Italian handcrafts: Bread Stamps
- WTI Magazine #114 Apr 20, 2019
Bread stamps are a symbol of the pastoral art of Murgia Materana. Until the 1950s, housewives used to knead bread at home and deliver it to the boys who worked at the ovens located in the city’s old districts and who oversaw the baking.
Since the ovens were mainly public or belonged to wealthy families, it became necessary to distinguish the loaves belonging to different families. For this reason the leavened dough was stamped before being baked.
Shepherds were commissioned to make the stamps, and they did so when they were far away from their homes and had free time to devote to woodcarving. In fact, the stamps were made with the branches found as they walked. They didn’t select the wood, but paid careful attention to the functional rather than the aesthetic aspect.
Today the bread stamps are appreciated as ornamental objects: the artisans use high-quality wood and take a lot of care over the decorative aspect.
The bread stamps made in Matera basically consist of an upper, artistic-figurative part, which make depict sacred elements, human figures, animals or symbols, depending on the shepherd’s artistic flair. A handle connects the upper part to the base, the extremities of which are sculpted with the initials or an effigy of the head of the family. When the oldest man in the family passed away, the stamp would be replaced by another with the initials of the new head of the family.
The bread stamps were also used as a pledge of love, offered by the suitor to the woman of his affections, and either kept by her if his feelings were reciprocated or returned to him to reject his marriage proposal. In some cases, the stamp could also be given to someone as a sign of respect.
As they were typically pastoral objects, the main tools used to make them were the pocket knives the shepherds used for all their needs, from self-defence to woodcarving.
Modern tools are used now, however, and the craftsmen work with lathes, honing machines and glue to make the product beautiful rather than practical, and exclusively use high-quality wood.
The Local Area
The area in which the bread stamps are made is the city of Matera, and in particular the ancient part of the city, the “Sassi”, which is where the tradition of the bread began.
The Sassi, situated below Matera’s hill, form one of the most fascinating historic compounds in southern Italy. Sasso Barisano, located in the northeast of the city, was built on the precipice of the ravine that divides the old city and the Murgia plateau. Sasso Caveoso faces south and takes the shape of a Roman amphitheatre, with cave-houses that slope downwards.
Artisanal art has a very long history here: the first findings date back to the Palaeolithic era, when men lived in caves that overlooked the stream ravine, and continue throughout the Bronze Age, up until the end of the 1950s.
The city of Sassi is divided into different levels, known as spiazzi (open spaces), with multiple homes built on them, and the families would share the aspects of their daily life.
The women would prepare the dough the day before and complete it in the morning, then bring it through the alleys of Sassi and along the typical steps to the historic public ovens. Even the richest families made bread at home, as buying it was considered an act of poverty.
Among the overlapping Sassi and buildings carved out of tuff, there were at least a dozen ovens, some public, others belonging to families, which provided a meeting point and recreational area for the women. Now these ovens are the shops of the illustrious craftsmen.
Camera di Commercio di Matera