When 25 year old Antonio Renon and three buddies from Gosaldo, Northern Italy stepped off the S.S. Atlantic in Halifax harbour in 1951 it was just one more step in a journey in search of work and adventure that had started when he was a mere boy of ten.
In 1951 Canada was entering its post-war boom. Italy, however, with its large population to be fed, was still in the depths of depression and reeling from the devastation of the Second World War. By the early 1950s, employment for Italy’s young men often meant emigration. Canada was an option. After the war, it had finally opened its borders to Italians and recruitment to fill labour shortages in Canada’s north and on its farms had begun in earnest.
Canada was far away, in all respects, from Gosaldo where Antonio was born. Located close to the Austrian border, Gosaldo had been on the route taken by German soldiers as they attempted to retreat over the Brenner Pass at the end of the war. This small mountain town had suffered its share of devastation. Its male population, conditioned by generations of men, who used their skills as miners and seasonal itinerant chair makers, continued to seek work in other parts of Italy, Europe, the Americas and Africa.
In 1948 Italy had entered into an agreement with Belgium whereby Italy would provide labourers for Belgian coal mines, thereby securing , in exchange, a much needed flow of coal to Italy. The program, called ‘men for coal”, swapped work visas for coal. Italy agreed to send 50,000 men to Belgium. In the end 77,000 left.
Miners from Italy’s northernmost province of Belluno, including Gosaldo, were highly sought after. Their families had toiled for hundreds of years in the local mines of the Val Imperina. These mines had produced tin and copper since Roman times and had supplied the mighty Venetian Republic as far back as the 16th century. The metallurgical institute in the nearby town of Sospirolo was known for its advanced technical expertise which it exported to other parts of Europe and the Americas.
After struggling to earn a living in Italy, that included a stint as an ice-cream maker, in 1948 he set off to work in Belgium’s mines with the promise of employment under the work Belgium-Italy work program. Tunnelling and blasting work underground was not a first choice. From an early age, Antonio skills had been honed to work with wood.
His choice of trade, had in fact, been made for him. In Gosaldo, decisions were made by families on a “mestier” (trade) for their sons, often by the time the child reached the age of 10. It was a simple choice: become a miner or an itinerant “seggiolaio” chair maker. Antonio’s father and his father before him were “seggiolai”. By age 12, under his father’s skilled guidance, Antonio was traveling as an apprentice chair maker west to Lombardy, south to the Po Valley and on to Tuscany and Emilia Romagna.
As was the custom, groups of men and boys set off on foot at the end of the growing season each October, carrying with them only their minimal hand tools and few clothes. They would return around Easter of the following spring.
Women and children were left to weather the snowy winter; give birth; sew; knit and mend; care for livestock and do the spring planting. This was the way of life in Gosaldo the 1930s when the permanent population stood at 2,700. By 2001 it had fallen by two thirds to 884.
In the 1950s emigration from the area was spurred by a drop in demand for the services of the “seggiolai”, as manufactured goods became more readily available. In rural areas, chairs made by “seggiolai” had been a convenient and affordable alternative to chairs made by cabinetmakers. For a fee and lodging (sometimes in barns) they would make chairs out of green wood harvested from the purchaser’s property.
These iconic chairs with their gently curving legs, ladder backs and straw rush seats continue to be made on an artisanal basis and today command high prices.
The first skill needed in making a chair was spotting “the” tree which Antonio could do even as a young teenager. It would be cut down and split into chair components. Working the wood green, without aging, was done to avoid the need for glued joints. Chair stringers were the only part made from seasoned wood. Only two small nails were hammered into the top back ladder at either end to keep the back from splaying apart. All measurements were done by “eye” and the size of the chair depended largely on the size of the tree from which it was being made. Markings on the wood were made with a knife.
At farmsteads, the “seggiolai” not only made chairs but also repaired those that had broken down since their last visit. And the work was plentiful since some large farm households consisted of as many as 40 people living in farmhouse buildings. The flat, fertile lands they farmed produced Italy’s rice and vegetable crops. Winter was the time to thrash rice, preserve produce, mend tools and furniture and prepare for the growing season.
Being a “seggiolaio” was a way of life, a way of learning the craft and exploring the world around them, creating stability and being self-sufficient. Some “seggiolai” ranged as far as Southern France. Over time these groups of men and boys developed a unique vocabulary that allowed them to converse among themselves so that their customers could not understand them while they set prices. At times, this involved much haggling over prices: so much for making a stool, so much for one type of repair and so much for another. Traditionally, the work of the “seggiolai” was an important part of the economy of the area around Agordo, Gosaldo, Rivamonte, Voltago, LaValle, Taibon and Cencenighe.
This was the disappearing way of life that Antonio left in when he began to work as a miner in Belgium. Mining was work known for its ability to cut short the lives of men. Antonio’s mental and physical health suffered and he returned to Agordo where a doctor suggested that he might do better finding other kinds employment. There was nothing wrong with his mind but he did suffer from “low oxygen intake”. Several months later he was back to normal and ready to work again.
Before going to Belgium to work as a miner he had joined his brother-in-law in an ice cream business in Brescia. That had not worked out well for him either.
At that point, after these experiences, working outside as a farm labourer in Canada seemed somehow more enticing. Standing at close to 6 ft tall, Canadian immigration officers knew that he could pull his weight, and more.
Antonio and his buddies’ trip from Halifax included taking a bus from Montreal to Pickering then on to Toronto’s rail station where they bought a train ticket. There they met a Canadian military officer, who spoke Italian, who took them to the train headed for Lake Erie.
With his friends from Agordo, Antonio went to work in the tobacco fields of Southern Ontario’s Essex county which were functioning at full capacity after the Second World War. Although it was good work and paid relatively well, Antonio headed to Northern Ontario to work in the lumber industry. There he met and worked along side Italian and Japanese men who had been interned in Canada during the Second World War.
With steady work, and some money in the bank, Antonio returned to Italy to marry. He was 34 and his bride Angelica Renon was 31. Their wedding took place in Monza in April 1959. Together they had three children: Roberto, Flavia and Angelo. Angelica passed away in 1987 leaving a terrible void in their family. Antonio said that she had been the heart of the family.
Reminiscing, he spoke about his years in Ottawa where he worked in maintenance for the Department of National Defense and later doing much the same type of work for 17 years at the Anglican / United Church of the Resurrection.
Throughout all this experience, Antonio never lost his interest in chair making. Purchasing a wood lot on Highway 31 near Vernon, Ontario, he spent weekends trying to replicate the results he had achieved with wood in Italy. There he had made chairs with cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia and soft maple. Pine was never used.
Despite his hard work, Antonio felt that his “Canadian” chairs did not measure up. The wood did not split properly, the rush could not be twisted as he liked. But chair making was literally in his blood and that of generations before him.
His quest for making the perfect chair, that he had learned to make as a boy in Italy, may have been an attempt to use the high level skills that he had developed. They were skills he could not use to make a living in Canada. This was and is the reality for many immigrants who came with skills that lay unused.
The beautiful hand made chairs that Antonio considered to be not “ quite up to snuff” are works of art that must be treasured not only for their beauty but also as a testament to Italian tradition and the Italian immigrant experience.
Antonio Renon passed away at the age of 88 on September 9, 2013. He was well known in the Ottawa Italian community for his positive attitude to life, love of participating in community events and for his fierce independence. None of us were ever able to give him a ride home. Even on the coldest winter days he insisted on taking the bus.
I was among one of those privileged people who were invited to his home to see the chairs and his workshop. To the end he continued his quest to make the best chair possible.
By Ariella Hostetter