Stone people: “Memorie di Pietro Grassi“: how the stone sector was 3 generations ago and how everyday life in Europe has changed since then

Pietro Grassi.Pietro Grassi.

The senior of Grassi Pietre srl has written an account of his life and that of his ancestors

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The book “Memorie di Pietro Grassi“ offers an insider’s view on the development of the stone sector since about 100 years and also on the life back then in the European hinterland. The life story of the current senior of the company Grassi Pietre s.r.l., located in Nanto halfway between Verona and Venice, describes the history of the company over 5 generations and also the everyday life with many details.

The prehistory, seen through today’s eyes, takes place in another world: the company dates back to 1871, when a Domenico Grassi is mentioned in the archives as a tenant of a quarry for the limestone Pietra di Nanto.

About his son Pietro Senior (the grandfather of the author of the “Memorie“), the information becomes more detailed: he worked in his natural stone business both in the quarrying of the stones (as a stonecutter) and in the processing (as a stonemason). Things were made “for everyday building.“

For later years, it outlines what was meant by this: “standardized elements, for example, solid stair treads or door and window surrounds.“ Panels for floors were also part of the product range.

It is worth mentioning that there was a great demand from bakeries because the Nanto stone was very suitable for lining the ovens.

Families were large at that time and their daily life was played out under constant threat of fate: Pietro Grassi senior died early, leaving behind his wife Virginia and 6 small children.

Virginia must have been quite fearless: she flatly refused to place some of her children in the care of relatives. Instead, she continued to run the stone quarry together with a co-worker, which meant that the children also had to contribute to the livelihood as early as possible.

Vittorio, one of the six and later father of the memoirist, therefore dropped out of elementary school and worked in the quarry from Monday to Saturday.

But at the age of 15, he took advantage of Sundays after the obligatory church visit to attend the School of Arts and Crafts in the city of Vicenza. That meant biking 16 km there and 16 km back. In winter, it can get cold and really uncomfortable in this part of Italy not far from the Alps.

The visit to this school of design, as we would call it today, will play a role later.

Descendant Pietro Grassi (junior) describes in the “Memorie“ the extraction of the raw blocks at that time. It had remained practically unchanged since Roman times: one worked one’s way down from above by hammering out narrow trenches next to the blocks, and then loosened the lump at the bottom and at the back.

Pietro Grassi gives figures: “It took an experienced worker an average of 2 weeks to loosen a block from the rock.“ Mind you, the Nanto stone is a limestone, not a granite. And as a raw material, some of its varieties are even downright soft: they are easy to work with and take a while to harden.

Probably for this reason, Nanto stone was already quarried in Roman times.

Quarrying took place in winter, processing in summer, writes Pietro Grassi for the time of his parents. The conditions hardly changed with the seasons: instead of factory halls, there were at most shelters through which the wind whistled in winter and over which the heat brooded in summer.

With the underground extraction that the company already operated at that time, at least one had to deal with constant temperatures.

Pietro Grassi describes how he participated in the adult world through the eyes of a little child: At noon he brought food to the quarry in a wicker basket (“a small pot of soup, half a liter of wine with bread or polenta“). His father then shared this with the old Palaro, with whom the little boy probably had a kind of alliance: he was still too small to do heavy work, the old man was already showing physical weaknesses, and so they probably circumnavigated the hardships of everyday stonemasonry together and playfully.

Pietro Grassi describes in detail a lunch at a kind of campfire in front of the underground quarry, probably in November, after the cattle had been slaughtered and meat was plentiful for a short time: “Then the father took a branch, stuck a piece of pork on one end and held it in the flame for a few minutes until it was sufficiently cooked. My brother and I copied him and ate pork that day that was so delicious we asked our father when we could do it again.“

Such scenes, however, were probably rare in Pietro’s childhood life: he contracted typhoid fever when he was 2 or 3 and pneumonia when he was 5 or 6.

The parents pragmatically solved the doctor’s recommendation for a change of air: Pietro moved with his father to a company construction site in the spa town of Recoaro. There the child was terribly alone during the day; at least there was the girl Lina, daughter from the inn, with whom he played firefly catch in the evening.

But the fact that his ball got into a stream while playing and floated away seems to have saddened him even as he was writing his memoirs: “You didn’t get a rubber ball every day.“

After World War I, the six siblings in the parents generation founded the company Fratelli Grassi (Grassi Brothers): the eldest brother Luciano was its patriarch, today his responsibilities would be called management, marketing and networking; Vittorio, the father of the memoirist, was quasi technical director, also responsible for stone extraction and processing; Achille, according to the memoir, had “a talent for writing“ and was consequently responsible for accounting; the report says nothing about Silvio’s talents, he was in charge of delivery with horse-drawn carts.

For transportation there were “special carts with sturdy wheels and wide rims,“ the memoir says.

The two girls, Maria and Anchilla, helped with the stonework or cutting wood for shipping. This was probably not so bad for them, because usually girls from poor families were sent to the city as domestic help.

Vittorio, as technical director, was also responsible for quality control: if there were problems on a construction site, he had to go and make or arrange for the improvements himself, writes son Pietro in the memoirs. For patriarch Luciano attached great importance to customer satisfaction and also instilled it in his siblings, as can be read in several places in the memoirs.

An interruption in the company’s growth came during World War II, when the economy collapsed and the men were drafted into the military.

And again there was a blow of fate: patriarch Luciano died after illness.

Aerial view of Grassi Pietre s.r.l., located in Nanto halfway between Verona and Venice. Photos: Grassi Pietre

Vittorio as younger brother continued to run the company, and he knew how to take advantage of the reconstruction of the country. For example, he provided the material from the family quarries free of charge for the bell tower in Nanto. Among the great projects at that time was also the reconstruction of Vicenza Cathedral.

However: the world after World War II was not like before. “There were new requirements both for the type of work and for delivery deadlines,“ is said in the memoirs.

The target of the new world was: faster and also more accurate.

Mechanization became the big issue. At the same time, people were talking about new things like corporate management, and in the previously sleepy hinterland, representatives of U.S. consulting firms were appearing, preaching new business ideas.

Vittorio was probably someone who listened to everything with an open mind, but then preferred to try it himself. That’s how one can interpret the descriptions.

In any case, he commissioned an entrepreneur from the area to develop a new type of stone saw – creel we would say today. Pietro the son and memoirist, was still in engineering school at the time, but took to it with fire and flame. “The saw arrived in the workshop at the end of the 1940s and increased tenfold the performance of the people who until then had only worked with hand saws,“ he writes in retrospect.

The following years also saw the introduction of new machinery for quarrying and new types of milling machines. “We felt that we were almost ahead of our time!“ the memoir says.

Then there was another blow of fate: company boss Vittorio died.

For son Pietro, from then on the main character in his own life, there was no choice, because a major contract from Vicenza had to be completed. The construction site was the most important in the area at the time, and the site manager showed up at the Nanto plant worried and asked the twenty-something Pietro and his brother Gino, “What are we going to do? “

Pietro gave up his studies and, together with his brother Gino, took care of the delivery. “Although we were very young, we managed to fulfill the trust of the construction manager,“ he recalls succinctly, “we didn’t cause the construction company any delivery or execution problems.“

In this context, the enormous time pressure probably also had positive effects: Pietro suddenly saw the previous production of certain parts as clumsy, and so he developed – in the style of his father – a process for accelerated production.

Later, the roles in the management of the company were shared: brother Gino focused on the role of canvasser.

In the 1960s, more large orders followed and the company continuously invested in new machinery and in new personnel.

Pietro Grassi himself had returned to university in between, catching up on his degree and taking additional management courses.

He comments on the period by saying: “This decade saw the transition from a purely artisanal activity to a truly industrial one.“

This also included participation in fairs. One that already existed at that time was the one in Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella, a small town on the heights of Lake Garda north of Verona. The Grassi company had already arrived there with orders from the proximity, and in the 1970s it also participated in fairs in Bologna, Milan and Carrara.

When the trade fair company from Verona then took over the family-meeting-like show in Sant’Ambrogio and invented the Marmomacc (at that time still with -cc), Pietro Grassi was also there.

The hallmark of his presentations, however, was down-to-earthness, in contrast to numerous other companies in Italy’s stone sector that liked to stage their importance with spectacular booths.

Even if his appearance was quiet, Pietro Grassi was present from the beginning at ground-breaking events, such as Marmomacc Meets Design.

His early view of the use of stone outside the building sector may go back to his (grand?)father’s Sunday visits to the School of Arts and Crafts, we had mentioned above.

In any case, the company cooperated with sculptors and had them design modern furniture using stone. Thus, in the time of machine production, the company also returned to craftsmanship.

The objects met with great demand at furniture fairs, so the company felt compelled to start a school of sculpture. It was complemented by a biennial sculpture symposium in Nanto.

From the 1980s, the company also went abroad, and not only to Europe, but also to the USA. It realized spectacular projects in Hollywood, among other places.

Meanwhile, the company bears the name Grassi Pietre srl. The children Mariavittoria and Francesco share the management. The daughter Chiara, with Downs Syndrom, is integrated into the company and has her roles.

In January 2023, Pietro Grassi passed away at the age of 92.

Grassi Pietre srl

Company video with Pietro Grassi in some scenes:

(08.05.2023, USA: 05.08.2023)