Trentino Ethnographic Museum: a Museum of Mankind in the Alpine Mountains.

The Trentino Ethnographic Museum (Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina) is an important Alpine Ethnographic Museum located in San Michele allAdige, in the province of Trento, Trentino region.

The museum has its headquarters by the ancient fortified Monastery of San Michele — the old Agostinian Prepositure.

It was founded in 1968 by the ethnographer of Trentino-bohemian origins Giuseppe Šebesta. It is considered one of the most important museum of culture and popular traditions in Italy, and one of the major institutions of its kind within the Alps.

The museum is structured on four floors and it has 41 exhibition rooms, subdivided into thematic areas that include 20 different sections. Some of the themes faced in the various exhibition rooms (and that are being dealt with here) are referred to agricolture, artisanal activities (such as wood-carving, metal and textiles), animal breeding (known as pastorizia and alpeggio), hunting, religious forms and popular traditions. The Trentino Ethnographic Museum is distinguished by the attention devoted to the analytical agricolture system in the Alps.

The Community of San Michele

The Community of San Michele allAdige was born at the foot of the ancient monastery of the Agostiniani, founded in 1144-45 by the Counts of Appiano, with the support of the Bishop of Trento, Altemanno, in parallel with the institution of the convents of the regular canons of Novacella near Bressanone and of S. Maria in der Au in Bolzano.

The territory of the municipality has gone through some variations in time: in 1928, the suppressed municipalities of Faedo and Grumo were aggregated to San Michele allAdige, but already in 1952 the municipality of Faedo was reconstituted, and its territory detached once more from San Michele.

Near San Michele is also the Castle of Königsberg, which nowadays falls however into nearby municipality of Faedo.

The Trentino Ethnographic Museum

This is what Giuseppe Šebesta, founder of the museum, wrote on his own enterprise:

The creation of a museum is above all the creation of something self-sufficient and standalone like a painting, a musical composition or a literary work. It is a wide fresco necessitating a united, individual perspective and a clear and entire outline to follow. The lack of a deep and structured understanding leads to disaster! The result, over time, would be a hybrid which would be really unworthy.
I hope that my alarm cry will be heard.
I greet the new generation with the call to not betray my message.

A brief description of the different sections of the museum follows.

The Ground Floor of the Museum


Haymaking: It is the basis of mountain agriculture insofar, as it allows the full exploitation of the high pasture-lands with grazing. The haymaking tool kit includes scythes, rakes, whetstones and hay blades. The process from hay to cereals (wheat, buckwheat, barley, rye, corn) — and the related activities of plowing and harrowing — are also being shown here. There is a splendid collection of plows, from the traditional symmetric plow in wood and the more modern iron ‘voltorecchio’. The sickle for mowing, the threshing flail, sieves and winnows for the first processing of wheat are on display too.

Watermill: Threshed and hulled wheat was carried to the watermill; rural Trentino numbered some hundreds of these. This particular machine, dated 1836, comes from Faver in the valley of Cembra: one can see the millrace, the great hydraulic mill wheel, the hopper and the millstones with the relative gearing; on the one hand, is the rotating sifter for the sorting of the flours. At the end of the room is the so-called pestle for the husking of barley, plus a great pestle with strikers, carved in rock.

Smithy: In the smithy were produced all iron implements for work on the fields and in the woods. The main machinery of the smithy is the maul, which is water powered. The smithy which is reconstructed here comes from Pergine in Valsugana, and is dated 1814. Under the maul, the iron ingot which is to be forged receives the first mould; it is then worked on the anvil. The burning coals of the forge are kept alive by an airshaft, which comes from the air-barrel that is placed outside the forge. Still water-powered is the mole for the finishing of cutting edges.

Nail-smithy: In the nail-smithys nails were produced, particularly for the strenghtening of soles and heels. Such nail-smithys, housed in small detached buildings with one or more forges, and a half-dozen anvils, were particularly common in the valley of Ledro, near Lake Garda.

Zootechnics: These rooms present the implements of the farrier, and all the tools for the caring of the livestock — be it bovine, ovine, etc. In the stable, which has been reconstructed from Someda in the Fassa valley, found shelter cows and calves, pigs, rabbit and foul — all together. The stable can be dated to the last few years of the 1800s, and is particular for the pavement in bare planks and the barrel-shaped vaults. There, can also be seen the pig-sty and a large hay-shaft.

The copper forge: Typical of Trentino is the copper craft, which used to provide the families with all kinds of domestic containers. Unlike iron, copper is wrought from a state of fusion: the material is cast into special clay crucibles, then it solidifies into round crowns, which are thinned under very heavy water-powered donkey-head mauls. The forge which is represented here, as well as the annexed materials, comes from Vezzano, at the centre of the traditional area of coppersmithing in southern Trentino. There follow specimens of the craft: great cauldrons for cheese-making, smaller pots for polenta, buckets for water and milk, warming pans and round pans, kettles and coffee-pots.

Wrought iron: Wrought iron locks and keys in wrought iron, mainly dating from the XVII and XVIII centuries are shown, as well as plates, hinges, latches, bolts, tallies. Belltower clocks amongts which is a cuckoo clock from Falesina — are on display, and also weights and measures, clockworks, ostiaries.

The First Floor of the Museum

Spinning, warping, weaving: The production of yarn from vegetable fibers (hemp and flax) and animal fibers (wool) is represented here. The cycles of hemp and flax include the drying of sheafs, rippling, scutching and hackling; wool implies shearing and carding. From the fiber, yarn is obtained by making use of the distaff and spindle, or with the spinning wheel. From the yarn to the skein and the ball, reels and spoolers are shown; with the balls of yarn, the warp is prepared, which is tied to the loom. Great domestic looms, with two and four pedals, are on display, as well as accessory implements to the loom, plus traditional pattern-books.

The Alp (alpeggio): The exploitation of high Alpine pastures, which was organized according to rules of communal ownership, is a distinct feature of the human landscape in the mountains of Trentino. The first of the four rooms illustrates the structure of the typical malga (dairy farm): pastureland + dairy + stables. There follows the casèl proper, where milk is left to rest in wide buckets, so that cream may come to the surface. The churning of butter is represented by various forms of churns. Then comes the dairy proper, with the great cauldron for the processing of milk, on a turnable tackle known as mùssa. Accessory implements include rennet and dairy thermometer, and stirring sticks. The warehouse of the dairy has dripping planks, round wooden bands for shaping cheeses and butter moulds.

Beekeeping: Different traditional types of beehive, from the hollow log to the square wooden boxes, are on display. Of particular interest are some unique examples of rural hives: a hollow log in the shape of a red-jacketed gentleman, and another bearing a painted couplet from Virgils Georgicon; rational and special hives. Among the implements, there is a rare specimen of a rolling press for wax sheets, introduced in Trentino from Austria at the turn of the century. Some fumigators can also be seen, a fine example of honey extractor and a number of assorted curiosities.

The Wood: The appropriate managing of the fir woods is a distinctive feature of life in the communities of Trentino. In the room is presented the essential tool-kit for working in the woodlands. Dendrological scale and forestry hammer to mark the trees that are due to be felled are shown, as well as implements for felling — such as axes and wedges, and finally pickaxes and chains to be used for the pulling of timber out of the woods. A so-called xila from lower Valsugana is an original structure carved out of a single trunk of beech, which would protect the hind-legs of the horses that were meant to pull down the timber from particularly steep woods.

Sledges and Carts: This room continues the theme of the transportation of timber, from simple sledges for the winter transportation of firewood to the peculiar bròz a kind of forecarriage for a single ox down to the typical country carts. A collection of yokes and brass harnesses for horses is on display too.

Venetian Sawmill: A great hydraulic machinery for the reduction of timber into planks: Trentino used to number about 300 of such plants, located along brooks and rivers; today, only half-a-dozen of these have survived. The typical Venetian hydraulic wheel generates the simultaneous movement of the saw and the trolley, which carries the timber against the saw; the slicing of one plank takes about 10 minutes. This sawmill comes from Rumo in the Nonsberg (Val di Non, Non valley) area.

Woodcrafts: Woodcrafts are shown in a variety of specifications: from the great doors to the smallest production of the carpenter, the woodcarver and the wood-turner. The work of the cartwright and the wheelwright are being presented, as well as the making of wooden clogs, whips and tiles. The different varieties of wooden furniture from Trentino carved in the west (valleys of Non and Sole) and painted in the east (Fiemme and Fassa) — are also being shown. Other particular uses of wood are for locking the haystacks and for the typical rattles of Good Friday.

Nuptial customs: From gifts of bethrotal to the dowry contained in the great wooden chests, we follow the nuptial rite all the way to the setting of marital life: the home. A typical stùa so is the sitting room called in this part of the Alps has been reconstructed here; usually, a stùa is panelled with planks of larch, often painted, which make the room much more confortable and cozy. The stùa which is visible here dated 1823 comes from Valfloriana. Nearby, a bedroom has been decorated and furnished with materials coming from the western valleys of Trentino, in their particulalrly sober style.

The Second Floor of the Museum

The stove: Trentino is situated close to the southernmost border of the overall area of diffusion of the great earthenware stoves, which are so common in Central Europe. A feature of these stoves, of which Sfruz in the Nonsberg (Val di Non) was an important centre of production, is the inner structure, which allows minimal heat loss. In the rich collection, the main types of stoves are displayed.

Pottery: Interesting collection of domestic pots and of earthenware tiles and pipes; a potters wheel, and earthenware pots and pans for the preservation of foodstuffs, are visible too.

Kitchen: The traditional gear in bronze, iron, copper and earthenware of the typical Trentino kitchen is shown here, alongside a precious collection of bronze pans dating to the XVI and XVII century; of fireplace chains, firedogs, fire tongs and tripods; of copper pans, ladles and chopping boards; of balancers for the carrying of buckets.

The Third Floor of the Museum

Folk costumes: The so-called folk costume does not have in Trentino a particularly strong tradition, bar a very few areas (Fassa, Tesino, Primiero valleys), whose costumes are preserved here. A particularly rich exhibition of articles of clothing from Fassa, of evident Central European tradition, is on show. There are also much poorer female raw cotton dresses, from the Giudicarie valleys.

Folklore: In this section, which is still under construction, are preserved a few mementos of the folklore of Trentino: a small yet interesting collection of carnival masks, which are typical of eastern Trentino (Cembra, Fiemme and Fassa valleys). Some iron mortars are used to explode charges in various areas of southern Trentino in the occasion of the spring rituals of the màrz, and on the widespread festivals for the coming of age.

Brass Bands and Musical Instruments: The brass band boasts a formidable tradition in the Trentino, which was directly inherited from the Civil Guards and other village-based or town-based forms of male associations. The tradition goes back to the last decades of the 1800s. Even now, in the whole of Trentino, are active over 80 brass bands. In the room is a representation of the structure of a brass band with all its instruments; also, there is an important collection of accordions an instrument which in the Trentino region enjoyed a particular evolution of its own, thanks to renowned makes such as Galvan, Dallapé, Giuliani, etc.

Folk Religion: In the icons of popular devotion there is a sacred conception of life. This section interprets the religious phenomenon in terms of a vast iconographic horizon. Trentino, which was naturally the first centre of diffusion of Catholic Counter-Reformation, is situated at the crossroads of two great areas of diffusion of the sacred icons. The first, that originated at the Remondinis printing press at Bassano del Grappa in nearby Veneto, was to make use of the peddlards of nearby Tesino to spread all over Europe; the second, which originated in Augsburg and in other Central European towns, influenced Trentino from the north through the Tyrol.

Hunting: Hunting is presented above all as an integration to the farmers activities. Hunting was in fact necessary for the protection of the fields against birds and predators, and it also served to improve the farmers family table — as well as his income. So we are shown a sort of history of trapping, from simple snares to the usage of birdlime and nets; there follows more complex iron traps. Then we proceed to look at mementoes of hunting as a pastime: splendid collections of rifles (on loan from the Museo della Guerra in Rovereto); trophies and other hunting paraphernalia around the wide open fireplace from nearby Mezzocorona.

Wine-making and distillation.

This section includes tools and materials out of the cooper’s shop, with a collection of special croze markers, old implements for wine-making, alembics for the distillation of wine dregs and the great moveable alembic La Spiritosa, from Riva del Garda (1905).

Cellar – viticulture: Trentino has a reputation for the conspicuous production of wines in some of its valleys. It is a specialized form of agriculture, which found in St. Michael one of its main propulsive centres. This section is housed in the old cellars of the Institute for Agriculture, of which it has inherited some important mementos such as the collection of native and non-native vines (1930 ca.) and the fine barrelfronts, carved with the insigna of the first Directors of the Institute. The exhibition follows the order of seasonal works in the vineyard. A monumental plank-winepress, dated 1743, and smaller wine-presses are also on display. 

Càneva: In the càneva or ‘wine-cellar’ — a basement or ground floor space of the house — food stocks were kept: speck bacon and sausages, potatoes, apples, wine and cheeses. The barrel vaults are typical here.

Sala Šebesta: Moving from a purely philological exposition of Italian folklore, Šebesta added to his ethnographic work — derived from his experience as a true creator — the crafting of films and fables; of paintings and large drawings; of novels and essays; of cartoons and animated figures: a fundamental eclecticism which wants to be expressed in the Museum too, with its two permanent display rooms dedicated to the founder. These two rooms are an attempt to summarize, as far as possible, Šebesta’s work as chemist, inventor, cartoonist, painter, photographer, film-maker, ethnographer, anthroposophist, writer, museologist and tireless traveller.


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