There was once a man and there was once a shop and a street that bore his name. When you talked about Michelangeli, you were talking about Orvieto. And when you mentioned Orvieto, many thought of Michelangeli, generally Gualverio, perhaps the last in a family of artisans.
Centuries ago, the emperor Diocletian had decreed that sons were to follow in the trade of their fathers. Of course, this was centuries ago, but it still seemed natural that sons should learn the trade of their fathers. Gualverio had grown up as a child surrounded by the smell of sawdust. He had learned about wood and how to work it from his father, who had learned it from his father, who had learned it from his father. There were also various uncles and all could all trace their origins back to an artisan named Michele, who was born in 1789 when Italy was not yet unified Italy.
Gualverio’s approach to woodworking differed from that of his ancestors, but he particularly loved the hidden nature of wood, to discover its soul. While his shop continued to make furniture, Gualverio seems somehow to have always remained a child and created a whole menagerie to delight both young and old. When he died – it was not yet his time – his spirit was captured by the epitaph on his tomb.
“They will come and remember him
as a good wizard
few were as adroit as he
in building dreams
fragments of sun
within the solid porous walls
Gualverio’s small animals seemed the perfect gift for a newborn child. Together with an assortment of little frogs, I wrote the child a story.
Once upon a time – stories always start that way – once upon a time, but not so very long ago, there was a city that sat on top of a cliff. Like this one.
Most of the houses were very small and built of stone, and the stones had seen children born and grow and become mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. People in this town stayed put. They loved to watch the clouds pass and build up and the lightning play among the neighboring hilltops. They waited each spring for the swallows to come and then for the fields around to turn green to gold with wheat. They knew that October meant grapes – and chestnuts that were roasted over the fire and turned black outside but stayed sweet inside.
Now in this town there lived a man who had three daughters – he loved his daughters and he loved animals. So one day he decided to make some cats to keep them company. And then he made some dogs –and some lions – and some frogs – you name the animal and he made it.
During the day, these animals make believe they are made of wood, but at night when no one is looking they start telling each other about what they saw during the day. The cats don’t say much – cats after all are not like dogs and keep to themselves. And the owls, too, they were all wise old owls who sat on their perches or branches and the more they saw the less they spoke, and the less they spoke the more they heard, and they became wiser and wiser. But there was also the family of frogs, and they made more noise than anyone else – and believe it or not they didn’t croak – that’s what grownups will tell you frogs do – they chirped and whistled and trilled and burbled. Can you do that too? Try and let me hear.
They hopped around to see what was going on – jumped on the back of the dog for a ride, had fun with the cat who tried to catch them, but to no avail. There were big frogs and little frogs, green frogs and brown frogs. And one day, a couple of them jumped into a plastic bubble bag and flew across the ocean (they could have swum, but it would have taken them a lot longer).
Soon they arrived at a house in Baltimore where there was a little girl named Charlotte. They hoped she knew they were her special friends, and they liked it so much they decided to send for their brothers and sisters – until Charlotte found she had a whole family of frogs, who kept her company when her daddy and mommy had problems and worries to take care of – and they made Charlotte happy and made her laugh – and this made her mommy and daddy forget their worries and laugh with her and you could almost feel the rays of love which went from one person to the other until they were all just one big happy family laughing with the frogs.
And that is the way Gualverio would still have us remembering him. Now times have changed, and the shop is closing. Orvieto will never be the same.