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Travel Diary: Visiting The Navarini Copper Workshop

Travel Diary: Visiting The Navarini Copper Workshop

14

MAY, 2019

Travel Diary

Matthew Rolla
Founder
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It’s a cold, dark morning at 5:30 and one of my dogs is looking at me, head cocked, with a mix of hurt and confusion in his eyes. “Why did you drag me out here at this ridiculous hour?”, he wants to know. He seemed unsatisfied with my explanation.

As he curled back up in bed, I quietly slipped out the door. I was heading up to one of my favorite regions of Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige, to visit the Navarini family at their workshop where they craft some of the world’s finest copper table and cookware. And you have to leave early if you want to beat Milan’s notorious rush hour traffic.

Leading up to my trip, everything I had heard and read about Navarini revolved around two things. The first was family: the Navarinis boast three generations of master coppersmiths, the secrets of their craft passed down from father to son. The second was an unwavering, almost maniacal commitment to traditional, labor-intensive methods. Put another way, there are only a handful of people who never stopped making things the old-fashioned way. The Navarinis are among them.

So you can understand why, as a middling home cook who likes to work with his hands, I was particularly excited to meet them.

An hour after being treated to a stunning mountain sunrise near Bergamo, I turned north just before Verona, following the Adige river as it wound its way through the valley of the same name. The ride was easy, the biggest problem being that the scenery tends to distract you: medieval castles, perched atop steep green hills, overlook the endless rows of vineyards below (Trentino is one of Italy’s most diverse and prolific wine producing regions). Tiny villages cling to progressively larger peaks. I exited the highway just south of Trento. Continue on and you’ll reach Bolzano (where you’ll hear more German spoken than Italian) and, eventually, the Brenner Pass, a major trans-Alpine crossing point for at least two millennia.

After a series of roundabouts, I headed up to the top of Ravina, the small town where the Navarini workshop is located. At first, I thought I had missed it but then I noticed a round copper sun bearing the words Bottega Navarini hanging from what looked like a wooden well cover. I peered inside the gate and saw what looked a lot less like a workshop and more like a large Alpine home. Which, as I discovered, is exactly what it is: many of the Navarinis live right here on the property.

I poked my head into the office and was greeted warmly by Stefano Navarini and his son Andrea. After a bit of discussion over what to see first, Stefano decided to take me on a tour of the family’s copper museum, which is open to the public. Over the years, the Navarinis have amassed a private collection containing over 3,000 copper items dating back to the 15th Century, all housed in five rooms in the lower floors of their home. They have at least one of pretty much anything you can imagine, from humble baking molds to a full-sized, I Love Lucy-style grape press.

One of the pieces that caught my eye was a regal, antique serving dish, perhaps a yard long (36” or 91 cm), with a lid that took the form of a large turkey, snood and wattle included. The turkey’s plumage flowed elegantly down the side of the sloped lid. I hesitated to touch it without white gloves, which seemed appropriate. Stefano kindly insisted.

After the tour, we returned to the office where I was greeted with a warm cup of tea and a slice of scrumptious, homemade pear and chocolate cake (baked in a copper pan I was assured). As I gazed out the window overlooking the valley, trying hard not to scarf down my second breakfast, I imagined that my jaunt through the museum was the perfect introduction, clearly communicating the family’s respect and admiration not only for their craft, but for its history. It then crossed my mind to ask if they were looking for an apprentice. But before I could make a completely irresponsible, spur-of-the-moment career decision, Stefano invited me to follow him to the workshop.

As we walked across the courtyard, I caught a glimpse of Pierino Navarini (Stefano’s father) on a large balcony above me. Pierino founded what is now known as Navarini in 1958, opening a small workshop after nine years of apprenticing. While he started off making everyday items, word spread quickly of his unique talents and innovative designs. Before long, he was being commissioned to create ornate, made to order pieces for clients in Italy, Austria, and Germany. These days, he’s something of a legend in these parts. For example, he celebrated his 85th birthday in 2018 and it was covered in the local media.

I waved to him and said hello but Pierino had other business to attend to that morning: he was busy watering the plants and flowers on the veranda. He cordially returned my wave before refilling his watering can.

Stefano led me into the workshop, leaving me in the able hands of his brother, Fiorenzo. As I looked around, it was organized chaos. There were hammers and drills, rivets and handles, a large anvil, and at least 500 different copper items, new and old, on shelves and tables. A copper clock hung on the wall above a workbench. It was cluttered but you could see there was a method to the madness. In truth, it reminded me of my grandfather’s shop (a master craftsman in his own right), where a far-too-young me would run the heavy machinery and play with his tools. In other words, I instantly felt at home.

Fiorenzo started at the beginning, handing me a disk of pure copper before explaining that every piece starts out looking pretty much like what I was holding in my hand. The short version is that the copper is heated and pressed into thin, even sheets. And these sheets are the building blocks of every piece they create. The Navarinis do all of this foundational work themselves at another shop down in the valley so it probably comes as no surprise that, while their tools may have improved, the techniques they employ haven’t changed since Pierino learned them 70 years ago.

Given that the workshop was outfitted with more hammers and mallets than your average hardware store, it seemed only logical that Fiorenzo’s next move was to show me how they hammer their cookware. He picked up a rounded pan, placed the inner lip over a metal rod, and went to work. He cleanly and repeatedly struck the pan with impeccable precision, rotating it as he went. His movement was metronomic, creating a pure, rhythmic beat you could keep time to. He then stopped and gave the pan to me for inspection. The result was a series of symmetrical dimples arrayed in a beautiful geometric pattern.

According to the Navarinis, hand-hammering copper is critical for two reasons. The first is for aesthetics: hammered copper, and its rustic, traditional look, adds an old-world elegance to classic and modern kitchens alike. The second, and more important, reason is that hand-hammering copper (a process known as ‘work hardening’) significantly improves the metal’s strength and durability. “So does every coppersmith do it by hand?”, I asked. He smiled and shook his head.

As it turns out, virtually every piece of copper cookware produced nowadays is machine hammered. It’s simply a faster, more efficient way of achieving that hand-worked appearance. The problem, however, is that machine hammering adds far less in terms of stability and performance than doing it the old-fashioned way. It is a dying art, sacrificed in the interest of quantity over quality.

The Navarinis, however, are proud holdouts, one of the last coppersmiths of renown to still hand-hammer their cookware (As I later discovered, even Mauviel, one of the most revered producers of copperware, has transitioned to machine hammering). It’s a slower, far more labor-intensive process but, for them, that’s the point: the extra sweat and effort are what make them, and their products, so special. Doing it any other way would be unthinkable.

Four shiny copper pans lay in a row on a long workbench, the closest thing to an assembly line that you’ll see at Navarini. They were waiting patiently to take the next step in their journey, which, by the looks of things, was having sturdy brass handles secured to their sides. 

But first, Fiorenzo had some prep work to do. He picked up a long metal rod, which had about 30 small holes drilled into it, and secured it in a vice. He then placed a tiny rivet in each hole, carefully brushed a thin layer of grayish coating on each one, and ignited a blowtorch. One by one, each rivet was given a quick bath in the blue and yellow flame, Fiorenzo gently dabbing (when necessary) with a fiber cloth to ensure they were glossy and smooth.

As they were cooling, Fiorenzo began marking the pans with three small dots, identifying where to drill holes for the handle. He then carefully set each pan on the the drill press, the bit conjuring thin, stringy strands of copper as it passed through the side of the pan. Now, all that was left to do was to attach the handles. Andrea lent a hand, holding each pan steady while his uncle peened the rivets (peening is the process of securing a rivet by striking it, transforming its flat head into a perfectly round half-dome). The blows were smooth and swift:

Bang…Bang…Bang.

Done.

While I was watching them work, I noticed (ok, almost fell over) an enormous polenta pot in the corner a few steps behind me. At least two feet deep, it looked like something you would see in medieval times suspended over a crackling fire, buttery polenta delicately simmering inside. When I asked about it, I learned that the Navarinis are routinely asked to restore worn or antique pieces. And this cauldron had come to them in need of a little TLC.

Interestingly, the pot was unlined. The reason being that, since polenta is a non-acidic food, it can safely be prepared in a pure copper vessel, just as it has been for centuries in Northern Italy. I was learning a lot that morning, not least of which was that (nearly) tripping over a piece of history is basically par for the course here.

Fiorenzo then took me to an adjoining room which featured, among other things, an array of mallets, awls, and soft, rubbery punches. This is where the shaping and embossing are done (by hand, of course).

After giving me a minute to poke around and get my bearings, Fiorenzo pointed to a medium-sized baking mold that was sitting upside-down atop a round platform. Its surface was uneven and lined with a number of creases, almost as if someone had pinched it in between their fingers. But you could see that a floral design was just waiting to be coaxed out of it. And so, Fiorenzo picked up a mallet and a rubber punch and showed me how, with just the right angle and amount of force, the mold’s intricate, grooved pattern was going to materialize.

As I watched the mold come to life with each delicate tap, what struck me was not only his technical ability, but his creative vision. Perhaps it’s easy to think of metalworking as, primarily, a blend of science and physical strength: heat a metal to a certain temperature and bend it (literally) to your will. But that only explains how it’s done, the requisite knowledge and skill. It doesn’t answer the question of why it’s done. Do the Navarinis want to create something practical, durable, technically perfect? Absolutely. But I think that, in their souls, they want to do something else: they want to create art.

Lunchtime was approaching so I thanked Fiorenzo for graciously spending the morning with me, wished him ‘buon appetito’, and turned for the door. But as I did, something familiar caught my eye: sitting on a worktable was a smaller, but identical, recreation of the turkey serving pan lid I had seen earlier in the museum. It was unfinished but no less impressive. It was being crafted for a client who had seen the original piece in the museum and wanted one for their home. New life for a regal old bird.

I wanted to inquire further but my hunger was getting the best of me. I said ‘arrivederci’ to Fiorenzo (for real this time) and was heading towards my car when Andrea and his girlfriend kindly invited me to lunch. We walked down to a small pizzeria a stone’s throw from the workshop. The pizza was good (Pugliese for me) but the amaretto tiramisù was sensational. After a strong glass of grappa and a shot of coffee, we slowly made our way back to the workshop. The Navarinis were going to show me how each piece is finished, and what I saw did not disappoint.

A large machine with two rotating cloth brushes, one coarse and one fine, dominated the narrow, rectangular room. The walls were dark and sunlight was at a premium. It may sound a bit gloomy and depressing but this was, in reality, a rejuvenation center.   

I was here because one of the crew was in the process of polishing some older items. My host, dressed in coveralls, was wearing a breathing mask, earmuffs, and safety glasses. He powered down the rotating brushes and greeted me with a hearty handshake. He asked if I was ready but, before I could answer, the machine whirred back into life, anxious to do its work. Anxious to strip away time. I gave him a thumbs-up and a grin.

He then selected a pan from his to-do pile, held it firmly in his hands, and pressed and turned it against the whirling brush as the machine tried its best to tear it from his grasp. He tussled with both of the brushes before holding the pan up for me see. The transformation was borderline miraculous: the pan, which just minutes before was the dullest of greens, was reborn. It shone and shimmered as beams of light, both natural and artificial, danced on its surface.

I could tell he was smiling under his mask.

I emerged once again into the light of day to find Andrea and Stefano in the courtyard. Stefano, in a tin-spattered apron and heavy gloves, stood behind an L-shaped wooden table. There was a roaring flame to his left and a large vat of water just behind him. Stefano was going to apply tin linings to a number of large pans, and the show was about to begin.

The process started with Stefano warming one of the pans over a flame for about 90 seconds (given its conductive properties, copper heats up very quickly and evenly). As I watched him, I could see the copper change color slightly, almost as if it was beginning to sweat.

Once it reached the right temperature, Stefano took a thin rod of pure tin and quickly rubbed it against the inside of the pan. What happened next was stunning: when the tin came in contact with the hot copper surface, it instantly liquified, producing a cascade of magnificent silver streaks. Stefano then spread the tin around the pan with a few simple rolls of the wrist before removing it from the flames.

He then quickly, but delicately, wiped the pan with two different fiber cloths, carefully distributing the tin smoothly and evenly across the copper surface. Stefano then gave the bottom of the pan a brief, steam-inducing dip in the water and gently set it on the table.

The result was glorious. It was just so clean, bright, and, well, perfect. And it was all done masterfully by look and feel alone, the result of years of practice and repetition. Andrea, who was standing next to me, remarked that he had tinned over a 1,000 pieces but was nowhere near a master. I couldn’t help but watch Stefano do a few more, and each one was just as mesmerizing and the last. 

Not long after, I said goodbye to the Navarinis and headed back toward Milan. But as I was winding through the valley, I thought to myself, “OK, well, that’s a wide, flat pan but how do they tin something as narrow and curvaceous as an oil cruet?” Perhaps I’ll get my answer on the next visit. 

If you’re thinking about visiting the Navarini workshop, it’s located in a truly beautiful part of the country, nestled between the Dolomites and Lake Garda. It’s located just off the A22 expressway, a few kilometers south of the city of Trento.

Navarini Rame
Via Val Gola 22
38123, Ravina (TN)
Tel: +39 0461 923330

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