Documentarian Ben Derico recently ventured from his home city of Chicago to a tiny, ancient corner of Spain. There, he met a fourth-generation master sword-maker named Mariano and shadowed the craftsman at his workshop in Toledo.
His video entitled “Toledo’s Last Master Sword-Maker” depicts Mariano’s daily practice, as well as the historical significance of sword-making in the area, and speaks to the value that artisanal products instill upon communities. Wanting to learn more about Ben’s time in Toledo and his meeting with Mariano, we caught with him and asked him a few questions.
What brought you to Spain?
I’ve been traveling to Spain for the better part of the last decade. At the age of 17, on a trip with my high school AP Spanish class, I fell in love with the country. There are a few reasons I think it really captivated me, most prominently being that it was my first time out of the States. That initial taste of something different often has long-lasting effects.
I’d spent so much time studying the language, reading about its culture, and scrolling through pictures of its famous landmarks online that when I finally left Metro Detroit for the first time and experienced what Spain had to offer, it changed how I saw the world. I loved practicing my Spanish, meeting new people, and learning about things that were foreign to me but common there.
From that trip forward, I was hooked. I spent my junior year of college studying the language, politics, and culture of Spain at the University of Madrid, and after graduating, I took a job teaching English at a high school in the suburbs of the city, where I stayed for just under two years.
Since then, I’ve traveled back almost every year to visit friends, work on projects, and feed that urge I’ve had since I was 17 — to interact and learn from people who are different than me. Each trip, I look to reignite that feeling I experienced at such a young age, of being totally overwhelmed with something and someplace new and wanting to explore it fully. I’ve yet to quell that feeling. That’s how I ended up in Toledo in 2018, and it’s how I found Mariano.
How did you find Mariano, and what piqued your interest in sword-making?
My friend Quinn Hargitai and I had been looking for a project to work on together for some time, and in March, we both happened to be in Madrid for a week. So, we got together to brainstorm some ideas. I have a history of making shorts about craftspeople and makers around Madrid with a magazine called ROAM, so working with an artisan seemed like a good place to start. After a bit of research, Quinn, who’d had an interest in sword-making, found Mariano. There wasn’t much information about him or his practice online, but we found a Spanish website and a few photographs of his work.
From there, we made a few phone calls and eventually contacted his shop manager. He said it’d be okay to come by and see things for ourselves the following day. To be honest, it was all a bit by the seat of our pants. Toledo is just an hour south of Madrid, so we rented a car and drove down, unsure of what we were headed toward.
What about Mariano’s story did you find captivating?
The most captivating part of Mariano’s practice and his shop is the tradition and the longevity of it all. During our research, we learned that swords from Toledo had been famous beyond Spain, that they were the gold standard across all of Europe from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. And here was this guy, the only one left, still making swords the same way they’d been made for centuries in this city.
It’s also worth mentioning that we weren’t sure if his practice had been handed down for generations — we couldn’t find an answer online and the store manager wasn’t sure either, so we were insanely curious. We wanted to go and ask Mariano himself, hear his story, and see what his plans for the future were.
What was your hope for the project?
Simply put, we wanted to capture and share this age-old practice, meet the only artisan left doing this work in Toledo, and maybe see him use the forge. But once we met Mariano, it became a lot more about sharing his story and charm. He’s a very warm person, I’m glad we captured that.
What was it like meeting with Mariano in person and watching him work?
Mariano, as you can see in the short, is a pretty gregarious and bubbly guy. We had barely walked in the door when he began showing us around the old place. He pointed out some light fixtures that were 90 years old and a hammer that his grandfather had used. We were still just trying to get the camera up and rolling so we could start recording! Any Spanish speakers watching the video will notice that he’s a quick speaker and that his mind moves quickly as well. He jumps from topic to topic rapidly, but when he’s working, he’s the total opposite: calm, poised, and ultra-focused.
While showing us around the shop, pointing out each tool, each station, each step of the process, Mariano told us how long it took him to learn each task. For instance, he mentioned that he’d spent almost two years simply watching his father hammer the hot blades, learning to differentiate the shades of yellow and orange to determine exactly when to strike. You can see this patience and attention to detail in his work. His precision is the sign of a true master craftsman. Another interesting detail we noticed when we arrived was that Mariano is missing two fingers. Each was lost in a separate accident with metal presses, but it doesn’t seem to phase him too much — you can see it in the video. All of his gloves have two of the fingers cut off.
Can you describe how you felt being in his workshop, in a place filled with so much artisanal history?
The shop itself is pretty interesting. You walk in through the store, which is lined with replica swords from the Middle Ages, models of Excalibur, and even some copies of swords from “Game of Thrones.” From there, you pass into a small courtyard. There’s old armor on the wall and a sign pointing visitors toward the shop in the distance. Split into two main spaces, the forge and the workshop, the space is filled with the soot and ash from the hundreds of swords that have been hammered, grinded, and shaped. In the forge room, Mariano grinds and polishes the blades after repeatedly heating and cooling the swords in oil to increase their strength, allowing them to bend and not break when struck (the hallmark of true Toledo steel). On the other side are two glass-pane doors that lead to the long, dusty workshop where Mariano and his apprentices chisel and shape sword handles, weld ornamentation together, and assemble their final pieces. It’s dark and musty, and things are kind of strewn about. There are piles of iron and steel on top of old machinery and what seems to be about 30 fencing épées leaning against the wall in the corner.
Simply walking around the space gives you an immediate feeling that it’s not put on for show. It’s not manicured. It’s not a spectacle, though visitors are welcome. It’s a workshop, dusty and dirty, but built to get the job done. And were it not for the radio on the workbench playing top-40 hits, you’d maybe think you’d gone back in time. I know it’s cliché, but sometimes clichés like that are true.
What was it like witnessing a maker pass on his craft?
Without any direct family to take over his practice, one might think that Mariano would be somewhat glum, passive, or disinterested. He’s close to retiring, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were to shut the doors and call it a day. But he’s just the opposite. He’s engaged with his apprentices and takes the same time with them that his father took with him. Each follows him step by step, learning one aspect of the process at a time. Luckily, with a little help from the municipality, Mariano can afford to keep them around and make sure they learn the practice the way he learned, keeping the tradition alive.
We expected to find him a bit bummed out that the practice was fading, but as he says in the short, he’s not worried at all. Even though they may not be the choice of the king or the armed forces anymore, his swords still bring joy and happiness to people looking for a glimpse of an older time. They offer a way for people to pretend like they’re a knight in shining armor, returning to the king’s court. And if his craft makes that small fraction of people happy, that’s enough for Mariano. This approach really stuck with me as a creative.
What did this experience teach you, personally? Did it inspire you in any way?
As someone who’s often doing work and figuring it out as I go (re: just showing up at Mariano’s shop) it was really beautiful to watch someone who has dedicated so much time and effort to perfecting his craft. Other than breathe, there’s not much I can say that I’ve done, or tried to do, for 30 years, especially at a master level. Watching someone who’s confident, well-practiced, and willing to share was a refreshing change of pace from the day-to-day grind of my usual work and life.
Now, I try to think about Mariano learning from his dad as a teenager — spending months on end doing one simple task or practicing how to use one tool for one very specific job — when I lose my patience with an edit or have to research a new subject for a documentary. It’s made me happy that I can work and figure things out as I go, and it’s inspired me to work at honing my practice in hopes of moving toward that master level that Mariano has achieved.
What do you hope viewers take away from this?
I hope viewers take away two things. The first is to be curious about what’s out there. Many people travel to Spain every year, visit Madrid, eat tapas, see the art at the Prado, and hop on their next flight without seeing the other beautiful people and places that the country has to offer. It’s a nation of 45 million people, with a half-dozen different languages and tons of smaller regions, like Castilla y La Mancha where Toledo is — and they’re all worth exploring. So, I hope this inspires people to look beyond the bus tours and main squares and decide on something different. Visit a small town. Spend more than 48 hours there before heading on to Paris or Rome. Spain is an interesting place.
The other thing I hope people take away from this is the dedication that Mariano commits to his work, the longevity of his practice, and the connection his craftsmanship makes to the past and the people who came before us. It’s not often that we see or hear about a process that started in the 13th century and is still being carried out today. That’s something extraordinary.
To explore our other travel videos, click here.