We often talk about exhibitions in Milan, London, New York, but we forget that some countries, such as Italy – but also France, Spain, Greece but not only – are populated with small villages that tell unique stories of craftsmanship, local workers and national history. An example of these realities is Bienno, an ancient medieval village in Valle Camonica, in the province of Brescia, which has become a real open-air workshop for 31 and 12 years respectively, with the Mostra Mercato and with the Borgo degli Artisti. The locality is also part of the Club I Borghi più Belli d’Italia (Most Beautiful Villages in Italy Club) and in 2010 it received the prestigious “Bandiera Arancione” (Orange Flag) award issued by the Italian Touring Club, an excellence and quality certificate in hospitality reserved for small inland towns.
The village has well-preserved historical and recent architecture: the Simoni Fè Palace, the sixteenth-century Casa degli Artisti, the historic craft shops and forges equipped as laboratories, the narrow streets that open onto medieval courtyards, but also the mill that still collects the water from Vaso Ré. It is an artificial canal that has been collecting part of the waters of the Grigna stream for almost a thousand years: once, it supplied the energy necessary to move the hammers of the forges, the millstones of the mills and the blades of the sawmills and subsequently to the electric control unit – another historic architecture used as an exhibition space during events.
Creativity for the territory
In this context, the Mostra Mercato was born: for 31 years it has brought works of art, installations, handcrafted products, shows, music and ancient crafts to the attention of visitors who numbered 230,000 last year. All exhibitors and artisans are given a space around the village center where they can show and sell their works. Every evening the squares of the village come alive with different music and there is no shortage of touring music bands, tasty food, installations and performances. “It’s not a village festival, this is tradition, it’s the history of our places” say the Biennesi (people from Bienno).
To underline once again the village’s attention to culture and creativity, alongside the Mostra Mercato, in 2011 the Municipality of Bienno in collaboration with the Valle Camonica Cultural District and the Bienno Tourism Association, decided to create a residency program for artists (but also artisans and designers), Borgo degli Artisti 2.0.
The artistic residency program of Borgo degli Artisti 2.0
With the artistic direction of Cinza Bontempi since 2022, the cultural association Borgo degli Artisti 2.0 presents every year a call for residence with a different theme that aims to celebrate the “artisan shop” model.
To participate, you must send your project proposal – which must be realized on site during the residency. If selected by the commission, you will be offered a place to stay, a workshop or forge (depending on the material and workmanship) as a workplace and exhibition space and the materials necessary for the realization of the project. The minimum residency is 10 days and can be extended up to 6 months – during this time there is the possibility to exhibit your work through events, presentations, artist talks, workshops, shows, screenings and, at the end of the year, to participate in the collective exhibition with relative printed catalog. Those who are selected for the artistic residency in the summer period will be able to take part in the Mostra Mercato with a free exhibition space.
The 2023 theme was Heritage Innovation, interpreted both by the permanent artists of the biennial program of Borgo degli Artisti 2.0 – Renato Calaj, Daniele Fabiani, Stefano Mendeni, Claudio Ercoli, Art of Sool, Tomaso Vezzoli, Milena Berta e Alessandro Pedretti, Nolwen Raffalli, Emma Prandelli, Perry Bianchini, Camilla Gagliardi – and from the 2023 residency artists, Alice Bontempi, Maria Elena Pombo Fragmentario, Griffin Moore, Francesco Pegurri, Augusto Daniel Gallo, Tiziana Romeo, Violetta Uboldi, Mauro de Carli, Michela Mazzoni and 7 students from the Celere High School of Lovere.
A selection of the works exhibited in Bienno
To show the multidisciplinary nature of the event, we have selected some of the artists/designers present during the recently concluded Mostra Mercato 2023.
Claudio Ercoli is a blacksmith specialized in creating handmade pattern welded steel. It is the first iron and steel technique used by men to build blades by forging a mass of iron and steel and creating a remarkable aesthetic effect. Specialized in the creation of one-of-a-kind knives, Claudio is following the process to become a Master of this art (he would be one of the few in Europe). He works in the forge and is perhaps the artist who best represents the tradition of the village: in his technique there is the history of the place reinterpreted in a current way.
Fragmentario, founded by María-Elena Pombo, who received one of three Mentions at SaloneSatellite 2023 with Avocado Seed Brick, continues her material research with local resources: iron, chestnuts and corn to create an installation that shows the potential of these materials. The chestnut shells were used to give a pink color to the fabric while rusted iron nails supplied by artist Claudio Ercoli were used to shift said color to purple. The cornstarch has been processed into a plastic-like substance that gives the piece its three-dimensional shape.
Renato Calaj brings contemporary art to Palazzo Simoni Fè with a site-specific installation that ponders time and architecture: the foundations of a room meet decoration and furnishing accessories. A contrast between time, form and aesthetics represented by a carpet and a series of paintings that interact with four foundation plinths made by the artist.
Trained in Brera, Daniele Fabiani is a visual artist who, after experiences as a textile designer for famous fashion brands, decides to devote himself to art by experimenting: from pencil to mixed technique, Daniele’s delicate paintings are inspired by the landscapes of his places and by his feelings.
Founded in 2010, Art of Sool is a crew of artists formed by Mark, Clod and Nick dedicated to graphics and illustration at 360 degrees: paintings, graffiti and art mix with each-other, as well as storyboards and advertising directions for brands such as Pampers, Algida, Yamaha and Sony.
Alice Bontempi‘s artistic production starts from illustration to arrive at a plurality of languages and techniques: in Bienno she brings her sketchbooks, collages, illustrations and graphics with an installation in the Casa degli Artisti that invites the visitor to enter her creative process.
Also worth mentioning is Francesco Pegurri, specialist in calligraphy and lettering, disciplines he uses to create graphic patterns and paintings of landscapes and city views, in a game of depth, shapes and colours.
Bienno is undoubtedly an interesting case study, not only for its history and tourist location, but because it has managed to continue a local tradition and renew it without changing its identity. And so artists from all over the world come to spread their art and discover the area, visitors crowd the streets in search of new projects and works and a healthy tourism is created, linked to culture, respect for the environment and the history of the village.
To participate in the Borgo degli Artisti 2.0 residency programme, visit the Bienno website – their official one will be published shortly – and follow the association on Instagram!
Photography by Griffin Moore unless stated otherwise