Have you ever wondered how ice was produced before the advent of the refrigerator in the 1920s? I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the places where the ice was produced and hear about it directly from local people whose parents and grandparents had worked there. In fact, in the Pistoia Apennines, there is a place called the ‘old Reno icehouses’ or ‘ghiacciaie della Madonnina’, named after the small statue of the Madonna and Child in a niche in the main building. A few years ago, the province of Pistoia restored the complex, which runs through the Reno valley between the villages of Le Piastre and Ponte Petri. It is a very interesting site to visit, especially in summer, when the heat makes people flee from the cities to the mountains. The route runs along the side of the Reno River for about two kilometres, passing over stone and wooden bridges.
From the path you can still see the lock mechanisms, gore and ponds that are still in operation. In practice, the lock mechanism held back the water so that it became solid in winter. The ice was then crushed with pickaxes and transported by wagons covered with thick hemp cloths pulled by animals, the barrocci, to the ice house proper, which is a large round stone structure with a pointed thatched roof. The walls of this structure, pulled dry, are about 3 metres thick. This place was prepared as early as September with a soil of dry chestnut leaves, which acted as insulation. In winter, the ice was stored in these structures where it would keep until summer. In the summer, the ice was taken by wagon to Pistoia and Florence, but also to neighbouring regions such as Liguria, Lazio, Emilia Romagna and Marche, where it was brought by rail.
A bit of history
It was Grand Duke Peter Leopold II of Lorraine who decided to take advantage of the area’s cold temperatures and altitude to create a trade that began in the late 1700s and lasted until just before the Second World War. In 1800 the Via Modenese was built and a few years later the Porrettana railway was also inaugurated. The icehouses were located along the road and this greatly increased this trade.
In the early years of production the ice was sold to butchers (to preserve meat) and to hospitals, but then some Florentine gentlemen installed iceboxes in their houses, which were cabinets where large pieces of ice were put. Towards the end of the 19th century, the price of ice fell sharply, and so the inhabitants of the villages were also able to use it.
The work of the ice-maker was a real specialised job. The ice was cut to a thickness of 20-30 centimetres, then the ice was broken up using a tool with a wooden handle and a triangular-shaped tip called a palamina, drilling holes about 50 centimetres apart and then cracking the ice from one hole to the next using another palamina made entirely of iron.
This activity, which flourished for over a century, came to an end due to fierce competition from artificial ice, but also due to the wave of “hygienism” that made natural ice unhealthy.
Visit the icehouse
It is possible to visit the Madonnina Icehouse by appointment from June to October on Saturdays and Sundays, and in July and August from Tuesday to Sunday. In addition to the interior of the ice-house, visitors can also admire sculpted figures depicting the protagonists of ice-making. They are the work of the sculptor Leonardo Begliomini, who with these figures wanted to highlight the fundamental role of women workers; they were mostly the ones who worked the ice, since their husbands often left to go and make coal.
The ecomuseum of the Pistoia Mountains actually contemplates six itineraries, one of which is the “Ghiacciaia della Madonnina” at “le Piastre” in Pistoia.
Municipality of Pistoia
Ecomuseum Association of the Pistoian Mountains.
Location on google maps: .