The Legacy of Samoëns' World-Traveling Stonemasons

By Ivan PetrenkoMay 14, 2024 14:30 PMNews
A view of a mountain range with trees in the foreground
A view of a mountain range with trees in the foreground. Source: unsplash

In the quaint village of Samoëns, nestled in the French Alps' Giffre Valley, the legacy of the local stonemasons, known as the frahans, is both a proud historical heritage and a fading tradition. With only two practitioners left, the ancient craft that once brought this small town international acclaim is at risk of disappearing.

Pierre Bianco, one of the last stonemasons, shared a glimpse into this storied past, pointing to old photographs and recounting tales from when these artisans were revered across continents. "Look, that one’s my father," he says, showing a photo from 1903, a testament to a time when stonemasonry was not just a trade but a bustling, vibrant profession.

Historically, the frahans of Samoëns were famed for their skill in cutting and carving the local limestone, which bears a close mineral hardness to marble. Their expertise was so sought after that they traveled across France and beyond, contributing to significant projects like the canals at Saint Quentin and military fortifications for Vauban. Their reach even extended to constructing buildings in Louisiana, USA, a fact commemorated in New Orleans archives.

During the 17th century, the demand for their unique skills provided these Alpine farmers with crucial off-season work. They transformed their winter-bound landscape into quarries that supplied quality stone for both local and international projects. The frahans were not just laborers; they formed a close-knit community, creating a brotherhood that supported each other through sickness, poverty, and the training of apprentices. They even developed their own secret language, Mourmé, allowing them to communicate covertly on job sites.

The town of Samoëns today still bears the marks of their craftsmanship. From the ornately carved architrave of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption church, completed in 1555, to the robust limestone columns supporting the roof of La Grenette, the stonemasons' work is a visible thread in the fabric of the village. The local botanic garden, La Jaÿsinia, also stands as a monument to their artistry, having been sculpted from a massive limestone cliff over three years by around 300 workers.

Despite these grand contributions, the contemporary reality is starkly different. The young generation shows little interest in pursuing this labor-intensive and less lucrative craft, preferring more modern professions. This shift poses a significant challenge to preserving such a rich heritage.

Pierre, with his intricate sculptures and historical knowledge, remains a living link to this illustrious past. His works, especially the rotating stone spheres, are not just art; they are a continuation of a legacy, a connection to a time when the frahans of Samoëns shaped stone and history alike.

As this small community looks forward, the challenge will be to maintain and celebrate this unique cultural heritage, ensuring that the stories and skills of the frahans do not fade into obscurity but continue to inspire pride and curiosity about the rich history of Samoëns.

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