A path sculpted in time
Many writers and documents have dealt with the various typologies of the Belluno stone through the centuries. Among them the most notable and interesting examples are Lucio Doglioni and Angelo Guarnieri, because of the way they treat the subject and because of quality of information.
Above: Castellavazzo stone portal with bosses bearing the Bishop Andrich’s coat of arms; Belluno Cathedral, northern façade.
In the Middle Age and in the subsequent period, Roman remains were reused for new buildings and for restructuring old ones to give them importance and austerity by using the antique fragments. Belluno stone experienced its golden era under the Venetian Republic, which exploited the territory as a basin for raw materials, as the Romans had done before. The Republic also had more magnificent trading ideas: interest in Belluno stones was due to construction operations spread throughout the Republic and in effect not only do we find stones from Castellavazzo, La Secca, Losego and Cugnan locally, but also in Venice and in other towns of the Stato da Terra (the mainland) in pavements and floors in palaces and churches, arches, capitals, architraves and windowsills. The reason these stones were so widespread is simple and ingenious: the quarried material was easily transported to the Piave River and loaded on rafts in the ports along the river and so it easily reached the Plain and then the Lagoon. Between the 15th and the 18th century the Castellavazzo stone became prestigious because of its chromatic varieties which combined red and grey, as you can see in S. Stefano Church in Belluno, by the master stonemason Giorgio da Como. The stone was also appreciated for its mechanical strength and resistance to atmospheric agents, which made it possible for it to be used for important outdoor architectonic operations: column bases, corbels and shaped plates of the Rettori Palace in Belluno; the 16th-century rebuilding of Porta Dojona; the 18th-century construction of the cathedral’s bell tower designed by architect Filippo Juvarra. The Castellavazzo stone was also appreciated for its aesthetic potentiality: different tones and tricks of the light were obtained by various finishes, like polishing, chiselling, bush-hammering, rough-hewing.
The 17th century saw the development of the regulations on stones and quarries with the institution, in 1665, of the Deputati sopra le Miniere (Deputees on Mines) by the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of the Ten). This was a board of magistrates supervising management and control of every subsoil product as well as of furnaces for lime, bricks and crockery production. This raw material was state owned and its quarrying was legalized by way of investitures conferred by the Deputati and payment of the decima minerale, a tax on the raw material. In Belluno, the Venetian government introduced the partiti instrument, that is, tenders for the collection of the decima given to private functionaries appointed by the Deputati who also had to ensure that the work went on as expected. The link between mines and stones is shown by Agordo and the Valle Imperina, site worked by the Crotta family since the second half of the 17th century.
At the beginning of this paper, we had already analysed the 19th-century testimonies on the importance of such stones, also testified by the 1891 dossier Statistica industriale. Notizie sulle condizioni industriali della Provincia di Belluno5 by the Agriculture Ministry, which lists 61 quarries on the territory of 18 Municipalities. These employed 571 qualified workers, who maintained an ancient tradition which right in that period between the 19th and the 20th century was about to go through a technological change: manual work was being substituted by explosive and automatized equipment.
The 20th century saw a change and somehow a decline. The first post-war period was characterized by the formation of consumer and worker cooperatives, growing out of associations of bricklayers and stonecutters. Two examples are the Società Anonima Cooperativa (Anonymous Cooperative Society), founded by Bolzano Bellunese sandstone quarrymen and stonecutters “to provide for material and moral wellbeing, to redeem all the existent quarries in the area, to exploit and directly manage them”; and the cooperative worker society La Libertà (Freedom) which started quarrying the Dolomite stone in Maseròz (Cencenighe Agordino) by way of automatizing stone transportation via a cableway which carried the rocks downstream. These cooperatives soon became craft leagues, and the workers’ movement became organized into more advanced and more motivated unions. One example: the stonecutters and workers in Soccher started a demonstration for their working conditions in September and October 1922, when they were working on the railway bridge in Cadola, when the opening of such way between Vittorio Veneto and Ponte nelle Alpi could redevelop the local stone trade, exploiting a new form of transport different from river and road transportation.
A number of quarries ended their activity in the first quarter of the 20th century: Losego quarry was then reopened after the Second World War, but only the Ribe site, to quarry stone for house building. Nevertheless, the secular tradition did not get lost: Losego stonecutters were employed in other places, in quarries as well as construction sites. During the Fascist era, according to the principle of autocracy and appreciation of tradition, local activities were redeveloped and stone quarries and furnaces in Valbelluna were given new importance. For example, Soccher and La Secca stones were used for works in the hydroelectric system of Santa Croce Lake and in the hydroelectric plant in Fadalto, which was made of stones from Soccher and from the Mount Dolada slopes, near Soverzene. During the war a number of local firms were classified as “war-material Producer”, for example Fant in Bolzano Bellunese which supplied ILVA and ANSALDO – steelworks producing weaponry, cannons and panzers – with grindstones. In the period following the Second World War, stonecutters associated again: the most important action was the founding of the Cooperativa scalpellini e cementisti del Piave (Piave’s stonecutter and cement mixer cooperative) on February, 13th 1957.
Their aim was to quarry and work every kind of marble and accept any order the members could carry out. However, this did not lead to the results hoped for. Contradiction characterised this period: on one hand, people wanted to abandon the past and modernize the stone industry, on the other hand enterprises were born which succeeded in giving new value to the tradition and to the local products.
One example: Fant firm in Libano grew so much that it employed 150 workers who made grindstones for mechanical workshops, agricultural consortia, hardware stores, blacksmiths, steelworks, knife factories and became important on foreign markets from the Czech Republic to Sweden, Iran, Iraq and Egypt for crystal processing. The activity ceased in 1963 because artificial grindstones were becoming competitive and because of danger in extracting raw materials. Another example: Rosei Sora Losego quarry opened in 1959 thanks to the Prest brothers, whose family had owned the land since the second half of the 19th century. The brothers stood out for diligence, professionalism and competence. They supplied the Fadalto Alto furnace which produced lime, in a boom period for the construction industry.
The history of stone in Belluno does not end here: some “heroes” are keeping going, despite difficulties and internal and foreign competition and the current economic trend. In the next sections we are going to analyse these subjects and the characteristics of the stones in depth.