Messors: Art Restoration, Culinary & Art Sojourns in Italy

Posted on March 15, 2012 by Luis Valdizon

Tonio is a dear friend of ours, and in addition to providing Le Marché St. George with some of the finest olive oil that could ever touch your lips, he runs a company that provides the most enchanting art restoration, culinary workshops and art sojourns in old-world Italy. If you've been looking to escape the monotony of city life and are looking for something rare and real, Messors is exactly what you've been dreaming about. I can guarantee that after reading this interview and visiting their site for more information and photography, that everyone will be booking flights to Italy and workshops with Messors. It is with great pleasure that we present to you another interview with the humble and magnificent Tonio Creanza.

For people not familiar with Messors, can you give them a general introduction?

Messors is the name of a workshop series I conduct in Italy - it's a new branch of my art restoration company, Sinergie, that I founded in 1989. Messors workshops include fresco, canvas, statuary and decorative restoration, origins of the Mediterranean cuisine, shepherding, and excursions to explore the southern regions of Puglia and Basilicata.

My background is in surveying, archeology and art restoration, and for the past twenty years I have been restoring frescoes, statues and canvases in private collections and for regional churches.

In 1994, after spending sometime abroad in Canada, the United States and Mexico, I returned, wanting to continue the 'cultural exchange experience' but on my native soil of Puglia. I came up with the idea to organize a volunteer camp to restore a historically important site and masseria located on the ancient Via Appia trade route. The site dates back to the neolithic period, which is rich with rupestral caves adorned with Byzantine frescoes, and archeological remains, and was a working farm up until the 1950's. Amazingly, the 'crazy' idea worked, and together with my colleagues we hosted over 700 international volunteers, and by 2009, 80% of the site was restored, thanks to their industrious enthusiasm. In addition to the volunteer sessions, we developed accredited fresco and archeology programs with an American university.

In recent years I've expanded the focus of the workshops, so the need arose to find a new name to encompass the new content and our growing contributors in the fields of cultural heritage, culinary history, architecture, local farmers, and shepherds, etc. I named our new crop of workshops Messors, after the Roman god of harvests - and I was delighted by the description of the aptly named 'messor ants' who are "flexible foragers and harvesters found in the old and new world, who are noted as industrious accomplished architects and whose role is to carry the seeds and distribute them." I think I'm a either a messor, the ant, or both. I grew up harvesting olives, wheat, almonds, and grapes on my father's land on the central agricultural plains of Puglia, and as a teenager, if I wasn't seeding a new crop or foraging for wild edible plants, I was discovering the subterranean world of rupestrian settlements and underground churches, and excavating burial sites and hellenic pottery.

I think of each workshop as a harvest: Harvesting ideas and knowledge and distributing them.

What makes your workshops different from those of others?

I was in the fields at a young age, learning by listening and watching, but mostly by 'doing'. By 11, I already had the responsibility of driving the tractor from town to the countryside, and given the confidence by my parents to help decide what was ripe for harvesting. And as young man with a blossoming interest in art history and archeology, I was fortunate enough to participate on archeological excavations and gained invaluable knowledge from the practical aspect of the excavation itself. So much of my learning beyond theory in art restoration has come from the actual process as it unfolds, because each object of antiquity has presented itself with its own set of problems that are unique to its own history. I apply this same philosophy to all of our workshops. To do, is to learn.

I believe to learn art restoration, one needs to first understand the methods and techniques of restoration but absolutely must marry these theories with hands-on practice. So many questions, answers and solutions come from active participation. All participants put theory into practice by working directly on rupestrian byzantine frescoes and statues and canvases from local churches. Its always about returning to the source or original state of creation. And the same is true too, when applied to the culinary workshops. We look at the evolution of its core roots. During the culinary programs we go to Pompeii to investigate the era of the idea of chefs and recipes, we work and meet with farmers and cheese makers, and learn how olive oil is extracted, so that one understands what is in the bottle and on your table.

Beyond the focus of the actual workshop themselves, everyone is all together, working and living in an elegant and rustic farmhouse (masseria) in the countryside, surrounded by acres of rolling fields. There is a shepherd who lives onsite; he goes to pasture each morning, and you can decide to take a walk with him and the herd; local cheese makers arrive each morning to make fresh cheese which you can watch if you chose. Massseria La Selva was built in the the 18th century as hunting lodge for the Roman Orsini family. The masseria has story-telling family collections of old pitchforks and farm tools, fencing masks, trophies, paintings, and antique furniture. We like to have long dinners outside in the courtyard, where sometimes locals drop by to practice their English or share their Italian - it can be really funny and fun.

On some warm summer nights we pull out the guitar and sing with the ever present chorus of the cicadas or project films on the exterior of the masseria, which makes for memorable evenings. We try to get to the traditional Sunday night stroll, passiagata, in the town of Altamura, and look for theatre and music that is going on in neighbouring towns. Hopefully there is a procession or festival of some kind going on- this year I want to try to go an ancient festival that I have yet to see, in which two trees are grafted together, or 'married'; there are big white oxen decorated with flowers that pull the fallen trees into town as people cheer. Two years ago we caught an intimate concert of Patrick Watson in Lecce, singing in a small stone square. People arrived with their children, old people brought their own wooden chairs, residents were out on their terraces and Watson sang with some local singers. It was fantastic. One of the wonderful things about Italy is most concerts and music festivals are free to attend because they are sponsored by local municipailties, so that everyone can go. Also there will be a Canadian group of archeologists who will be working on an excavation nearby this summer, participants of the workshops are welcome to go one day and watch how it is all done. We visit the coastline beaches and surrounding towns. In short, we are always looking for experiences and events that are fun and connect the traveler to the people of the region.

I heard that you're newly offering a culinary focused program, can you speak about this? Why now?

My passion for food, and all the traditions and festivities that surround eating, were central to my childhood. Essentially, it's my deep connection to working on my farmland and a perspective gained from traveling in other societies that led me to develop the culinary program, which focus on the origins of food specific to the Mediterranean diet.. In today's western culture, especially in big cities, I feel there is a disconnection between people and their food and the enjoyment of eating. I grew up eating what was available on the land - what was in season, or that what was made locally. Our family will eat fava beans and chicory or cherries infused in every meal for three weeks, and we devour it because we know it is the season for it and in two weeks something else will be ripe for eating. I believe as a culture and community that we can be connected to what we are eating through knowledge of how food is grown, harvested, and arrives at our tables. With that knowledge we can, in a way, influence what is offered to us in our local community markets.

The workshops focus on the fundamentals; the quality of crops, produce, ingredients, and methods of cooking that encompass health and pleasure - The Mediterranean Diet - from the old Greek words: dia-ita, way of living, life style - still largely practiced in the daily life of Puglia. These culinary traditions and this lifestyle has remained constant over the centuries, and is a good example of the connection of people's lives with the environment. By making our own cheeses, bread, olive oil, pasta, wine, sausages, etc, and sourcing the produce directly from the farmer or the fish from the port market there is a journey for your meal and a social interaction involved that leads to communal celebrations and festivities.

When Jamie Oliver came to my hometown of Altamura during his filming of his series Great Italian Escapes, he asked a group of kindergarten students to identify different types of vegetables. They knew them all. Oliver posed the same questions to high school students in the United States and they were floundering - because so many of them had never seen the vegetables in their raw natural state, either because things weren't being cooked at home, or because the ingredients had morphed too far from the natural state and in turn were lacking the health benefits. Another interesting side note about the Mediterranean culture and their connection to their food culture is that a great NY Times article was about how after three economically unsuccessful years, McDonald's shut down in Altamura (a population of 70,000) because it couldn't compete with the local food culture. It wasn't a direct protest to the fast food culture, the locals just didn't know what to make of the ingredients; the chicken McNuggets and deep-fried 'fries'. Not to mention that McDonald's was trying to package all those strange looking ingredients in buns - to sell to a culture who had been making their own bread for a millennia. The Altamura bread that even Horace noted in 37 B.C. was "by far the best bread to be had, so good that the wise traveler takes a supply of it for his onward journey." This culture, by staying true to their food, unintentionally took down the 'giant' - McDonald's.

Tonio, you're well known for working with Francis Ford Coppola. I'd love to hear more about this story.

Francis Ford Coppola had bought the historical Palazzo Margherita in Bernalda, the birthplace of his grandfather Agostino. My colleagues and I were contacted to do the restoration of the interior decorative wall paintings and the exterior plaster reliefs and decorative marbling on the exterior. We made extensive samples of decorative applications, finishes and styles for Coppola and his team, which included the French designer Jacques Grange. It was great personal pleasure to come to agreement with Maestro Coppola on the direction the restoration of the decorative applications took. He was very attentive to every single detail throughout the course of the restoration. And from what I understand, there was input on the details and the overall vision of the palazzo from his family members which I felt reflected the idea of a family restoring their roots.

I worked there intermittently through the course of a year working in the practices of Venetian plaster, tromp l'oiel, architectural decorative reliefs and false marble. I feel proud to have worked with such a creatively driven group of individuals, and on a project that exemplifies restoration in its finest detail. To see photos, the cover story of the March issue of The World Of Interiors details the completed Coppola's palazzo.

Puglia has become an increasingly popular luxury travel destination. What are your thoughts on the area, and why the recent spike in interest has taken place?

Maybe because the new luxury is aligning with the old idea of travel exploration, with culturally interested travelers seeking educational travel, creative travel, destinations off the beaten tourist track, a desire for a less ostentatious travel destination, or more of a feeling of privacy, away from large group of tourists. Sun, months of guaranteed sun. Wines of Puglia are gaining notoriety. Incredibly delicious, unadulterated fresh food. Its a region bordered by three brilliantly blue azure seas. Its incredibly wealthy in remains of ancient civilizations, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture, age old traditions of patron saints and festivities, too. It's amazing that with the steady boom of tourism in northern Italy, that Puglia has remained relatively untouched by tourism. There are close to zero shops selling postcards, t-shirts or trinkets. In 1950, half of the population of the nearby town of Matera, still lived the sassi (cave dwellings) that their ancestors built and lived in 9000 years ago, and most those dwellings still didn't have running water until the late 50's. And if you want a beach, town, castle or hill all to yourself, go between 1 to 3 PM because the entire southern region will be eating lunch or taking a siesta.

What is one of your favourite moments that you have experienced during Messors' workshops, that exemplifies what your program and Puglia are all about?

There've been so many in twenty years and it's quite difficult to tell one in particular. The best feeling is about sharing my passion for restoration, history, food and my native region with participants.

But a fresh memory I have from last year during the restoration workshop, was that of a very reserved Japanese scientist who was working at Harvard University. After having spent the day in the barn immersed on a restoration project and picking tomatoes under the sun, while conversing about the experience at the dinner table they said, ”I'm living in a world too large and in a hurry all the time, but here I feel something different; the duration of the time is the same but, here, I enjoy thinking... I would like to improve this feeling in my world.”

During an archeology program we unearthed what we felt was an exciting 3rd century B.C. burial site; in one of the tombs there was a skeleton of child who had been laid to rest with an egg in his hands, the egg was still perfectly intact. Restoring a fresco of St. Christopher in my hometown of Altamura. The fresco of the Saint carrying the child Jesus to safety across the river, symbolizes safe journeys for all. It's situated to encircle walls, so that it could be seen by all those that once entered and left the original city centre.

What type of people would be interested in attending your workshops?

I've never targeted the workshops to any one specific group of people. There have been participants that after the art restoration workshop have decided to make their career in the field, others that have returned year after year as a 'second family' holiday destination; other solo travelers that have enjoyed the tranquil pace of life while learning something unique, interesting and useful; there have been university students who wanted to complete or integrate their theoretical studies with hands-on experience; mothers/fathers and sons/daughters wanting to share a cultural and educational vacation; couples in search of diversifying their dynamics by learning something new together while traveling, and ìn a group environment; teachers and speakers who now talk about their experience in their own courses and added the workshop content to their own programs; journalists in search of inspiration for an authentic story to write about; all walks of life!

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