One day in September 1890, in Ornavasso, a small Italian village in the Piedmont region of Italy, Enrico Bianchetti received news of something that would possess him totally until his death. 56 year old Bianchetti was born into an affluent family, studied science, wrote poetry and became a meteorologist. His house was large, stately and contained a well stocked library, a photography laboratory, a mechanical workshop and built into its roof, an observatory. He was interested, obsessed even with local history. Twelve years before in 1878 and after 15 years of intense study and application, he’d published a huge archeological tome on the subject - “L’Ossola Inferiore. Historical Information & Documents”.
Along the Sempione state road to the north of Ornavasso there’s a rural oratory dedicated to the Saint Bernardo. The little church sits atop a strip of land a metre or so high. Grape vines grow in the grass of its embankments. Today some labourers are working with spades in the damp autumn earth amongst the vines. Beneath a huge sky on this, the only slight elevation on the flat country horizon they are laying down a new railway line between Novara and Domodossola. The labourers begin digging up shards of ancient sandstone vases, fragments of copper objects, their spades scratching antiquity. Bianchetti, the only archeologist with a lifelong predeliction for local history for miles around is alerted to what must surely be his pre-ordained destiny. He immediately begins co-ordinating an excavation of the area near the church with his friend Giuseppe Antonio Ronchi.
What Bianchetti discovered was a vast ancient cemetery covering over 1,700 square metres. A necropolis that dated back over 2000 years to the second half of the 1st century BC.
Bianchetti swiftly put together a team of locals and with their help systematically unearthed grave after grave. The excavations went on for 3 years, from 1890 to 1893 and led to the discovery of yet another necropolis at nearby In Persona to the north. The first necropolis at San Bernardo was the older one and dated from 150 years BC, those buried there were the first people to settle in the village of Ornavasso. They were digging up their ancestors. The second necropolis at In Persona, was a continuation of the previous one and started a century later in the second half of the 1st century BC. At 2,000 metres square it was even bigger than the first.
The majority of the dead were buried with their weapons, everyday objects or what little riches they had. Some were cremated, but with their skulls intact, each snug inside a funereal urn. For the skulls of the poor there were urns of clay. The skulls of higher ranking citizens sat inside urns of bronze. Some bodies were cremated in-situ, their grave objects burned with them, the grave then filled with earth. In life, all these dead were the Leponti, people who settled in the area of Ossola, a small outpost of the vast Golasecca civilization. They were commercial mediators between the Etruscans and Transalpine Celts.
A lone photograph of Bianchetti at the dig survives. He’s sitting wide-legged on a wheelbarrow in the shade of an umbrella wearing a dusty, rumpled suit. He sports a drooping grey moustache and his eyes are lost in the shadow cast by the top hat he’s wearing. In his right hand he holds what looks like a small paddle-like excavation tool across his lap. He looks exhausted.
The grave goods of the Leponti were numberous to say the least. By the time he’d finished, Bianchetti had found 165 tombs, unearthing over 1,700 objects. For those that were warriors there were weapons; iron longswords with a double edge, sometimes with copper scabbards, knives and points of lances, axes, big knives and the metal handles of wooden shields. For those that were artisans there were pebbles and crockery, spring type shears for shearing animals and scythes. A few semi-circular blades too, most likely used by tanners to work animal hides. In the graves of women there were clasps that once held clothing together. There were bronze and ceramic vessels, coins and jewellery.
There were seven silver cups of almost hemispherical shape, smooth and without any foot or base. Most numerous and varied however, was the elegant crockery; beautiful polished terracotta vases faintly painted with colored bands, glass jugs and many dishes of different size, pattern and design.
Bianchetti catalogued them all, restored them and put them on display in a small museum he set up in his home in Ornavasso.
His destiny fulfilled, Bianchetti died barely a year after the dig at San Bernado was over, in Ornavasso on 31 August 1894.
A year later the Society of Archeology and Fine Arts for the Province of Turin, a group of scholars of antiquity and art dedicated their 1895 journal to Bianchetti’s finds at the Ornavasso Necropolis.
The Society commissioned 2 photographers from Milan named Calzolari and Ferrario to document the items from Bianchetti’s museum. Using glass plate negatives, the 2 photographers set about doing justice to the ancient everyday objects. Perhaps they used Bianchetti’s laboratory. In some of the shiny vessels you can see reflected the courtyard the photographers worked in. The two men arranged the pottery in groups on simple wooden shelves in front of a linen backdrop. It’s easy to imagine the pair, carefully positioning the pottery, composing the objects symetrically, positioning each to give the viewer the best idea of its form. Back and forth from the camera to the shelves they went, tweaking the position of each object and ducking back under the black cloth to check the composition up-side down in the glass. It must have taken the pair days.
Calzolari and Ferrario did a great job and the objects, especially the pottery, are beautiful.
The result is an exquisite, 2000 year old Leponti Necropolis homeware catalogue.
Sources & images : The journal “Atti della Società di Archeologia e Belle Arti per la Provincia di Torino” from the public domain archives of Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.