Pachamama: discovering Santarcangelo's Ancient Mangle

In the last episode of Orbea's Pachamama, gravel riding takes us to the Romagna region in Italy discover the ancient art of pressing fabrics with wheeled mangles

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There's something magic and groundbreaking about wheels.

In the Copper Age, more than 4,000 years ago, wheeled machines were used to shape raw clay into ceramic. The earliest machines, made of wood, moved different types of vehicles. Later, around 2,300 years ago, the Greeks found a way to use the power of running water in mills to grind, roll and hammer different products and materials. The ancient Romans would go on to use the same technology – wheels – for various other purposes, including mining and building bridges, roads, palaces, and theatres.

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Wheels made hard things more accessible. And they still do, like when you cycle long distances that are almost unreachable by foot. Wheels, and bicycles, are also the improbable trait d'union between another incredible wheel - the mangano (mangle) - and Pachamama, Orbea's effort to safeguard cycling's deepest essence: cycling with Mother Nature at heart.

The Ancient Mangle

Like other examples of wheeled engines, the Antico Mangano of the Print House Marchi in Santarcangelo (Emilia Romagna, Italy) uses the power of wheels to smooth and compress fabrics like linen, hemp and jute. But unlike older versions of the technology that required many men to be used, this one – which dates back at least to 1633 and has been used ever since – only needs a single individual's power. 

It's little surprise that the Stamperia Marchi's Mangano was a breakthrough innovation, since Leonardo Da Vinci's genius was behind the historic improvement. With a new balance and proportions between the wheel and its big axle (together, they weigh 55 tons), Leonardo could use a single person's weight to activate the heavy wood of the wheel gears.After the fabric is chosen and washed, it gets pressed with the mangle, making the warp and the weave of the canvas smooth and soft. But at this point, the work of the Marchi family is not finished, as they're first and foremost a historic print house which uses a dye you likely haven't heard of.

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Iron Dust

"The fabric is now ready to be hand printed," explains Alfonso Marchi, third-generation artisan and the Print House Marchi (Stamperia Marchi). "But what has distinguished the print in Romagna is the magic of a colour: iron dust."And while rust is bad news if it starts building on your chain, the opposite is the effect for historic print houses, which used it as the primary shade for their products.

"Iron dust gives a colouring which is very strong on the fabric. And that's why the ancient dyers said this was a magical colour. It doesn't get ruined, and remembers the bread fresh from the oven. It remembers the wheat. It remembers everything that's sunny," he explains.

The Marchi family still uses old patterns the farmers used for their oxen blankets. Their work has always served not only the local community but also travellers and traders from the nearby Valmarecchia.

Surviving the War

However, Marchi's print house and mangle almost disappeared during WWII.

Alfonso's family needed wood to sustain the family's needs, and it seemed that no one required the mangle anymore. But the then eight-year-old Alfonso implored his grandfather to save it. The older man couldn't resist his grandson – the only reason the historic machinery is still working today.

However, clients were scarce and not knocking at the door any longer. They had to go to local markets and display their products in order to survive. Among the things that helped a historical activity and machine survive was another wheel, that of a bicycle.

Wheels for wheels

"My grandfather used to go with his bicycle to Sogliano, San Marino, and San Leo when the markets were held," says Alfonso Marchi, third generation artisan and the Print House Marchi (Stamperia Marchi). "And he did this regularly because looking for a job and finding a job to do wasn't like today when they bring it to you at home. So you had to go and get it."That effort paid off, as it helped the family and the mangle to survive. But to keep in good working shape, one needs to use it every day, like a bicycle. 

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"In Santarcangelo, there's a mangano which is still active, intact, and which has never been modified or restored," says Alfonso. "You restore it by keeping it alive, working with it daily."

Future proof

And at least for the time being, the Marchi's mangle is safe. Alfonso's son Gabriele is still active in the old family's tradition and is the fourth generation of the family to work at the print house."Ever since I was a child, I came here to play in the workshop, and we could say that step by bit, I learned the ropes by playing," says Gabriele.

It's not an easy job. Not only because being an artisan requires many hours and sacrifices these days. But also because keeping the family mangle fit and safeguarding it for the future is extra work on its own. But it is something he would not change for anything else in the world.

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"It's a responsibility but also a pleasure," says Gabriele. "When people come to our workshop and see what we can do, they can't believe it's handmade. So this gives me great satisfaction, and I'm very proud of it."

Once again, the similarity with cycling is a close one. Without hard work and sacrifice, we'd probably enjoy cycling a little less.

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