Just off a terrace overlooking the old town of Matera and set into the cliff like so many of the city’s ancient sassi (cave houses), is the workshop of Massimo Casiello. There’s a neat modern logo on the sign over the door and on display in the windows are beautifully carved wooden objects, each with a handwritten note detailing the object’s use and price. I’m early. The shop is still closed. In the reflection, I can see Matera, all sugar-cube white and wonderful, climbing into a clear blue sky behind me. Sunlight glints off the moving arm of a high-rise crane working on a renovation across the ravine – a reminder that the city is getting ready to be European Capital of Culture, 2019.
“It’s a great opportunity,” says Massimo when he arrives. “For the young, like my children. When I was born in Matera, it was a difficult city to live in. It was run down. Places were left to ruin. It wasn’t easy to find work. If you wanted to stay it’d be a job in manufacturing or nothing. Now, with the Capital of Culture... you can start to think about other lives to live, other work to have. A future.”
Like many before him, Massimo left Matera soon after leaving school to find work. He went to Milan. “I was a computer programmer: I like computers, technology, all that. But I couldn’t stand the lifestyle of the big city. So, I come back to Matera for the slow life.”
He returned to Matera to join a small but growing number of artists and artisans attracted back to the city by a progressive – and somewhat enlightened – local initiative to breathe new life back into the derelict sassi . He was given free rental on the workshop, in return for renovating it at his own expense.
“I’ve had the shop 10 years now, and I make the traditional stamps for bread, and other things too – mainly kitchenware, bowls, spoons, things like that.” But it’s the bread-stamps that he’s famous for.
“In Matera, in the past, the bread dough was made at home and cooked in a communal oven. You only baked bread once a week, so it was a big, 5 kilo loaf to last. You couldn’t afford to do it more than once a week. So, to help recognise the bread when it was baked, you put your initials in it with the bread stamp.”
His shop has many different styles of stamps, all delicately hand-carved from local olive and fruit woods. Each is about the height of a wine glass and designs range from the traditional rooster motifs to the more modern and abstract patterns, but all have the same two carved letters on their base: TM. It takes me a little while to work out it’s the reverse print of MT, for Matera.
“I mainly sell these as souvenirs now, but sometimes to cooks who still like to use them. I customise the letters and designs to order, whatever people want. I like to work with wood,” he says, smiling. “This started as a hobby. Now the programming is a hobby, and this is my work.”
And with that, Massimo goes back to his workbench, and I watch him begin to carve his latest piece. People have been making bread stamps in Matera for 2,000 years, he tells me. Since Roman times. Now he’s the last traditional bread stamp maker in Matera. Maybe Italy. Maybe the world.