If you visit Berat and take a walk around its churches, squares, museums, and even hotels, the chances are you will come across the work of Xhoxhi Fani. A master of the art of stone carving, his work adorns some of the finest locations in the city. Having admired his craft at my hotel of choice, Hotel Berati, I was lucky enough to be invited to meet him and his family at their home.
Situated in the Mangalem part of Berat, the Fani house is located about halfway up the cliff, reachable only by perilously slippery cobbles that line winding and steep streets. Whitewashed walls and grey stones are typical of the old-Berati architecture, and as I pick my way up the hill like a slightly inebriated mountain goat, I cannot help but admire the quaint beauty of these ancient streets.
The Fani house has sat there in some form for over 400 years, being renovated and extended bit-by-bit over the years. It now perches on the side of the hill, almost as if it is built into the side of the mountain itself. A large wooden door marks the entrance of the abode, surrounded by foliage and climbing vines, it towers above me ominously as my guide, Luciana Fani, invites me in.
The house is cool and dark, made almost entirely of stone- stone walls, stone floors, and stone ceilings. The entrance hall is flanked by stone carvings, the fruits of her father’s labour, and homages to strong women, Albanian culture, and historical figures are joined by an intricate wooded ceiling rose that is mounted on one of the walls next to the stairs.
Xhoxhi Fani is a friendly man with kind eyes and a wide smile, he shakes my hands as we are introduced and you can feel the unmistakable roughness of someone who has worked with stone for his whole life, as you touch his skin. Stone masonry, carving, and art has been in the Fani family for generations, stretching back as far as 300 years.
With this craft in the blood, Xhoxhi started learning the trade from his father as a young boy before undergoing formal training and education in the ways of stonework. He laments the fact that traditional crafts such as this are dying out, but he tells me proudly that his youngest daughter has shown an interest in carrying on the family tradition. The problem is, he explains, that people today do not want to pay for quality work, much preferring to pay less for moulded items, meaning that there is little motivation for youngsters to take up this ancient profession.
I look around his studio, marvelling at the intricacy of the items he has carved- wall tiles, elaborate mantels, and a bust of Nene Tereza, are just a couple of examples of his extraordinary talent. I point at the sculpture of Albania’s favourite saint, and he explains that this took him almost a year to complete, working some days for up to 8 hours, as and when the passion inspired him. It is when you realise how much time and effort goes into these pieces, that you can start to appreciate the reason his work is not cheap.
It is also worth noting that if he makes a mistake, there is no such thing as rubbing it out, glueing it back on, or painting it over. The smallest of errors with his chisel could mean discarding months or even years of work and starting again from scratch. The amount of patience that goes into every single mark is palpable and it is clear to see that this is not just a job for Xhoxhi, it is a passion and a way of life.
Amongst the completed and half-finished wood and stone pieces in his studio, hangs a brightly painted piece of wood on the wall. When I enquire as to its origins, Luciana explains that it is the lid of a chest, well over 200 years old in age. She tells me that according to Albanian tradition when a woman was to marry, she would pack all of her possessions into a specially made chest that would then be transported to her house on the day of her marriage- this lid was all that remained of one of the Fani ancestors wedding boxes.
After exploring the intricate pieces of art in the studio downstairs, I was invited upstairs into the heart of the family home. Luciana proudly showed me the master bedroom- authentic in every way to bedrooms of the last couple of hundred years. Traditional shutters on the windows, intricate wooden panelled ceilings, handmade lace curtains and cushion covers, it was decorated in hues of oak, pale pink, and delicate white.
We make our way out onto the balcony and the view takes my breath away- the houses of old Berat stretch out before us from this unique vantage point and the river snakes its way into the mountains beyond. This has to be one of the best views in the city and framed by the vines of the Fani terrace, it is the perfect place to sit and reflect. A couple of cats mill around my feet and headbutt my ankles demanding affection, and we sit down for some conversation, washed down with sweet fruit liqueurs.
Luciana and her family explain how they open their home to those individuals who want to learn about the history of stonemasonry, as well as those that want to experience authentic Albanian hospitality. Luciana speaks six languages and is passionate about creating authentic and sustainable tourism opportunities, not just in Berat, but around Albania. Losing the heart of what makes Albania, Albania, is an important part of this desire, and offering unique experiences to visitors whilst supporting trades that are declining in popularity is something very important to her.
As well as promoting intelligent tourism, it is important to their family to promote masonry as a craft that should not be allowed to die out. There are many trades, crafts, and traditions that were once prevalent that are now at risk of extinction- from food to textiles, to stone carving, much is being lost as youngsters migrate to Tirana or abroad, in search of job opportunities in hospitality, tourism, or other professions. Keeping the family legacy alive is important to them and they hope to achieve it through their art house and the work that Xhoxhi and his youngest daughter are continuing to do with perseverance and love.
Having the opportunity to explore this beautiful house as well as to learn more about this fascinating craft was a truly memorable experience. The Fani family are an outstanding example of Albanian hospitality and getting to sit on their terrace whilst devouring homemade raki and candied fruits and chatting about life and culture in Albania has been one of the highlights of recent months. The intricacy and delicate skill required to create Xhoxhi Fani’s artwork is truly outstanding, and you can see that he undertakes his work with passion and dedication.
Thank you to the Fani family.
You can contact Luciana here
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