Tucked away on the western edge of the archipelago, the Ta Dbiegi craft village is a honey-pot for visitors to the island. For an insight into the island’s artisan heritage in situ, however, walk three hundred metres further west along Triq San Lawrenz where the remnants of an old trade can still be found and locals continue to come by to have their tools fixed or made.
The bare wooden doors of a striking square building are thrown open beneath a traditional stone balcony, the windows on either side latticed with iron curlicues. Inside, working in the space that was built by his grandfather Carmel Formosa in 1901, Lawrence Formosa can be found in a high-arched workshop beside the forge’s flickering fire.
The world may have changed dramatically outside since the workshop was built, but step through the door and a time warp takes visitors back to the early years of last century. Admittedly, there is now electricity and goods are no longer paid for in shillings and pence but other than this little has changed.
The walls, ceiling and rough stone floor are soot-blackened from decades of use, a dark over-ground cave illuminated by the sunlight streaming in onto shiny rods and scrap metal piled high by old wooden benches, coils and shapes burnished a dark rust red-brown.
In the middle, Lawrence, known locally as Wenzu l-Haddied, stands. He’s a timeless character plying the heavy tools of the trade by the fire using only the traditional techniques and skilful hands like a mythological figure working at the giant anvil. The rods glow red and white hot amongst the coals, and as the air blows sparks sprinkle the air like fireflies. The sound of iron on iron reverberates loudly on the stone walls as Wenzu’s hammer beats flat blades with a regular patterned rhythm.
Alongside the anvil, a compact coal fire burns bright, air pumped into its heart by an electric blower, the only concession to modernity. Behind this, however, in an alcove you can see huge bellows held steady in a time-old wooden frame. These are now obsolete but before the arrival of electricity it was young Wenzu’s job to manually aerate the fire, pulling the chain above, another hot and heavy task.
Once upon a time there were two blacksmiths workshops in neighbouring Gharb, one in Ghasri, another in Nadur and eleven in Victoria. These have closed over the years however and Wenzu is now the last traditional blacksmith on the island. Now 72, he has worked here for the last sixty years, since he was twelve. One of seven siblings, he was the only child to follow in his father and grandfathers’ footsteps and learn the ancient art of blacksmithing. As a child, Wenzu loved Gozo, the place, the people and the skills he learnt in the forge. “My brothers all moved to Australia,” he smiles. “I went too, but only for a holiday!”
Wenzu married a girl from Sannat and together they moved from the parish of San Lawrenz, where he grew up and went to school, to neighbouring Gharb where they have raised their family and have now lived for 40 years. Like his brothers, Wenzu’s sons have also chosen to follow different paths so there will be no one working the forge when Wenzu finishes working there. “It’s sad,” he says, “but what can you do? The world moves on.”
In the past, Wenzu and his father, Nadu, made scythes and farm tools used for every purpose in the fields; axes and mallets for builders and stone carvers working with soft stone locally-quarried; hinges, handles and keys for doors and also rails, balconies and stairs too.
For over a century, blacksmiths in Gharb – and Wenzu who lives in Gharb across a single field from his San Lawrenz forge – have also had a signature specialty for which they were renowned: ‘l-Gharb blade’ or Gharb knife, a traditional knife with a particularly sharp blade which people travelled from Malta to buy. With hard blades up to five inches long, their production dates back to the end of the nineteenth century when blacksmith Wigi Portelli made a knife in this style from the blade of a razor, according to historian Patrick Formosa, author of A History of Gharb (shortlisted for the National Book Prize 2019), and so began the trade of knife-making in Gharb. These super-sharp penknives quickly became so popular that local forges concentrated increasingly on their production and many are found upon the chopping board in kitchens throughout Malta and further afield.
Guiseppe Joseph Portelli, now 90, was the last blacksmith in Gharb until his retirement, working at forge opposite Rangers FC bar. Wenzu, his distant cousin, is the last person still making them, turning their handles from small blocks of woods.
Although in his youth, Wenzu and his father worked from early in the morning until late at night, now he opens for just a few hours each morning and afternoon. During these periods visitors are welcomed to pick up an Gharb knife or to appreciate old skills and the passing of time.
Published in The Times of Malta 23rd October 2019