In the rooms where the engravers work their drawings into the steel of a shotgun’s receiver, the meditative strike of their hammers on the heads of their chisels makes a tick-tick-tick-Tick-TICK that you might first think was coming from a woodpecker’s drilling on a tree. The tones are woodsy, with intensity and punctuation. An engraver sketches the line that he or she will then follow into the steel, so the sound of the hammer hitting the chisel rises in timbre and rhythm as the point of the chisel finds its line, travels it, and the hammer blows intensify toward the end of that phrase. Twelve engravers are at work as Beretta’s master engraver, Luca Casari, and I stroll through the factory’s second-floor engraving loft in the Italian Alps, so that this soft percussive sound track comes from all corners of the room, a staccato, lapping, ongoing chorus, like the fleet play of fingers on a piano during a fugue.
What’s especially musical about all this is the process: It’s the sound of a pair of hands—the sound of a human—infusing a two-inch-by-three-inch-by-three-inch piece of steel with literally thousands of little cuts and twirls that tell a story, be it in the feathering of a setter’s leg, or in the heart-stopping leap that a pheasant makes as it takes flight. It’s an old art, in an old family factory, in an even older place that is mainly a mining culture. It’s as if everybody here is descended from Vulcan—molten ores and alloys are in their blood.
“In the mid-nineties we realized that a generation of our engravers was getting older,” Casari explains. “We needed to do something to ensure that a following generation had the craft, so we began this school. It’s a five-year course of study during which we pay them to come and learn. The thing is, if they are very talented, they may not even remain at Beretta. They are not obligated to stay. They may go off and open their own atelier in the valley.”
The valley is the Valle Trompia, green and steep in the mountains, hard by Lake Garda, fed by the rushing Mella River. Lake Garda is the eastern Alpine lake north of Verona, home of the great Alto Adige white wines, and the home, for five hundred years, of the oldest arms manufacturer in the world. The Beretta fabbrica—formally, the Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta—is literally strung out along the river for thousands of yards. At one point the river actually runs through it, just a few dozen feet from a chunk of the factory floor.
This is an apt siting for any factory, but it is especially apt for Beretta. It’s on white-water flumes like this in the steep valley that the aboriginal Alpine tribes—Celts, Teutons, Ostrogoths, Lombards, and in the case of the Valle Trompia, the namesake Trumpilini—noticed the iron in the color of the rock, and knew that they could smelt it for weapons. They did that well, and they knew how to use them, which is why the apparently fierce Trumpilini are listed first among the opponents on the circa 25 B.C. triumphal monument to Augustus near La Turbie.
Americans can be forgiven for thinking that Browning, Colt, and Smith & Wesson have grand histories—which they do, on an American scale. But let’s pause to absorb the scale of this narrative: Arms have been made in the Valle Trompia for more than two thousand years, as Augustus and his centurions discovered when they tried to take the valley for Rome. For one-fourth of those two millennia—since the Arsenal of Venice commissioned 185 harquebus barrels in 1526 from Bartolomeo Beretta, whose receipt is still in the Venetian archives—the Beretta family has been making guns here. They know how to do it.
Today the valley remains a mecca for bespoke gun clients from around the world. There are a dozen other, smaller gun fabbriche in the Valle Trompia (two of which, Benelli and Franchi, Beretta has bought), as well as some thirty custom engraving ateliers. Luca Casari—studied, philosophical, gently spoken—is the professor sitting at the fount of all this talent, coaxing, instructing, adjudicating the ancient craft. Most of the students come from the local arts lyceum, those interested in the graphic arts. This dozen have finished their master work and are staying. One young woman—in what seems something of a contrast, a sweater and jeans, before such a rigorous, formal beauty—is working on a receiver with some partridge rising before a gun. It’s exceptional work; it’s hard to believe that it is cut, rather than somehow magically poured over the gun. In fact, that’s the point of engraving, and the medieval tools used to do it.
Casari explains: “Actually, the craft began in order to cover up the little imperfections in the border areas, where the metal meets the wood, or where there were screws that came into the receiver, they would want to put some scrollwork. It grew into the art form that we know, and the goal there is to improve the manuality, the handedness of the work, the scrollwork, and the application of shadow. The other important element is the dynamism, the movement of the animals. All this starts with the research, the images personally collected and also from nature itself. It’s not just about the proportions of the head or the leg, but about movement—let’s say, the dynamic quality of a fagiano, a pheasant, when it is taking flight.”
It’s significant—and squarely in the tradition of a medieval atelier—that the Beretta students begin their study by manufacturing their own tools, meaning, the engraver’s holy triumvirate of the hammer, the chisel, and the bulino, or burin, which is the ancient beveled hand chisel with a round grip whose flattened head fits precisely into the palm of the engraver’s hand. With its deep-V beveled blade, the bulino is used for the very fine creation of shadow—the underside of a bird’s wing, the shade of a tree—which is a basic element of any narrative of movement. The more Renaissance, ornamental bas-relief scrollwork is created with the hammer and chisel.
“Would you like to try it?” says Casari gently.
“OK, Luca, but you teach people for five years. I’ve had exactly one five-minute lecture. Yours.”
“Let me demonstrate.” He smiles. Casari has been planning on this; my own personal naked block of steel—a piece of scrap, I very much hope—has been set up in the vise at the bench.
Casari addresses the workbench with all the balletic formality of his profession, feet apart shoulder width, elbows raised. The chisel rests lightly in his left hand and the hammer in his right. He pauses for a nanosecond in front of the steel, a moment of contemplation. He looks like a dancer about to leap in a grand jeté across the stage. Instead: four quick elegant taps, and the steel divides precisely along the line, curling like butter under a knife.
“The thing you want is to follow the line,” he says with great understatement, “but you don’t want the chisel to get too high, meaning, too vertical to the steel, because then it will gouge and won’t travel the line.”
He hands the tools to me. I bump the chisel out of the line at first. It’s steel, and its hold on our imaginations is that it’s a hard substance, but with tools this sharp, steel is malleable, almost liquid. My success, or better put, my avoidance of utter failure in keeping the chisel moving lies in a very measured tempo of hammer blows, and a nearly (for me, anyway) flat application of the chisel. I’m not thinking about drawing, much less “beauty” or anything like it. I’m not capable of infusing my hands with any such complex desires. I’m barely able to follow the straight line.