Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Maniago Cutlery from Italy

The best known of Italian cutlery centers today is the small city of Maniago, province of Pordenone, in the region of Fiuli Venezia Giulia. Situated on the plains below Mt. Jouf and Mt. Raut about sixty miles north of Venice. Maniago’s cutlery roots were planted in 1453 when a canal was diverted from the Colvera River to water the fields of Count Nicolo. Although this man-made watercourse was built for irrigation, it was soon adapted to power the large hammers, saws, and grinding wheels of the woodcutters, metal smiths and knifemakers. For the next several centuries, cutlery manufacture in Maniago grew slowly buy inexorably on an individual basis. It was not until 1870 that a group of twenty cutlers led by Antonio Antonini formed a cooperative organization. Like the farmer’s co-op of the early twentieth century America, a cooperative provided the advantages of bulk buying, joint negotiation, and shared distribution. Antonini himself seems to have been regarded as the premier knifemaker of the region and was awarded numerous honors at Italian exhibitions throughout the 1870’s and 1880s.

Unfortunately, as Antonini’s individual achievements soared, his leadership abilities did not; the members revolted and forced the liquidation of the cooperative in 1886. The next year, a much larger co-op was formed with the name “Societa Cooperativa Della Premiata Industria Fabbrille di Maniago,” abbreviated “S Coop” and occasionally found on as a stamp on knives from this era. The “S Coop,” which had its offices and warehouse on the first floor of the hotel “Albergo Leon D’Oro,” produced the first Maniago knives in the late 1880s. 

An 1896 Catalog from the cooperative lists 83 pages of knives, including at least seven identifiable knives. Among these models are variations with both “S-type” and “Maltese” hand guards and both oval and round firing buttons. Switchblades from this period are extremely rare, but those known feature high quality craftsmanship and details often not found on later automatics. The “S Coop” cooperative was formed not only to help members share goods and services but also to unite the makers in competing on a global scale against such powerful knife nations as England, France and Germany. While “S Coop” numbered over two hundred members, not all Maniago knifemakers chose to join, perhaps due to personal disagreements, perhaps due to the legendary Italian independent streak. “Giovanni Bet” was one of the nonconformists. 

While many regional trade and cutlery exhibitions existed throughout Italy in the nineteenth century, the first major Italian art and trade exhibition was the “Prima Esposizione International D’Arte,” held in Venice in 1895 and featuring knives from “S Coop.” The “S Coop” cooperative achieved success for the first decade of its existence, earning many silver and gold medals for its members, but problems grew and the “S Coop” was eventually taken over by German Albert Marx in 1907. Upon taking control, Marx changed the cooperative’s name to “Coltellerie Riunite Caslino Maniago” (abbreviated “Colt Riun.” as a stamp on several knives from that period). Later “Coricama” became the better-known acronym of “Coltellerie Riunite Caslino Maniago” when it was used as a stamp on many post World War II knives. Unfortunate for Marx’s new cooperative was the declaration of the 1908 “Giolitti” law banning the production or sale of pointed knives with a blade length of over four centimeters. Combined with a bad Italian economy, the law forced over thirty knife makers to leave Italy in 1908. Albert Marx was obviously a shrewd businessman and weathered this economic storm by diversifying into a wide range of cutlery products for export. 

In 1918, Marx sold his interest in the co-op to “Gebr. Krusius,” another German firm, which maintained control of the company until 1975. Between the late nineteenth century and World War II, Maniago, like other Italian regions, experienced the rise and fall of cooperatives, restrictive knife laws, and challenging economic timed but still produced knives almost continuously. While many pre-war Frosolone knives bear no maker’s name, even fewer from Maniago do. A majority is stamped simply “Maniago” and many have no marking at all. Most of the knives stamped “Maniago” or left wholly unstamped were made between the early 1920’s and the late 1930’s. The “Maniago” stamp was primarily a response to a national tracking requirement that the area in which they were produced identify products. While very little paperwork or advertising exists for any Italian knives before World War II, a 1925 flyer from “Sina & Co.” shows some knives and a brief list of available sizes and prices. “Sina” was a short-lived company, which existed only from 1924 to 1926 and was likely one of the many Italian businesses that fell victim to the economic crisis, which began in 1927. Although no knife with the Sina stamp is currently known, “Colt. Riunite” made some or all of the “Sina & Co.” knives. A second piece of the 1920’s literature, a postcard, labeled “Boeri”, from Rome, advertises a fifteen-inch with stag handles and a description, which translates roughly as “Magnificent Hunting Dagger”.

In 1929, yet another cutlery cooperative was formed with the aid of a famous name from the past. Antonio Antonini was a relative of the previous Antonio Antonini who had formed the fist cooperative of 1870 to 1886. This later Antonini joined the cooperative of 1929, named the “Premiata Societa Coop” which unfortunately lasted only three years. Only a very few knives are known with this stamp, but in style and quality they are reminiscent of the knives from the late 19th century. Most of the pre-World War II knives were handled in stag or horn and feature nickel silver bolsters although some late and early post-war models have brass bolsters. The traditional long sleek knives from Maniago are considered by many to be the most beautiful knife of all time, though it owes a large debt both mechanically and cosmetically to earlier English and French knives. While they may be to most aesthetically pleasing, the typical Maniago knife was by no means the only style to spring from Maniago. In the early 20th century, several variations of knives, including hunting knives with flat clip blades were produced.

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