Tripping through Molise

Molise is Italy’s second smallest region geographically (next to Aosta in the north) and has a rather miniscule population – only 300,000 people.  While doing research online to find good travel destinations in the area, we found very little written on activities or towns.  However, we stumbled upon three great places: Trivento, Agnone, and Scapoli.  Trivento is a tiny town perched on a mountaintop that enjoys a sweeping 360 degree view of the surrounding valley.  However, anziani (old people) beware: there are no less than 5,000 steps in this town.  After an hour, we were soaked in sweat and in serious need of a shower.  In Agnone, we had the pleasure of visiting the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, the oldest foundry in Italy and a major producer of church bells, all designed and fabricated by hand.  Scapoli gained its fame from its production of handcrafted zampogne (Italian bagpipes), and hosts a festival each year in July that attracts thousands of zampoga fans from around the world.


Trivento from below

Center of town – the only flat part of Trivento

We didn’t really know what to expect from Trivento, so when we were faced with the hundreds of steps in front of us, we decided we’d give it a go.  That was before we realized it wasn’t just one staircase, but instead, there were hundreds of staircases branching off in every direction.  When we stopped at a cafe at the top of the hill to buy some water, the barista laughed at us for climbing on foot.  We both agreed we had never seen anything like it Italy or anywhere else in the world.

City of stairs

More stairs…

Taking a breather

If the shoe fits…

See a trend here?

By the time we reached the top, I was ready to take a spin in this guy.  After all, it is a Lamborghini. I was reminded of a commercial from several years ago for a Rascal that proclaimed “You’ll never have to walk again!” I always thought that was the most ridiculous slogan ever (as anyone who is bound to a chair would surely give anything to walk), but after this ascent, I wasn’t so sure.

Italian rascal, Lambo edition

View of the valley from the top, after all the stairs

Those are all stairs, although they don’t look like it from above

Finally happy to be back down at the bottom



In Agnone, we were fortunate enough to get to visit the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli (Marinelli Bell Foundry).  Created in 1339, the Marinelli Bell Foundry is considered Italy’s oldest family business and one of the three oldest family businesses worldwide.  The city of Agnone has an even longer story with the production of bells, dating back 10 centuries.  The family has created thousands over the years, but some of the most famous include bells in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Mariano Sanctuary in Pompeii, a “Peace Bell” created from shell casings from the Kosovo War, a bell depicting “The Iron Fist” in Berlin, a bell placed in the United Nations Building in NYC, and the most famous 2 meter wide (6.5 ft) “Jubilee Bell” dedicated to Pope John Paul II in 2000, which is placed in the Vatican Gardens.  Others are placed in Beijing, Jerusalem, South America, and South Korea.

Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli

Examples of their work

Details of the bronze bells

Marinelli Foundry still apply the same “lost-wax casting” technique that the founders used nearly a thousand years ago. The artisans create a brick core in the general shape and size of the bell.  On top of this, they refine the shape by hand, molding clay over the bricks, arriving at the basic form called the “anima” (soul).  This is basically the size of the empty space inside a bell.  Next, they mold a second layer of clay over the anima that has the dimensions of the final product.  This is deemed the “false bell.” All of the bell’s designs (church insignias, words, etc.), which are created out of a wax in a second workshop, are placed on the the false bell.  Finally, a third lay called the mantello (cape) is laid over the false bell.  The designs of the false bell are imprinted in the mantello, creating a negative image on the inside.  Once all layers are hardened, they remove the mantello and the false bell is destroyed.  The anima (inner layer) and the mantello (outer shell) are placed together (with a hollow space in between that was the “false bell”) in a pit where they are then covered with packed soil to firmly hold the cast. Bronze, heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit), is poured into the space to form the final bell.  The whole design process takes about three months, although the bronze solidification only takes a few hours.  Each time a bell is created, the designers start from scratch, as the molds have to be broken to release the bell from its casing.

Creating the anima (inner piece) on the brick framework

In the photo above, you can see that the tonality (note) of the bell is written on the framework above the casts.  The tone is created by the size of the bell.  The smaller the bell, the higher the note.  No matter the size, all of the bells have the same 1:1 ratio of width to height and the head of the bell is always 1/2 the width of the base of the bell.  The thickness at the bottom of the bell is 1/14th the width of the inside of the bell and the thinnest part is 1/3 of the 1/14th width.  This equation was found in the 1500s and every bell constructed since then has the same ratios.

Wax words that will be put on the “anima”

“False bell” designs ready for the negativemantelloand then the final bronze cast

Wax molds for the words

Some of the old molds for the wax decorations (church insignias, etc)

Molds for the anchor points of the bells

Bronze mixer with hole for bell placement underground

An octave of bells

A replica of the Firenze bell – note the Duomo, Baptistery and Tower

Shells from the Kosovo war that were melted down and formed into the “Peace” bell that resides in Pristina, Kosovo

Iron Fist turned into an open palm signifying the end of the Cold War



In Scapoli, we went in search of handcrafted zampogne, or Italian bagpipes.  The town, despite its miniature size, is full of culture and music.  They have multiple shops selling instruments, and even a life-size statue of a man playing the bagpipes.  Following the signs to the Zampogna Museum, we ran into a small shop on the corner, where an artist named Franco was working on a few zampogne.  Pressing him for details about the instrument, he explained to us he “just didn’t have time,” but we were free to take photos.  While clicking away, Bobby asked him a few questions about the type of leather they used for the bags of the bagpipes (the old bags are actually made from sheep or goats; now they are all synthetic), and this set Franco off on a long winded explanation of all things zampogne.   Two hours later, we walked away with lots of information and an impromptu mini-concert.  I guess he had time after all.  :)

Turns out, Franco is pretty famous in the world of zampogne.  A self-claimed genius, Franco has been creating zampogne for over thirty years.  He has even created a version of the instrument where he can play two octaves (instead of just one on the other models), although “people are robbing him of his genius” due to “that damned Facebook.” Apparently he isn’t much of social networker.  I’m just kidding; actually, he is a very nice and funny man.

Franco told us a hilarious story about visiting an elementary school in nearby Isernia, which was full of Italian cultural insights.  First, Franco is incredibly generous.  For 30 euros (only to cover gas) and lunch, he will travel anywhere in the region to promote the history and use of the zampogna.  When queried by another tourist if he would travel to Isernia to explain the process to a middle school, Franco flat out refused.  Twenty years ago Franco had a bad experience over a glass of wine and cheese and hasn’t been back since.

Franco’s words:

After explaining the history and use of the zampogna to a middle school, we headed to a local restaurant to eat before my return to Scapoli.  The owner, who was the father of the waiter, prepared the food and the timid son brought it out.  After listening to the menu choices, I chose a fish plate and mussels pasta (although, I considered it a bit strange that these plates were being served in a landlocked area).  When the pasta came out, I asked if I could have some cheese for my pasta.  The son refused.  He told me that cheese is explicitly not served with pasta dishes and if he asked his father, the latter would fly off the handle.  Desperate for my cheese, I offered to pay for a the entire block and consider it a part of my personal expenses.  The son again refused, afraid of his father’s reaction. If there are two things I must have in life, they are cheese and red wine with every meal.  I’m the customer and if I want cheese, then bring it to me!  The kid dug his heels in and the meal, sadly, proceeded without cheese.

As we transitioned to the second/main dish, consisting of more fish, I asked for red wine.  The son intervened, telling me that red wine is not allowed with fish dishes, and if I wanted, he would bring me a glass of white wine.  Already stinging from the refusal of cheese, this was too much.

Here, Franco got really animated, speaking in local Italian dialect.  His hand gestures were out of control.  Although we didn’t understand everything, we died laughing the same.

I left the damn town and to this day I won’t go back! To hell with them and their ridiculous menus. 

Note: this town is less than 30 minutes away and his the principal town in the area.

Full size statue of a zampogna musician

Works in progress

Finished product (without the bag)

Franco playing the zampogna

The zampogna; the bags are now all synthetic

Happy Franco

Franco, me, and another Italian tourist

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