Maniago – Birthplace of Antonio

What remains of the old home where Antonio lived with his 17 relatives!

Today we visit the birthplace of Antonio; Maniago, a small town, of 11,000 residents, situated at the foothills of the Carni Alps, the pre alps of the Dolomites. In 1998 Maniago celebrated 1000 years.


Tony & Cousin Mirella in Maniago


Our visit takes the relatives I’ve met count to 20 in 3 days. It’s a little overwhelming when all I can do is sit and occasionally nod if by chance, I recognize a word. I’m tempted to behave like an insolent teenager and find refuge in my iPad or iPhone, even a simple notepad with pen, to find something to do to pass the time. I know the drill and it will end. It was the same on our visit two years ago.

We visit unannounced, just a knock on the door and a “permisso”. Then excited recognition as they realize who is at the door “Tony,!!!” These are his cousins, which also almost translates as brother in this case. Until Antonio was 9 years old he lived, played and ate with these people. As was the case for many Italian families in the 1940’s, their home, a 3 story stone construction housed the animals on the ground floor, the grainery in the middle and the family on top. Antonio shared this house with his mother and father, two sisters, two uncles and their wives, two aunties, 6 cousins and a grandma. 18 people living together, sharing the farming, living on what they grew or raised.

By modern accounts, the Mazzons were poor, and yet, until somebody told him, Antonio had no idea. He was loved, he was warm and he ate well. In the forest immediately behind his home he could literally pick chestnuts and mushrooms from the trees.

The Mazzon family worked the land, they did not own it. Sharefarming meant they would keep 50% of what they produced. The other 50% went to the owner of the land, in this case the Count of Maniago. Unfortunately there was not enough to provide a living for the 3 sons and their families and it was agreed that one family would need to immigrate. They literally drew straws one evening and Antonio’s father Joachim, ” drew the short straw! “

Curse or blessing, it was certainly destiny that saw Joachim, his wife June and their 3 young children board a ship, to meet relatives abroad, in a country as foreign as could be – Australia.

The relatives we visit now still live in Maniago. Some in the same street they all grew up in, some on the same block of the land.!!

The first impression is how spotless and neat the homes are. The floors are all hard surfaces, no carpet, its easier to clean. Usually something is cooking on the stove. It’s winter now and cold, so whether the house is big or small, old or new, life exists in the kitchen. This is the only area that is heated. The lady of the house wears an apron. There is always a tablecloth on the table we sit at to talk or to eat, usually a small couch and most often the television is turned on. Without exception the offer of hospitality is warm and generous.

Maniago itself has been built on share-farming and steel, or at least the cutting implements that are made from steel.   The city is also known as “The City of Knives”, home of the artisan blacksmith who started forging metal into knives, along the Coldera River over 1600 years ago. There was once around 120 cutting implement factories in the area, now there are about 30.  As the cousins that remained grew up, they all found jobs in the cutting implements industry. Two government initiatives shaped this industry and therefore the whole community. Certain tax dispensations were given to businesses with less than 11 employees and whilst this may have stilted big business, it was a boon to small business. Specific jobs from the bigger factories were farmed out to hundreds of smaller factories who specialized in a particular aspect of the products manufacture. Some might just sharpen scissors, others may specialize in putting handles to knives.

The other initiative occurred in 1966 when it was decreed that business in the Friuli area could legally pay their workers 2/3 rds of the going salary for 10 years. Soon the established businesses began to grow and thrive and new business was drawn to set up in the area.

We spend this night with Antonio’s cousin Norina. As we sit to dinner more people have heard Antonio is here and drop in. Norina’s husband and brother in law owned a small factory across the road. It no longer operates but I can see the machinery through the windows. This factory specialized in putting scissors together. This often meant just inserting and tightening one screw. If you can imagine how tedious it might be to specialize in this, it was Norina’s job to insert and tighten the screw used to clasp the two sides of the tiny scissors you can find as part of a pocket knife. Her patience and expertise for this role was renowned and earned her the endearment “Santa Norina!!”. She has given me a treasured gift of two small pairs of scissors made in Maniago.

Before we left this morning, we walked up the lightly forested hill upon which Antonio has spent hours of his childhood playing. It’s a beautiful morning, at last the rain has stopped and we have some sun. Underfoot was wet, sloshy and littered with winters leaves. The bright sun spearing through the filter of the dense and narrow trees. It reminds me of a scene from a Thomas hardy novel, the Woodlanders.


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