December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Knife in the water

By |2018-03-21T18:35:41+01:00February 6th, 2009|At Large & Sports|
The world's heaviest knife in Arbus. Photos by Eliot Stein.

ardinia’s proud pastoral heritage has evolved with its most treasured tool: handmade knives. The cutting edge roots run deep. In the ancient Neolithic Age, early island inhabitants mined one of the Mediterranean’s rarest and most coveted commodities, obsidian, known as “black gold,” and shaped it into sharp blades for sale as far away as Tuscany and France.

Later, the Bronze Age descendents of miners sculpted bronzetti statues showing men wielding double-edged daggers. In more recent times, Sardinian shepherds turned to local blacksmiths to produce fine knives to help them during the weeks they spent wandering the countryside with their flocks. Over the last three decades, these handmade knives have become prized for their artistic craftsmanship. They are now among the most original souvenirs you can purchase from Sardinia.

Traditionally, each Sardinian village produced its own style of knives with varying trademark features. Technological advances have rendered this time-honored and arduous trade virtually obsolete, but there are still plenty of towns across the island that continue to churn out handmade blades. Two of the more respected are Guspini and Arbus.

The guspinese is characterized by a slightly rounded handle with an amputated point, making it look something like an old-time shaving blade (and getting around Italy’s obscure law stating that it is “illegal to carry a knife with a sharp point longer than the width of four fingers.”)

The arbourese has a broader, ridged blade and curved, one-piece handle traditionally used by shepherds for skinning. Inevitably, the main draw in the sleepy town is the Museo del Coltello run by master knife-maker Paolo Pusceddu who, in addition to displaying a fine collection of historical knives from around Sardinia, has the distinction of having created the heaviest knife in the world: a dainty 295-kilogram dagger that is displayed in the museum’s driveway. The Guinness Book of World Records certificate is inside.

However, as any good male Sardo will attest, the epitome of Sardinian craftsmanship is unquestionably Pattada’s world-renowned pattadese. Distinguished by a metallic ring between the handle and its myrtle leaf-shaped blade, the classic pattadese design is the resolza (“razor” in Sardo). Historically, shepherds used a single resolza jack-knife to sheer wool, kill their sheep, clean their nails and cut their meat.

While most shepherds can no longer afford these increasingly popular blades, their style hasn’t changed since the 1840s: Blacksmiths cut the outside of a ram or mouflon’s horn that has been aged at least four years to make the knife’s handle. The handle is then heated by a flame for five-to-10 minutes to become more malleable, straightened in a vice and separated. Finally, the blacksmith places a stainless steel blade inside the two-piece handle and joins the sides with screws to allow it to fold.

There are more than 15 knife-makers in Pattada, and while you can’t go wrong with any of them, the most famous is unquestionably the Fogarizzu family, which has been making pattadesi for four generations. Regardless of the town, most blacksmiths today only work from custom orders. Just plan on paying a pretty penny for these labor-intensive crafts — high-quality knives take about 10 hours to make and usually cost between €150-200.

For more information on the history, production process, and ways to order an authentic “Coltello Sardo,” check the following links (in both Italian and English): Coltello Sardo, Traditizioni Sarde and Fogarizzu.

About the Author:

Eliot Stein is a proud native of Silver Spring, Md. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Italian studies and journalism and left for Italy the next morning. He has studied sociolinguistics at the University of Siena, kayaked through the Tuscan archipelago and taught English in Cagliari, Sardinia. He is the author of Footprint's guidebook to Sardinia and his writing has appeared in Travelers' Tales Best Travel Writing 2008 anthology, Budget Travel, MSNBC.COM, and Creative Loafing. He now lives and works in Washington, D.C.