18th Century Venice: the Knife Grinder

Zompini shows the knife grinder (Arrotino, or Zua in dialect) with an apprentice, likely a son or nephew, who is cranking the handle that spins the whetstone in the barrow. As always, there is an explanatory rhyme in Venetian dialect. “Tuto el dì ziro, e vago via menando / La Mola in sta cariola, e a forte crio / Gua cortelini, el Gua de quando in quando.” My best attempt at translation is “All day I tramp the neighbourhood, / I crank my stone, and so I should, / To grind your knives and grind them good.” – which, though far from perfect, more or less conveys the resolute grinding spirit.

In Venice and elsewhere in Italy, knife grinders had something of a reputation as Don Juans, in much the same way as milkmen used to have in Britain, in the days when we still had door-to-door milkmen and Confessions of a Milkman was a viable cinematic project. There is, in the country dialect of Venice and the Veneto, a double meaning inherent in the knife grinder’s street cry, che ve guza la forbeseta, /el mo-le-taaa! He would guza (grind) the forbeseta (scissors, but also colloquial for woman, or female genitalia). A naughty knife grinder appears in Boccaccio, strengthening the general idea.

It was noted in the mid-nineteenth century, by the surgeon Luigi Parola,  that knife grinding had lent its name to lung disease, such were the risks of inhaling fragments of dust and metal.  “There are certain professions which are so predisposed to tuberculous cachexia that instead of designating this disease by its real name, that of its profession was applied to it. Thus came about Grinder’s Asthma [asma degli arrotini].” 

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