LA CARBONAIA - THE CHARCOAL KILN
In March of 2008, after receiving a research grant from UC Berkeley, I traveled to Italy to study the traditional art of charcoal making and to construct a kiln (carbonaia) on a 1200 acre farm estate south of Siena. The technique of transforming wood into charcoal was commonly practiced for centuries throughout Europe until it’s gradual decline in the 1950’s. Charcoal production was a significant part of the local forestry culture at the Tenuta di Spannocchia, although a charcoal kiln had not been made on the property in over fifty years.
I worked with a local man named Rodolfo Gualchieri. He is a 79-year-old, retired forester and charcoal maker (carbonaro) who began making charcoal in the late 1940’s. Rodolfo’s culture, experience and technical skills gave the project authenticity. Together, we spent a total of eight days in the forest working at one of the historic piazzas. The kiln was constructed from hardwood (primarily oak (leccio) and arbutus (corbezzolo)) harvested directly from the Spannocchia forest. The overall process involved leveling the site, tightly stacking the wood into a dome shaped structure, and then covering the mound with soil clods cut from the forest floor. We lit the kiln by dropping burning embers down the central chimney, and closely monitored the carbonization process for four days. At the heart of the process are the four elements, each playing a significant role. Soil type is critical to construction, fire transforms the material, wind manages the fire, and water tempers the product. Rodolfo and I worked at controlling the fire, maintaining equal heat balance by opening and closing vent holes along the outer dirt shell. The color of the smoke helped determine the stage of pyrolysis; it varied between white, yellow, and blue, and at the midpoint of transformation all three hues could be seen. When completed, the mound had collapsed evenly and was opened with handmade, wooden rakes. The pieces of charcoal were carefully spread throughout the piazza and doused with water to cool.
Although historically produced for cooking, blacksmithing, and other industrial applications, the charcoal also retained ideal mark making qualities for the art of drawing. After working with Rodolfo, I spent three weeks generating a series of drawings with the charcoal we produced. I was inspired by the process of making the charcoal, and the drawings began to tell the visual story of that process. They were a representation of the experience and memory of working in the landscape, building the kiln.