Sometime in September of 1890, in a small Italian village called Ornavasso in the Piedmont region of Italy, a man called Enrico Bianchetti recieved news of something that would obsess him until his death. 56 year old Bianchetti was born into an affluent family, studied science, and became a meteorologist. His house was large and stately and contained a well stocked library, a photography laboratory, a mechanical workshop and an observatory in the roof. In 1878 he’d published an archeological tome “L’Ossola Inferiore. Historical Information & Documents”. The book had taken 15 years of study and application to write.
To the north of Ornavasso along the Sempione state road sits a small rural oratory dedicated to S. Bernardo. The little church sits atop a strip of land a meter or so high and vines grow in the grass of the embankment. On this slight elevation within the flat countryside, labourers were working on the new railway line between Novara and Domodossola. The labourers began digging up shards of ancient sandstone vases and fragments of copper objects. Bianchetti, the keen archeologist was alerted and immediately began co-ordinating an excavation of the area near the church with his friend Giuseppe Antonio Ronchi.
Bianchetti discovered a vast ancient cemetary covering over 1,700 square metres. A necropolis that dated back to the second half of the 1st century BC.
The excavations went on for 3 years, from 1890 to 1893 and led to the discovery of another at nearby In Persona to the north. The first necropolis at San Bernardo was the oldest and dated from 150 years BC, those buried there were the first 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.
With the help of a team of locals, Bianchetti systematically unearthed grave after grave. The majority of the dead were inhumations – buried with weapons, everyday objects or what little riches they had. Some were cremated, their skulls however sat intact inside funereal urns. The skulls of the poor were found in urns of clay. The skull urns of higher ranking individuals were bronze. Some bodies were cremated in-situ, their grave objects burned with them, the grave then filled with earth. In life, 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 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. Across his lap he holds a stick-like excavation tool. He looks exhausted.
The grave goods of the Leponti were numberous. By the time he’d finished, Bianchetti had found 165 tombs and unearthed 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 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.
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. They 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.