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IN PHOTOS: Italy's annual chimney sweep festival

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IN PHOTOS: Italy's annual chimney sweep festival
Italy has a long history of chimney sweeping. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
13:00 CEST+02:00
Each September, a small village in the Italian Alps hosts what might just be the world's biggest party for chimney sweeps. But why?

The annual celebration in Santa Maria Maggiore, near the Swiss border in northern Piedmont, goes back nearly 40 years. But the region's association with the profession of spazzocamino – chimney sweep – has a far longer history.

It was from the valleys of north-west Italy and southern Switzerland that generations of sweeps, many of them just children, set out to clean the chimneys of northern Europe, crossing the Alps in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and beyond.

By the mid-16th century, the route was so well-established that the Vigezzo Valley, where Santa Maria Maggiore lies, was marked on maps as the "Valley of Chimney Sweeps".

It was a dangerous occupation, and most sweeps had little choice when it came to entering it. Boys as young as six years old would be hired by adult sweeps to travel to far-away cities and do the literal dirty work: clambering up chimneys and scraping them clean, running the risk of burns, suffocation, respiratory disorders and cancer.

Effectively 'sold' to their masters by families too poor to feed them, the youngest sweeps worked in servitude and lived in often dire conditions.

Their story is remembered today in the Museum of Chimney Sweeps in Santa Maria Maggiore, the only one of its kind in Italy.

There you can read accounts of a practice that continued well into the 20th century, including the story of Faustino Cappini, killed in 1931 at the age of 14 when he hit electrical lines at the top of a chimney, and who is commemorated today with a statue in the nearby town of Malesco.

Thankfully things have changed since the trade began dying out in the 1940s. Nowadays only a handful of professionals still sweep chimneys, and the annual International Gathering of Chimney Sweeps is a chance for them to celebrate their craft.

Held every first weekend of September, the meet – now in its 38th year – attracts over 1,000 chimney sweeps from as far away as Russia, the United States and Japan.

It culminates with a parade through Santa Maria Maggiore – first along the streets, then across the roofs.

Sweeps don traditional dress and demonstrate the use of historical tools, as well as showing off their climbing skills. 

And in honour of all the young sweeps who left their villages in the Alps to sweep the rest of Europe's chimneys, they pay tribute at the stature of Faustino Cappini.

All photos by Marco Bertorello for AFP.

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