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When the lightning lends you.. a hand

by Mauro Bignami

Climb along a wide road then turn into a closer and climb again, then go down, turn left, go up to the right and down again: I should have arrived.

basilioUncertain, I ask a man who is unloading some boxes from a van where is the workshop of Basilio Testella. “Testella?” he answer, staring at me and shaking his head; then he turns to his colleague asking the same question.

Another head shaking. I feel I got lost: not in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong, but in Montegranaro, province of Fermo, a few thousand inhabitants and many shoe companies. Feeling shattered, I ask the question again in a weak voice:

“Basilio Testella, shoemaker, master of many entrepreneurs, teacher at the vocational school for shoe-making here in Montegranaro….”. Meanwhile came a third person who, maybe moved to pity at the sight of my desperate face, makes an effort to understand and answer "Sure!, he’s looking for Vasì: beyond that door over there". This is the power of the names: Basilio, Basì that becomes Vasì, and you discover that you're five meters away from the place you were looking for.

I knock at the door, enter the room and find myself pleasantly assaulted by a mixture of smells of leather, wax, rosin, rope and as I nose in the half-light, between a set of tools hanging from the ceiling and the walls, I see Mr. Basilio. He is there, wrapped in a green gown like that worn by surgeons, sitting on a stool in front of a small (low) table, illuminated by a low neon light, which leaves almost in the dark everything is above. After all, why lighting up aloft, since Vasì can find all that is above the neon simply raising his hand, stretching out his arm in one direction or another, with movements that remind those of the surgeon, who knows he will find what he needs. But the gaze is fixed on the creature he is manufacturing, which he holds in the grip of the knees; which he takes up to change the position; which he raises at right angles; which he turns up and down to take a critical look at whether the flower made by the awl is just as he wants, so that, depending on the cases, he needs to use a simple, double or quadruple thread, which will keep together the upper and the sole, the sole and the welt and so on.

He lean everything on the table and finally raises his head, which is lit up by reflection; he gets up, smiling greets me and let me sit in front of him, on a low stool similar to his, so that we can talk as equals. But he always remains half-hidden by the lamp socket and I can clearly see only his hands, his fingers moving, tightening, pulling, caressing, twisting, rolling up the material and tools. Those last all made by himself and he is jealous of them "because each job should have the right tool", manufacturers of tools have done very little business with him. Not the same for the manufacturers of bed’s bases, because he builds the tips of awls with the steel of bedsprings. Just one tool, always an awl but smaller than the others, he found already made.... by the nature.

appesi "In 1964, in the countryside, I was walking along the row, when I tread on something breaking on the ground: it was the wire that should have keep up the vine and who, struck by a lightning, had toughened and broken into small pieces . Here they are: he has only made the butt ".

When did you start to work as a shoemaker?

“"Cobbler, not shoemaker and then I will explain you why," he reply, distorting all my thoughts on the difference between the two terms. "I started when I was eight years old, in 1938; I was a boy in the country, my father was a wood worker and built casks, vats, rakes, drays and also “carri matti”, which were used to move large tree trunks, since there were no cranes”, he adds, noticing my expression of ignorance about these means of transport. "One day, continues Testella, I said to myself: in the countryside you die of old age and you are still a boy. So in 1944 I went to work in the factory of a distant relative, Alberto Guardiani, where I began to make the seams watertight of the boots."

So suddenly, without having ever used needle-and-thread?

Do you know something of the countryside in those days? I not only worked the wood, repaired and built the tools, but I already sewed shoes at home, to fix them”. With golden hands like that, great intelligence and determination, Mr. Basilio learns how to do everything of the shoes, from cutting to finishing, even the laces: oh yes "because a true cobbler should be able to take a shoe, undo and redo it, eventually turning the skin, without damaging anything", he says. Testella is so good that to Guardiani he starts teach young apprentices who join the company. In 1964, for health reasons, he starts to work alone; he manufactures his own shoes and tools (which also manufactures for some of his cobbler friends), he began to teach additional courses in the vocational school of Montegranaro and, with the fame he hes acquired, he open his shop “il Maggiolini” and many great personalities of yesterday and today went to him to learn the trade: Campanile, Santoni, Lattanzi, Speranzoni, Artioli..... At Lattanzi he has also organized the departments of the manufacture by hand, then prepared the samples of the “Church's”, after the company's acquisition by Prada. Today, young and less young people go to learn the trade to him, among whom a musician from Castiglione del Lago and a lawyer from Macerata. “They were not wrong with their vocation, they are shoes lovers and curious to see how to make them; they want to enjoy using their hands, even if at the beginning they got hurt using tools which were different from the pen and the trumpet”.

They will become your competitors?
Even if he is not looking at me I know he’s smiling “I’m pleased to have taught them”. Meanwhile he made shoes for Ciampi, Cuccia, Fede and many others but he can’t remember their names, because they are Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Americans,… “How can you remember?” Someone near suggests Clinton, The Prince of Jordan, Prince Charles’ cousin, Putin, but he shrug his shoulders to say that he has nothing to add.

Do you never use a machine? “Do you see a machine here?” he burst. In fact there isn’t. “I know the machines and I know how to use them, because you need to know how to do the things to teach them; I can use them well because I can do the same work with my hands. Today, instead, who works with a machine, is lost without it, because he can’t work by hand; so, they often make holes for the feet instead of shoes!” I grasp the idea of holes for the feet but he insists: “do you know what the holes for the feet are? They are the ones where, in the country, you let the trunks fall to cut them, firstly on one side and then on the other side in another hole, and so on. A temporary storage, not a home. The shoes must live with the foot and for the foot; they must follow the irregularity of the foot, because the right and the left are different, so it is necessary to manufacture them in a certain way, using good materials and leathers and with a lot of passion. “How is your tarsus?” I must confess I that don’t know. So it comes out that the operations to make the shoes are 52 (first of all there are the work of the cutter and the assembler) for more than 30 hours of work: yesterday one person was doing everything, today there are 52 companies each one specialized in a single operation, which means "to throw away the quality".

lab And then there are the leathers, which are capital to ensure that the foot is not forced into unnatural positions. About leathers, there are the calf, the crocodile, the deer and so on, but the most valuable leather in the world "is the rump of the horse, that is the skin of the inside part of the hind legs, which goes from the groin to the stifle "(actually its terms are much more colorful).

As we speak, a gray kitten, complete with collar and bell, turns as a mistress on the tools, under the small table, gets up and down everywhere as for a regular tour of inspection, until it stops to sniff my shoes; it looks at me with one ear low and one high, one eye half closed, showing a certain disappointment, as if it was disillusioned. "Look at your shoes – sais Testella -, the leather is not the best and then they are badly treated."

Et voila, in a dual, simultaneous stroke, a cat and Basilio Vasì from Montegranaro, destroyed my certainties on the anglo-saxon shoes and my method of shoe care, learned from Lord Brummel.

"Give me!", King Basilio orders. I take off my shoes with a certain delay; he takes them, watch them closely and shakes his head. "It takes virgin beeswax he presses and with a bread of wax that looks like Marseilles soap, he rubs the tip and the spur of my shoe, of which I do not write the brand for modesty, then an old flannel shirt and finally elbow grease!". He start a series of paths back and forth on my holes for the feet, that within a few seconds become as when they were new. Today’s polishes ruin the leather, they dry them out, while the wax nourishes it. Or you can use a mid kiwis (yes, the fruit from New Zealand), spread with a piece of cloth. To make them waterproof instead you need the suet: "Do you know what is suet?" "Of course I do, say and add, of pig, horse...." "but the one of the pig before the salting, otherwise it stinks – he emphasizes and adds, suddenly switching to the second person: Are you a farmer that you know what suet is?" Poet and peasant, who knows. Perhaps the second more than the first.

How much are a pair of shoes made by you? "I do not know, but it is certain that the shoes you pay a lot last more, also because you have more care of them, you are more careful not to walk in the puddles, you always clean them and so on."

You are still working: when do you think you will stop? "I enjoy working and even teaching, then as long as people came and ask after me, as long as I am surrounded by friends, why should I stop? The days are long, and there is time to die, and when I will be dead in my workshop they will make a museum. "

It 's more difficult to teach today or yesterday?"In my days it was interesting to learn because it was a way to emerge (is said learn an art and put it aside). Today it is more difficult to teach because the world is different, young people say: (is too much trouble, I do not care) and they just want the money in no time; everything has changed and there is no more the passion to learn and pass on ".

When you were young did you think about becoming a Master? "Yes, because since I was a boy, I realized that I was doing the finest tools and then thought I could become somebody."

handmade I remember an anecdote of Napoleon Bonaparte. He says that when he arrived in Milan in 1796 after having chased the Austrians and needing a pair of boots, he asked to some Anselmo Rocchetti, the most famous shoemaker in Milan, to whom, however, he reproached the high art of French shoemakers. The day of delivery, Rocchetti shows Napoleon just one boot that the future Emperor test with hesitation: it fits perfectly. To the question "Where is the other?" Rocchetti responds: "Ask for it Paris, so he can make the comparison".

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