Roberto battistelli: making new old again

Story by Heather Wallace

Roberto Battistelli’s hands are the most important tools he uses to craft what others only visualize. His grip is confident and strong.  His skin, covered with a thin layer of wood dust, is as smooth and soft as sanded pine.

Roberto is warm and welcoming. The woodworking shop attached to his home sits just above the river in New Cagli, Italy. Roberto and his son, Daniel, replicate and restore antique furniture, doors and ceilings crafted in the 1500 to 1700s. Some customers bring damaged or broken pieces to be repaired or restored; others bring dreams in the form of photographs of furniture for Roberto to bring to life. The walls of his workshop are lined with tools of every shape and size. That same fine, soft layer of wood dust settles over every surface. Projects in various states of completion create a feeling of productive clutter. Roberto returns to his work, and the lathe whirs as it spins.  He presses the chisel against the virgin block of wood and a spindle bursts to life.  Small chips spit from the block and dive to the floor.

Roberto was born in Cagli -- as were the 10 generations of the Battistelli family before him.  The men and even some of the women in his family have been creating and restoring wood pieces since medieval times. As he pulls out a heavy, leather-bound book overflowing with black-and-white photographs, Roberto explains that he learned his woodworking skills from his father and by studying the pictures and measurements of traditional pieces.  Roberto is passing on this centuries-old family tradition to his 18-year-old son. “Daniel has been working the wood since he was born,” Roberto says proudly. 

The craftsman moves from piece to piece, pointing out the detail in the wood. His love for his work is evident in every gesture and caress. Roberto stops mid-work to bring out a small, walnut- stained chair. Inspired by Michelangelo’s understanding of human body mechanics, woodworkers measured the legs, spine and head of each customer to design and create chairs specific to the individual commissioning the piece.  Roberto gently strokes the finished chair while explaining the importance of wood choice.  The ornately carved, walnut back attaches to a smooth elm seat. “Warm wood is good for the ass,” Roberto says, adding that soft, warm wood was often used to help treat hemorrhoids.

While Roberto points out a recently completed chest made of cherry, walnut, and pine, Daniel works diligently on a hand-carved panel. Light from an open window above the workbench illuminates his work. The Battistelli men create their elaborate, raised carvings the traditional way -- with chisels, a wooden mallet, strong hands, and an eye for the details. Even the nails used to join the corner joists of each piece are made by hand.

In a town that is more than 1,000 years old, an antique must be more than 100 years old, Roberto says with a grin. “Anything less than 100 years is just old.”

Portrait of Roberto

Roberto works on a drawer knob for a chest.

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