When I was growing up in our neighborhood in New Jersey, there were several types of street vendors that appeared every week, each selling wares from a truck: the fruit and vegetable truck was a favorite because of the way he sang his prices; the ice man too, because in summer he'd always leave chunks for us to cool off with; the sound of the coal truck dumping coal down the chutes of the few remaining buildings still using coal as a fuel is also burned in my memory.
But the most interesting to me was the arrotino--the knife grinder. He trudged through the neighborhoods past the Victorian era apartment buildings on foot. I would hear him coming because of the bell he rang while walking--a rather large brass school bell that he swung in sync with his walking gait. When people heard that bell with its distinctive ca-clang-ca-dang pattern, they would grab their dull knifes and scissors or tools and head down to the street to meet him.
Once in a while my mother would hand me the big kitchen knife and a quarter to go and have him sharpen it. This particular man was fairly old (at least to my young eyes) and a bit arched in his back, but yet he carried his entire sharpening rig and stone on his back via two long leather straps, hitched to him like a big-wheel backpack. I remember the grinding wheel being about 18" in diameter attached to a framework of wood. When a customer wanted something sharpened, he'd unhitch himself from the rig, turn the stone upward and start pumping the treadle with one leg while sparks flew. By the time he was finished, we had a shiny, very sharp knife once again... all for 25 cents.
Walking all day long, often through hilly, cobbled streets was hard work, especially while either carrying or pushing a heavy grinder--some having more than one polishing stone and a box to hold more tools of the trade. The push type rolled along inverted and pushed by holding wooden handles. Once the arrotino found customers, he would turn the grinder rig right-side up and start work. The sharpened kitchen knifes for the casalinga, scythes and butchering knives for contadini (farmers), knives for pescivendolo (fish mongers), cleavers for macellai (butchers), scrapers for stuccatori (plasterers), large knives for cacciatori (hunters) and pocket knives for gentiluomini (gentlemen).
The grinding wheel is attached to a rudimentary treadle board which he pumps with one leg to keep the heavy wheel turning. There are either ropes or rubber belts that attach to the various wheels and axles. A can of either water or oil is mounted above the working part of the stone to drip lubricant on the stone while sharpening..
In the old days, l'arrotini were vagabond craftsmen, going from village to village to find clients. He might set up in a village square and eat and sleep where he found food and a hay bed to lay down in. You can imagine that some of his best clients were farmers, not because they might be able to pay his fees, but more often because they could offer food and a comfortable place to sleep. Otherwise, he was mainly self-sufficient, carrying a craticula (an ancient type of BBQ grill), cooking simple meals during his voyages. He cleansed himself at public fountains or in a stream. He returned to his home several times a year, definitely at Christmas and Easter, when a child was born or a relative died, but also for harvesting crops (most in rural Italy still have olives, nuts or grapes to tend).
During the 1950s and 60s the advent of the bicycle grinder rig helped arrotini go further, get more work and return to home more often. The grinding wheel was mounted over the front wheel and attached to the pedals by a second drive chain that could use the pedaling action when a lever was flipped.
Next came the Vespa scooter and the Tre Ruote Ape (three-wheeled vehicle). In both cases, the motor also drove the grinding wheels. The rear compartment of the Tre Ruote was large enough for arrotini to expand their services--refurbishing and refinishing traditional knives, selling new knives and scissors, offering repairs and parts for old style gas kitchen cookers, and selling and repairing umbrellas, of all things!
"Donne! È arrivato l'arrotino! Arrota coltelli, forbici, forbicine, forbici da seta, coltelli da prosciutto!
Donne è arrivato l'arrotino e l'ombrellaio; aggiustiamo gli ombrelli.
Ripariamo cucine a gas: abbiamo i pezzi di ricambio per le cucine a gas.
Se avete perdite di gas noi le aggiustiamo, se la cucina fa fumo noi togliamo il fumo della vostra cucina a gas."
"Ladies! The Grinder is here! Sharpen knives, scissors large and small, sewing scissors, prosciutto knives!
Women, the Grinder and Umbrella Repairman is here; we fix your umbrellas.
We repair gas cookers: we have spare parts for your cookers.
If your gas is leaking, we'll fix it, if your kitchen is smoking we remove the smoke from your gas cooker."
I don't know about you, but I sense a little naughty double entendre in the wording of the announcement... Perhaps the arrotini have sharpened some of their other skills and offer even more personalized services to le donne over the years... putting out the smoking fires in the kitchens of casalinga all over Italy...
Sharpening blades, indeed... Reminds me of the old bawdy blues song lines: "Yea, Babe, I'm your Handyman..." or "Stick out your cans, here comes the garbage man!"
And in Our Video Collection:
Old Roman Knife Grinder (Arrotino) Explains his Craft
L'Arrotini in Venice: Calling All Knife Grinders
L'Arrotino: Knife Grinding on a Vespa
If you CARE, please SHARE. Grazie.
I remember when I got my first fax machine in the 1980s. It was slow, but became essential in my studio, as art directors started using them to send layout revisions. What a time saver. Who knew that the fax... or facimile... or telefax was really invented back in 1863 by Giovanni Caselli, an Italian priest! Caselli invented his device thirty years before Bell invented the telephone and actually put it into commercial use by contract with the French government.
Caselli was seen as a mad scientist rather than a man of the cloth by his friends and neighbors, with odd mechanical devices mixed among his furniture. Born 1815 in Siena, Caselli studied both theological and scientific studies. While the wired telegraph was already sending coded messages, sending pictures by wire was only a dream at the time. Caselli's idea was his pantelegraph, an concept first thought of by Alexander Bain of Scotland in 1840. Bain created a crude device to send pictures over wire, but never fully developed the idea.
Living in Florence at the time (while hiding out from his political enemies) Caselli reworked Bain’s device and improved on it, but he didn't have enough mechanical skills to make a working prototype. So he went to Paris and partnered with Gustav Froment, a leading maker of scientific instruments. After seven years in 1863, they triumphed.
Caselli received a U.S. patent for his telegraphic apparatus, making major improvements to the design. Unlike Bain's design which scratched the image on metal plates, Caselli's fax used ordinary ink. The image received could be enlarged or reduced. Multiple messages could be transmitted through a single wire at the same time. Caselli also developed an electrically sensitive paper, soaked in potassium, that changed color each time electricity passed through it. His fax machine was more than six feet tall, with long pendulums, batteries, and wires. For the 1860s, the quality of the fax image was amazingly high. Eventually, he would dub it the pantelegraph.
Emperor Napoleon III liked the device so much they passed a law to connect a fax service between Paris and Lyons. In 1861 the French government authorized tests of a fax system using telegraph lines between Paris and Lille and Paris and Marseilles. By 1863 a Paris-Lyons line was tested with great success. Transmitting at fifteen words per minute, the fax could send forty telegrams of twenty words each hour. In 1865 the French government decided to take the system public.
On May 16, 1865, the pantelegraph was set up on the existing Paris-Lyons telegraph line. It must have worked well because in two years, the Marseilles connection was added. By 1867 four Caselli machines serviced the Paris-Lyons lines. Service was so successful and the device so efficient that 110 faxes and hour could be sent. The newspaper industry, seeing what a boon it could be for their industry, touted the new invention on their pages.
Interestingly, early fax machines needed to "talk" to machines of the same brand and model and it wasn't until 1974 that the world's first international fax standard was approved by the United Nations.
In the 1980s, personal and small business fax machines proliferated around the world. And to think, we own it all to an eccentric Italian priest.
Remember, if you CARE, please SHARE. Grazie!
At the beginning of 2017, we've started re-construction and re-organization of Grand Voyage Italy's pages. If you don't find what you are looking for on this new History page, use the Search Box to find what you need. Grazie!