Bergamasco knife

Bergamasco knife from Brembana Valley

Bergamasco, that simply means “from Bergamo”, referred to the town in the center of Lombardy region, is a knife once produced in Brembana valley. Its right name should be for this reason “Coltello della Val Brembana” (knife from Brembana Valley), but in the last decades, this model has always been called Bergamasco, so that the name and the knife are now closely associated.
Bergamo knife has a solid reputation among knife collectors, due to its history and its shapes that unite elegance with sturdiness.

The knife is in the family of the alpine models, designed for everyday job, in particular for the needs of the shepherds, or bergamì in local dialect. Alpine work knives usually have a wooden handle (mainly boxwood and dogwood but even beech tree from about 1950 onwords and more recently other species), a metal band to reinforce the pivot area and to assure a support to the backsrop of the blade, in the open position. The blades often have a curved edge. The knives in their overall form result sturdy and usually present an harmonious alternation between straight and curved sections. This often allows to distinguish the alpine knives from those from Tuscany, another area where wood was widely used to make monolithic handles and in which straight forms prevale.

Bergamo knife
A beautiful example of old Bergamasco knife from the forge of Santo Galizzi, in San Giovanni Bianco (open cm 25)

Bergamasco knife has many elements in common with another Alpine knife: The bellunese, with wich it’s sometimes confused. Shepherds’ lives were semi-nomadic and there is nothing strange in the contaminations between models of the same geographical area

We share below, with the English translation and some minor adaptations suitable for our purposes, a beautiful article by Piergiorgio Mazzocchi, published in the magazine “Caccia in Val Brembana – August 2005 – Year IX – No. 25”. A passionate and in-depth journey to discover the different versions of this knife.

In the valleys of Bergamo area, to an economy based on poor mountain agriculture, an artisan activity of wood and iron has always been added, to supplement the revenue and to cover the dead times given by the seasonal breaks and also given the availability of raw materials like timber, iron and the abundance of water to be exploited as a driving force. Especially in the winter it was dedicated to the construction of objects supporting agriculture or for the home. Among the objects of daily use, indispensable for those who work in the mountain pastures, in the woods, or for those who dedicated themselves to hunting, was the pocket knife.

That much-loved knife to be almost a cult object by some, customizing it with traditional patterned carvings and the owner’s name. Of the very rich production of white weapons in the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century, arms in auction as halberds, falcioni, ronconi, partigiane, produced in Zorzone and Oltre il Colle, blades and swords produced in Gromo, where they produced very fine swords and rough blades to be exported (“traggonsi lame grezze da Gromo, Gandolì et Colaret” – Raw blades arrive from Gromo, Gandolì and Colaret) cites a document of the seventeenth century, kept in the Queriniana library of Brescia), up to the butcher knives produced in Clusone, exported and appreciated in England at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was not until the middle of that century that the production of knitting farm implements and the small local production of pocket knives. In our valleys, already since Roman times, and perhaps even before, we extracted the iron, which was worked on the spot, and it is thanks to the presence of iron-rich ore that had developed the production of white weapons that began to fall with the advent of firearms.

The bergamasco knife is an artifact exclusively for work or daily use, far from the models and sizes of other Italian knives that already from the first glance make it clear that they were certainly not made to cut a piece of bergna (dry meat) or cheese. However, precisely because of daily use and personal object reached, thanks also to the skill, the talent and in some cases to the artistic taste of the cutler, a form and a model that has earned, on the book “Knives of Italy” by Giancarlo Baronti this beautiful recognition “… one of the most beautiful Italian knives, the Bergamo knife, which with the mobility of its simple lines, the proportionate lightness and together the power of its meditated forms can immediately give the sense of aesthetic perfection and functional rigor “.

The Basic models of Bergamasco knife

The Bergamasco knife should be better defined, as there are different models due to the places of production, models dictated also by the use for which it was intended. In this way two main models are formed: Val Brembana model and Val Seriana model (that we will see in another article). The first is the classic Bergamasco, with the curved blade, suitable for working a piece of wood, cheese shapes, skinning, building bows. It comes with a curved thread, a hump on the opposite side, close to the metal rig, which facilitates the grip because it allows you to rest your thumb. From the hump onwards, more or less marked according to the taste of the cutler, there is a curve that gives the shape of a crescent. The handle is usually made of boxwood, sometimes of dogwood. The production of the sixties and seventies sees it in beech up to the last in cherry and walnut; there are however rare exceptions, but tasty examples of bovine horn (Foppolo and Pizzino). Even the handle has a very particular shape: it is slightly curved to contain the blade and ends, at the heel, with an elegant protuberance that improves grip, today we would call it an anatomical shape. The ring, as well as aesthetic value serves to better fix the blade, in the oldest it is made of iron, now it is made of brass. There is no block for the blade in the open position and this is due to the fact that, knives with blade locks were part of the forbidden models. The forms appear to us already quite defined in the frescoes of the fifteenth century, present on our territory, and also in some paintings of the following century. The first knives however had a fixed trunk. The lockable knife, even if known, was rarer and only later due to the restrictions imposed, for security reasons, came to form the current lockable form. In this regard it is possible to see in the Museo della Valle, of Zogno, an Austrian ordinance of 1830, which establishes the shape and size of the permitted knives and the penalties for those who carried forbidden models.

Here is one of the oldest fixed blade models. The largest blade is probably the oldest found to date. The second one was never mounted on the handle, it remained an unfinished one. The blade of the whole knife can be traced back in the years at the turn of the XVI-XVII centuries. It is mounted on a chamois horn, probably after the time of the blade.

The two hand Bergamasco knife

The blades were formerly made from old files, crossbows of wagons and even the shank of the scythe when it had reached the limit of its use, however, even in fairly recent times there were cutlers who made the metal in place, for example in Mezzoldo where Carlo Molinari, 1880 – 1944, extracted the metal in a location near the current Baita bar. He prepared and massed the ore in a pile of wood and when the fire was exhausted, he brought down the metal blocks that had formed with the heat, which was then purified with hammering. This technique was most likely used in other areas, in periods of scarcity of material and certainly it is what remained of the knowledge of the techniques used in antiquity to obtain the metal that was worked in our valleys. Molinari was a woodman in the winter and in the winter he built custom knives, he owned a small forge, without hammer, he preferred to use file steel, in the absence of this if he self-produced it. He also built very large models for working wood (they are in fact challenged like a two-handed knife), his knives, among the old ones, are the largest: they arrived, open, up to 36 centimeters, like a piece in my possession, against the 31 centimeters of the Cassiglio model. In Mezzoldo, a mallet, a sawmill and a mill were set up in the village of Mezzuggio until 1925, located at different levels in the same house to better exploit the fall of the water. Unfortunately the last flood took away everything … More on, towards the San Marco Pass, more or less in the area already mentioned, there was a foundry. So everything was worked on site!

The most famous cutler in the valley is Paolo Anovazzi from Valtorta who died in the 1980s, he was also the last of the old generation. He used a lot of blades made out of files, boxwood for the handle, he signed the blades with the APV punch (Anovazzi Paolo Valtorta), he owned a small forge, without hammer and his father was a cutler. In Valtorta there was also a strong tradition in the production of nails, to which several families were dedicated in winter

Knives from scythe blades

Another very famous family in the valley was Belotti from Camerata Cornello who produced not only pocket knives, but also kitchen pieces, butchers and agricultural irons. The last production of knives was not signed (there are very old models with the punch B, but it is not clear that they are); however, their models are very recognizable because they had the habit of working the handle, always in boxwood, with a pistol knurling and even if others occasionally used it, this remained their peculiarity. They used old files, crossbows, and perhaps the only ones to recycle the scythe blade, which was supplied by the same applicant.
The Belotti were also very skilled in forging mine irons with a very thorough knowledge also on the ore to be extracted and based on the quality of this forged, after analyzing the stone, an iron with hardening appropriate to this using the technique of fer assalat: on a soft blade was applied on the wire, by boiling, a thinner sheet of hard steel, a technique known and applied also by the Celts and precedes the technique of layers or damascus steel.

Even in Zorzone, and it is natural given the age-old tradition of blade production, and work in the mine, it was active until the Seventies, eighties of the last century, Angelo Palazzi called Pustì. He built the classic model of the Brembana valley to order and sometimes used the knurling like the Belotti, probably at the express request of the client. In Carona there were knits, forges, sawmill and mill (now at the bottom of the artificial lake) where the metal extracted from the Argarga was probably worked. Until the seventies Giuseppe Riceputi 1888- 1972 was active, profession miller and blacksmith. He built knives especially for bergamì, however, to order. GR punch with the sign of the very elegant nail that recalls a mythological animal, perhaps a crocodile. Even the son Fiorino Riceputi (1913-1973) was a knife manufacturer, the family nickname was the Ferdinancc). The nephew who told us the story still has all the equipment and does not know if there were other cutlers. However I have three knives with the BC CARONA punch, which suggests that in the forges a good number of knives were worked to be sent to markets or fairs, and that there were other cutlers. Even the Carona knife has a boxwood handle and the steel quality is very high.

The most uknown and the most beautiful too is the knife from Foppolo

The most unknown knife, but without a doubt the best quality steel (perhaps blades of Carona), and construction skills in addition to artistic taste is that forged in Foppolo where they were active until about seventy years ago the Papetti, Antonio, Luigi and Sandro. Professionally Bergamì, they owned a small forge where in the winter they built knives and small tools to order. They were also very good at sculpting the boxwood handle with mythical animals as can be seen from the image we propose:

One of the very rare examples of bovine horn handle comes from this family, the other is from a certain Vitali, who lived at the beginning of the last century in Pizzino (Taleggio) where he made the transhumant bergamì between Pizzino in summer and the Milanese low in winter. He built knives in bovine horn, embellished with brass inlays using the nail technique: practically he made drawings obtained with a kind of punctuation made with brass nails with an excellent aesthetic result. He probably bought the blades.
High knives were produced in the Acquada area (Zogno), but it is not possible to know more about it for the moment, as was the case with Cassiglio.

Also in Lenna, near the sanctuary of the Madonna della Coltura, they probably produced Rinaldo Paganoni and Vittore Calvi knives.
The two families owned mill, mallet and forge. Not far away, in the locality of Miniera, there was actually a mine owned by the Calvi family. That knives were built here is something more than a guess, because some shepherds (the Cler) remembered knives from that area.
Even in the Imagna valley, up until the fifties of the last century, kitchen knives were made in large numbers, and from pocket to order (especially folding hooks), in Rota Dentro by the Moscheni family (i Cinqui) who owned a mallet on the Imagna torrent .
In the Clanezzo mallet where the Personeni family has worked since the beginning of the last century no pocket knives were produced, on the other hand they were forged in large numbers of kitchen knives until the Sixties.

Production today is… in Premana, Lecco province

If you dig in history you can find a production of Valle Brembana knives in every village of the upper valley, knives that were exported to France by our emigrants, especially by woodsmen and charcoal burners since the 1800s, and in number of rather high pieces. With the disappearance of the last knife-makers, we ran the risk of losing the tradition of our knife; however, the attachment and habit of those forms and lines by our people made sure that the production was carried out by the Premana knife makers. The Bergamasco knife was not born in Premana, however, given the request of the market and retailers (many knives were produced for shops with the punch bearing the last name of the retailer, so it may happen to see the same knives with different signatures), the production continues today, even if the quality of the blades leaves something to be desired compared to the local production. However, the merits of the Premanese people to keep our tradition alive must be acknowledged.

In the last few years, thanks also to the interest of collectors and the desire for a rediscovery of our cutlery, a Bergamo production of our knives has been reborn. These are enthusiasts, wisely advised by some experts such as Benedetto Valoti of the “Maglio di Seriate” (his family has been working as a master – for generations) who have taken over a production, small yes, but of remarkable quality both from the aesthetic point of view, even with woods and precious material, both in steel, also reproducing damask or steel in layers. Benedetto is also the bearer of tradition and knowledge of the working and forging of the research group of Coltellinai and forgiatori bergamaschi very well known outside the province, in Italy and abroad. The association, founded in 1991, on the initiative of a group of enthusiasts, Emilio Alberici, Luca Pizzi, Danilo Brugali, Flavio Galizzi … who took a cue from the initiative of Eligio Ambrosioni to revive a demonstration of the forging of damask in the mallet of Seriate Benedetto Valoti. Also to all the new cutlers and estimators goes a thank you for the merit in keeping alive a tradition to many unknown, for the renewed interest that allows others to show off with a beautiful object of which you are proud and that is considered of identity.