The Stone of Moltrasio

January seems like a very long time ago, with remarkable events since globally, suffice to say that you ‘could not write it.’  Yet, in January on the western shore of Lake Como we rebuilt ancient dry stone terraces with a group of wonderful people.  We admired the excellent conservation practices of the Italians who treat their heritage buildings with respect and skill.

(Patrick Hickey stonemason & conservator from Wexford)

Our hosts invited us to the port town of Moltrasio, famous for its stone, where a trail has been opened by the Italian Alpine Club; Sentee di Sort. It climbs steeply above the town past broken terraces.

Huge slabs on the trail betray the past quarrying industry here. Dense and uniform in its stratification, and very useful for building, castles, walls and towers of the city of Como were built with this limestone.

(Photo by Paolo Andreani: Pat and myself )

Our guide is local photographer Paolo Andreani who knows the area like the back of his hand.  Now abandoned, the quarries between Moltrasio and Carate Urio are documented to have been worked since 917 AD, but probably have ancient origins. A copper axe from 2000 BC was found here.

(Paolo Andreani at the entrance of a hillside hut)

Stone played a decisive role in the economy of the region since the C14th. ”Piode” or thin slabs were quarried for roof coverings, as well as ashlars of calibrated size, and blocks prized by sculptors.

The most intense exploitation of the quarries was from the early 1800s until their decline after WW2. As we climb higher the quarry structures loom taller.

Mighty walls containing huge amounts of stone..

A network of passages..

(photo by Paolo Andreani)

emerge into even more extensive works of debris containment

Up here at approximately 270m

an astonishing complex of towers and retaining walls overlook Lake Como

This is the quarry face.  An old gin pole, guy ropes still taut in places, was used to move loads laterally, controlled by a pulley. We notice a rusty gearbox and hood, beneath which is an old Moto Guzzi motorbike, used to power the operation.

Manufactured on the other side of the lake ‘over there’ where the bikes are still in production today.

(Stonemasons Serena and Gabriele)

Stone was extracted by traditional peg and feather method: ”puntata”.  Saw and wire were also used, whereby cuts were made in blocks with a metal cable in continuous movement.  When explosives came in, holes of up to 10 meters deep were drilled, to hold it.

The tunnels were the route to haul stone from the quarry face through the debris buildings. This was done by sledge, pulled by mules and donkeys, or by the men themselves.

Working conditions for “picapréda” (stonemasons) were dangerous and harsh, in blistering heat and frosts of winter.  After WW2 there was a decline in demand for stone, and sadly a lack of labour due to death and emigration. What remains here is the legacy of a people who struggled to progress their lives.

Going down is hard to keep a secure footing. Transport of stone must have been tight work, with men pulling on ropes secured to the sledge to keep gravity in check.

Scars from the sledge runners remain.(Photo by Paolo Andreani)

When they reached the little streets of Moltrasio below

the stone was shipped by gondola to ports in Como and further afield.


11 thoughts on “The Stone of Moltrasio

  1. Your photo essays continue to astound. What magnificent history is contained in that stone work,slanted against the steep hillsides and those towers! And tunnels!
    No wonder many people look at works of the past and think “There must have been giants on the Earth in days gone by”.
    I’m still too overwhelmed to write as the piece deserves – I shall have come back and look at this again, after a suitable reassessment.
    And for you to have been there just as the modern world began to shut down – you could write a novel just comparing the evidence of the long gone past, the recent blink of an eye and what might be in the Future… if any.
    Completely brilliant & beguiling.

    1. Too kind, thank you. A place like this quarry, this landscape, so epic in its scale, both physically, historically & culturally, always feels daunting; can only make a stab at doing it justice. To really be there was something else.

  2. Perhaps the cultural and social “reset” created by the pandemic will turn minds back to the natural, the local, the sustainable. Unlike man-made building materials stone never becomes rubbish. Rubble is form waiting to be brought into function. Yet again thank you Louise for yet another light-bringing “window.”

    1. Thanks Marie, for this observation and hopeful perspective. With so much potential for change at the moment, I could not agree more. Re man-made shoddy materials, they can never hold a candle to what nature has provided.

    1. Emma thanks, despite all my pics being over exposed due to unchecked camera phone settings, makes the atmosphere look harsher than it was, bleached out, and not easy to fix afterwards, better if they were underexposed. I’m grateful for Paolo Pedreani’s photos!

      1. Ah, yes, I thought it look rather chilly, that must have been it. As you say, fixing under exposure is easier than over exposure. Still, it looked very beuatiful there.

  3. Thank you Louise, I really enjoyed your commentary. Grounded and hearty work. I hope you enjoyed your time abroad.

    It ain’t been easy since 2020 unfolded, all seems a low life Chineese take over in all walks of life.

    I have decided that happiness derives itself by following one’s passions to the end.

    Lime and stone and wood are our shared passions.

    I would buy the school masters house at mountacharles house if I could be convinced that living in it would not resurrect a bad history and result in me being in the firing line from any fallout of an so called Englishman living in it. These days, it’s all about perception and no time to bond or give respect to others. Dog eat dog all the time.

    I put many hours of hard research into setting the project up and ensuring you would oversee all work, and with Eugine as our leader, we would have had a good laugh along the way. Hardship, yes. Happiness, yes. Wet, yes.

    With my work rate, The building would have been restored, and above all, to Irish standards, head and shoulders above the rest.

    So all ground work was in place, but I had a cloud of uncertainty over me which I could not resolve. Maybe I was being too defensive in a country and people who I bearly knew at the time.things are very expensive in Ireland.

    It would have suited us all to add to our environment through a considered rennovation.

    Iam very Irish and my wife is Indian, so we would have had a positive impact on the area socially.

    Are very rare people, who also have passions for protecting nature at heart, understanding that it is in severe decline yet it remains silent in its decline. So powerful indeed she is.

    Regards jason

    1. Hello Jason it is good to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughts on this ‘special’ time it certainly tops among the remarkable episodes in our lifetime, and surely suffering as a consequence all over the world most of which we are cushioned from here. You’re still seeking a house and land to love and life in rural areas becomes more ever more precarious, no matter which country with city centric economies, the west of this island pushed closer to the edge, but I hear the same stories from Scotland and such places, unemployment and emigration. We need to stay local and spend local, nurture our local food production back to life, as well as the crumbling ruins, if rural communities are to survive long term outside of becoming playgrounds for tourists. No doubt in my mind wherever you land you shall make a positive impact. This area is more cosmopolitan than you might first imagine, with lots of different breeds and creeds living peacefully and lucky we are to have those folk, bringing their gifts and talents. There are a few other old houses getting TLC which is brilliant to see, as folk have more time now to engage in a bit of conservation. Next time you come over (when its safe to do so etc) be sure to look me up! Hang in there and keep the lime mixes fresh!

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