Elba

Middle Ages at work

It’s a cold morning of the end of october and the air is already chilly, almost wintry. The northern wind clears the sky and the sight reaches the horizon and meets the islands of Montecristo and Elba.

Above our heads an ancient medieval fortress, mighty and lonely.

 

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What’s it thinking about us? About this few people who are walking up on the paths in the wood, willing to build up a house travelling again over the gestures and knowledge of that thousand-year-old humanity who erected the Fortress of San Silvestro.

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These and many other thoughts come into my mind. Emotions are strong and a dream has become true. I’m not feeling cold anymore. I hear voices from a distance, it’s Dario, the master builder, the guardian of “knowledge”. He tells me about the lime to put out, firstly in the morning, carefully, and he reminds me of how, in his childhood, he started working with his father…and how a construction site of his times was not so different from our medieval one.

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My dream. After passing 15 years digging and studying medieval architectures of towers, palaces, churches and castles all around Tuscany, after a PhD and many projects abroad, eventually theory becomes practice. The idea of building a house in the way they did in the Middle-Age is really taking place.
The project is called “Medioevo in corso” and is born from a collaboration between the co-op Coopera, in which I take part, and the company Parchi Val di Cornia, that has been managing greatly a web of Museums, Archaeological and Naturalistic Parks in the Populonia promontory area, in the province of Livorno, for more than 20 years.

Our construction site is at the feet of the fortress, right outside the building circuit, and we are three working on it. Dario, the hand and the head. A huge man, shadowy..but just on the surface, a life dedicated to work, today the custodian of an endangered knowledge that should be kept alive.
Then comes me, Alessandro, archaeologist specialized in medieval architecture, apprentice and scientific project consultant, as well as object of Dario’s continuous jokes….all because of my urge to write notes and take photographs of things he thinks the most insignificant. As a rule, there’s also a third assistant who shares with us the burdens of the workday.

But why building a house in the Middle Age?” This is the question I hear most of the times. The possible answers are many. The ripercussions of the project vary from the regard to the communication of the archaeological data, to the scientific research and the archaeological restoration. The hard daily life of the construction site, the meticulous reconstruction of all the operations linked to it allow to answer to a series of questions so well, that the only study won’t have done it. Only to this day, I have a pretty clear idea of all the necessary resources (stone, lime, water, wood) to build a house, and now I can suppose an evaluation not too far from reality, for the building of an entire castle.

Our structure follows the model of the houses of the castle that date back to the XII century reconstruction: a one-floor house, 6 x 4 m, with a pitched roof, covered in sheets of stone.
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As though in a “workshop”, I learn all the essential steps to “put out” the lime, that is to turn it into slaked lime to be kneaded with water and sand in a “mixer”, built on the model of that brought to light during the dig of the Donoratico castle (Castagneto Carducci – LI). They are tanks dug in the ground where the lime could be kneaded in a continuous cycle with a wooden machine, avoiding the heavy manual operations. Structures like these date back to a period between VIII and X century and the few examples found in Europe always correspond to construction sites linked to important monasteries or royal palaces, places where highly specialized workforces circulated.

 

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…I learn to square a stone voussoir with chisel and mallet, I learn to wall up just with plumb line and level, but every evening the strain is rewarded by a wall, growing in its height, that will be found there by my future colleagues even in a hundred years.

 

07

 

I learn to build a wooden scaffolding and a roof made of sheets of slate.

 

 

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I learn that the transmission of knowledge is a path that arises from the observation of the gestures, from the imitation of them, and I understand the meaning of “work-shadowing”.

 

A medieval construction site is a challenge against time, it’s a game with eternity. Just now I manage to understand it and will be able to pass it down.