of hotbed of knife production. Scarperia, a town in the little-visited Mugello outside of Florence, has not one but two artisan knife workshops, one of them new. But don’t worry, the tradition seems to have started in the 1500s.
So, you can see (and hear) the colorful and raucous speed of cars and bikes around Mugello Autodrome and then trickle out with the crowd to visit a knife workshop.
Where Can I Buy an Artisan Knife Without Visiting Italy?
I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to come to Italy, but I do know where you can buy knives from some famous Italian workshops right from that comfortable chair you’ve got in front of the computer. Readers of Wandering Italy who’ve traveled the boot extensively have opened a website that is right up the knife lover’s alley: The Italian Knifemaker is an attractive and fast website and seems to exhibit quite fair prices. When’s the last time the palm of your hand has felt the silky eroticism of an ox horn handle lovingly polished in the Coltelleria Saladini in Scarperia?
As an added bonus, you won’t have to worry about taking that knife on the plane or leaving it in an Italian hotel room if you buy it from a website.