Ezio Martinelli: His Hands Built the City, His Eyes Watch it Change

story and photos by Sara Baughman

Ezio Martinelli’s skin crinkles around his eyes and seeps into two distinct crevices that flow from his nose to the corners of his slightly upturned mouth. A white and black Panama hat covers his thinning white hair. Outlined by espresso-colored glasses, his eyes carefully scan the piazza in Cagli, Italy; Ezio has looked out over the piazza countless times in the 60 years Cagli has been his home. But he owes his greatest success to his hands, which rest in his lap. Calloused and rough to the touch, Ezio’s palms show wear from years of pounding nails, pouring concrete, and laying stones – they tell the stories of a laborer, a job title he regards with pride. Ezio Martinelli holds a picture of himself repairing a chimney at 82. 

A self-made construction worker, Ezio learned the trade when he was only 13 from a local Cagli man. Struggling to fin work in Cagli, Ezio moved to Geneva at 22 with two suitcases and a skill set he hoped would sustain him. Once there, Ezio proved his talent early and advanced. “I had to start at the bottom,” says Ezio. “But when I completed my first two jobs quickly and skillfully, [the supervisors] noticed.”

Full of ambition and validated by his abilities, Ezio spent 11 years building a successful career and honing his skills in Geneva. Ultimately, Ezio’s love for a Cagliese woman drew him back to town in 1963. His skills more refined, Ezio tackled restoration projects in Cagli and also grew and sold vegetables with the help of his wife.

Rebuilding and making old structures usable truly invigorated him, and he shared that passion with everyone he worked alongside. Ezio speaks proudly of working for nearly two years to restore a building off the main piazza. Currently, floral and fruity scents mingle and waft into the streets from the building’s lower level, and a lighted Lancôme sign hangs above the arched doorway. While modern displays decorate the inside of the profumeria, the building retains all the charm of the old world through its architecture and construction. Dark and light stones checker the building’s façade, and Ezio gestures toward an oyster-colored stone while explaining that the color indicates the stone’s age. Above the shops, the building also houses four apartments, making this restoration the largest project Ezio completed in Cagli.

Ezio’s passion and love for restoration compels him to continue construction work even after retiring. “I had to respect the old walls,” he says while proudly holding up a picture that shows him repairing a chimney at age 82. Today his legs are too unsteady to walk from his home into town, but he still happily rides his blue bike to Cagli when friends need help with small projects.I would teach anyone under me who wanted to learn.

As he sits and scans the town’s main piazza, he speaks animatedly about how Cagli changes more each year. “The town used to be pristine, but now it’s gone to shit,” says Ezio. He points to a building and describes how he hates seeing weathered stone covered by plaster and beautiful, arched doorways removed and replaced by metal overhead doors.

The piazza has also become less tranquil. Passing his eyes over the parking lines painted on the aged cobblestone and the cars scattered around the fountain, Ezio says, “Everything moves fast in the piazza now – cars, cycles, people.” Ezio attributes most change to younger generations who simply don’t care to preserve the past, construction workers who prefer to cover rather than restore, and Albanian immigrants who fail to understand and appreciate Cagli’s cultural past.

Even though he resists these changes and longs for simpler times, Ezio still loves most things about Cagli, including the quality of life, his friends, and the salami, cheese, and wine. “There is nothing better than Cagli,” he says. And clearly, Ezio’s work contributes to why so many other Caglieses appreciate the town. “Everybody knows me,” Ezio says, “and they know how much respect I have for the old country.”

Regardless of how the town changes through the years, Ezio Martinelli’s legacy rests among the numerous buildings he rejuvenated. His handprints decorate the town of Cagli, Italy, and serve as a constant reminder of his passion for preserving his town.