Wood carving in South Tyrol – Italy’s hidden artisans

Words: Neil Geraghty

The woodcarving valleys of Italy’s South Tyrol region are home to a wealth of vibrant artstic talent.

“If Michelangelo had a 3D scanner I’m sure he would have used it”, says Aron Demetz, an internationally acclaimed wood sculptor. We’re staring at a computer screen upon which he’s rotating a human figure, slowly scrutinising it from all angles. The figure is actually a scan of one of his existing sculptures and he’s planning to alter its surface using the latest robotic technology.


“It’s important to experiment with contemporary techniques and for me this technology is just another tool”, he explains. “You can’t make the curly bits without it”, he adds enigmatically.

I’ve got an inkling of what he means. We’ve just visited his atelier in Pontives an alpine village strung out along the Val Gardena in the heart of the Italian Dolomites. From the windows of the vast circular structure, bright sun beams flood in and illuminate a host of hauntingly beautiful human figures, their surfaces chiselled, etched and burnt into an extraordinary array of patinas. My gaze is drawn to a figure of a slender woman whose torso and bald head is covered in luminescent rivulets of hardened resin.

“When lightening strikes a tree the wound produces resin which saves the tree and gives it new life”, Aron explains.

The woman’s face bears an uncanny resemblance to the androgynous wooden statuettes of Tutankhamen found in his tomb and Aron’s work is infused with the same musings on life, death, disease and rebirth that ancient Egyptian artists would have been totally familiar with.

We stop at another carving of a woman made from sandy coloured maple wood. Her back is smoothed to an almost porcelain like finish but her front and face is finely shredded into swirling patterns. These are the curly bits that Aron was referring to which he creates using a robotic lathe linked to the 3D computer. The effect is mesmerising and beautifully encapsulates both the fragility and durability of the human spirit.

The high valleys of the Italian South Tyrol region have a long tradition of wood carving. The early settlers were mostly farmers and during the snowbound winter months took to supplementing their income by carving religious statues for churches. This developed into a profitable business which in its 19th Century heyday employed thousands of local villagers. In the past few years, globalization and the decline of the church have put pressure on the industry but several factories survive and many artists from the wood carving valleys are thriving on the international stage.

A real sense of community exists amongst these artists and from Aron’s studio we cross the road to Bernardi’s Wood Art studio, a producer of religious statues, Christmas crib characters and bespoke wood carvings. Here Aron is always welcome to use the company’s cutting edge technology but amidst the spicy smell of wood shavings an older tradition persists. In one of the studios we pass a sculptor who is busily tapping his chisel on the cloak of a life sized lime wood carving of St Joseph. Nearby, an apprentice from an art school looks on and it’s in these studios that many young local artists perfect their wood carving skills.

From Pontives I drive further up the Val Gardena to Ortisei, a picture perfect Tyrolean town of onion-domed churches and traditional wood framed houses. There I join Aron in one of his favourite restaurants, Snetonstube, a family run business that oozes cosy Alpine charm. As we sit enjoying bowls of hearty pumpkin soup a group of teachers arrive on their lunch break speaking a strange expressive language that sounds like Portuguese, Spanish and Italian all rolled into one. They are Ladin speakers, part of a 20,000 strong community that still speaks a dialect of colloquial Latin 1,500 years after the demise of the Western Roman Empire.

Above the rooftops of Ortesei we catch tantalizing glimpses of the snow capped Dolomites and after lunch Aron suggests taking a cable car up to the skiing pistes for a late afternoon stroll. It’s a great idea and when we walk out of the cable car station, I’m blown away by the magnificent view. At the far end of an undulating plateau of verdant pastures, a range of limestone mountains swoops upwards, its crest fractured into dozens of icy fingers sparkling in the winter sunshine.

The skiing season is due to start but due to the exceptionally mild autumn not a flake of snow has fallen. In the distance we spot plumes of white snow gushing out from over 100 snow machines that are working flat out to prepare the pistes. As we walk down a slope of crunchy man made snow I ask Aron whether he finds inspiration in this magical landscape.

“It’s not a place to be creative,” he replies. “It’s a place where you can clear your head and just enjoy the immensity of it”.

We arrive back in Ortesei after dark and there’s a palpable sense of excitement on the streets. It’s December 6th, St Nicholas’ day when towns throughout the Alps become a riot of fun as gangs of Krampus (young men dressed as horned devils) run through the streets chasing children. Their faces and arms are covered in greasy black make up and the object of these chases is to blacken their victims’ faces.

In reality nobody is safe and you’d be wise to leg it when you hear them approaching. With a rattle of cowbells and piercing cries they suddenly run into the main square and pandemonium breaks loose. Some screaming kids bolt to safety in a nearby cafe but it’s too late for a couple of teenage girls who cower in a doorway as their faces are smeared by the Krampus’ black hands. It all ends in smiles though as the girls whip out their smart phones with the grinning Krampus standing behind them, capturing the perfect Instagram moment.

The following morning I head westwards to the Val d’Ultimo, another picture perfect valley known for its carpentry tradition. At Ultner Brot, a charming family run organic bakery I meet Martino Gamper, an internationally renowned designer noted for his eclectic combinations of unusual materials, vivid colour schemes and reworking of salvaged furniture. He’s just flown in from his London home to check up on a commission that is being crafted by Mairhofer a nearby carpentry company. A great believer in supporting local craftsmanship he tells me of his concerns about globalization.

“In Italy, you’ve always had clusters of specific industries where you could easily draw upon local expertise. These industries have a tradition of mentoring local designers and encouraging them to express individual ideas. With globalization, this local craftsmanship is in danger of disappearing”

We drive further up the valley to the pretty village of Proves where by a bubbling stream we visit the Mairhofer atelier. A family run company that originally manufactured doors and windows for agricultural companies, Mairhofer now crafts bespoke interior fittings for some of the world’s most exclusive clients. Some seventy-six apprentices have passed through its doors and inside is a hive of activity as young carpenters pore diligently over exquisitely crafted furniture, including a striking harlequin veneered table commissioned by one of Martino’s New York clients.

In the early evening, I meet up again with Martino in Merano where we wander through the Christmas market and enjoy mugs of steaming glühwein. I stop at a hut and watch with fascination as an elderly lady sitting behind a roaring flame blows a spindle of molten glass into an exquisite Christmas tree bauble. At another hut a man wearing a jaunty feathered hat adds the finishing touches to a delightful carving of a miniature Tyrolean house. Everywhere I look, the market is a hive of creativity and seems to encapsulate the artistic spirit that pervades these beautiful Alpine valleys.

Words: Neil Geraghty

For more information on the South Tyrol region please visit www.suedtirol.info/en

Aron Demetz and Martino Gemper are both members of the Wanderer Collective, an international community of curated artists and creative professionals who hail from South Tyrol. For more information on the members and their work please visit www.wanderersouthtrol.com


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