CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Matt Wallace went to Italy to learn the technique of repousse from a master blacksmith. He left with a strong friendship akin to family, forged over the delicate work in the little shop in Bologna.
Matt's wife, Tessie, was a natural translator who learned Italian in college. She studied in Bologna in the fall of 1997, and walked past the shop on that visit. Little did she know it would become the center of her life on a visit in 2011.
In 2010, the couple traveled to Bologna to meet Pierluigi Prata in his Italian blacksmith shop. The "fabbro ferraio," or iron smith, and the Charleston couple became fast friends after the initial visit.
"He tested Matt," Tessie said, laughing. "For four hours they worked, and he kept watching him making a buttonhead scroll. He kept yelling, 'Go! Go!' as he was excited to see Matt's work." After that original visit, the Wallaces planned a longer trip in 2011 so Matt could work more with Pierluigi to learn the art of repousse.
Repoussé is a metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. The repousse technique is used on thin metal and, in a sense, the artist is working backward.
"We are changing the surface of the metal," Matt said. "You need heat to bend thicker metal. You don't use heat in this method."
The Charleston couple said Pierluigi has a museum of sorts in the basement of his shop, as his grandfather had made copies of everything he made.
"His grandfather made him a tiny set of tools. He got his first hammer when he was 5," Tessie said.
Matt worked from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 6:30 or 7 p.m. every day. They stayed in an apartment, and Tessie would explore the city of 400,000 and shop for and prepare meals.
To help Matt, Tessie made a cheat sheet of terms that Matt could refer to when speaking with his Italian mentor. Some of the modern tools used were a drill press, chop saw and arc welder. But it was the timeworn, handmade tools that Matt and Pierluigi loved to use.
"I've learned from many blacksmiths, but this was the best ever, even with no common language," Matt said. "He was instructive, but not overbearing. He wanted me to do my own thing. He stressed that the hammer should be an extension of my arm."
Pierluigi learned his craft from his grandfather, Antonio Prata.
Born in 1896, Antonio began working as a blacksmith around age 8. The years passed, and in the early 20th century he came to work as a laborer at Bologna<co >, in the best wrought iron workshop in the city.
World War I broke out and he was "saved by his hammer," as he often said, as he worked in a small blacksmith shop forging shoes for horses, mules and donkeys. Following a minor injury, he was in a military hospital in Gorizia, and a priest came to bless the soldiers. They become friends, and the priest became Pope John the 23rd.
In 1927, Antonio's son Giancarlo was born and the shop moved to Vai Caldarese in the early 30s. In the wake of a national economic recovery, the city flourished.
Meanwhile, his son Giancarlo alternated apprenticing in his father's shop with training at the Royal School. Then, World War II breaks out, and the cellars of the shop become air-raid shelters, and the family is displaced to Prata Crevalcore, where Antonio continued to work as a blacksmith. He found scrap metal from destroyed military trucks to use in his work.