What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

8 thoughts on “What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

  1. what lovely story and a great source for my next trip home to italy….i can remember walking to school in florence during a sememster abroad a LONG time ago, where there was a store where belts were made to order ($5.00 and up) lingerie was all lace and a piece of art and the boots i bought that year were too nice to wear in the winter……so sorry to see that is all gone now.

    i hope you continue to share your ‘finds’

  2. Grazie for this post. I am from a small town on Vancouver Island Canada. We are struggling with the same things here. Not in the sense that big chains are coming, because they are already here in full force. But there seems to be a change in the air. With younger people moving here who want a piece of the good life that is to say a life where they can feel like they’re giving back to the world. I hope that with this attitude only having farmers markets on the weekends can move to a daily routine of buying your groceries from the source. Then we know where our food comes from, we know who’s getting paid for it and it creates community. Something we are loosing everyday. I often remember my time in Florence and how lucky I was to wake up every morning and walk (not drive!) to my favorite caffe. I hope one day I can do the same in my hometown.

  3. Thanks Lee and Aviva. It’s probably a losing battle to fight against the big guys, but sooner or later they’ll probably fall too – ancient Rome sure teaches that no one stays on top forever!

  4. Thank you Steve for the lovely post. It’s the same scene in Hong Kong where I live which is real sad indeed. I very much love to pay Federico a visit when I’m next in Italy.

  5. Aviva, YOUR TYPE OF TOWN is just what i am looking for! starting in the spring i have a road trip across the usa to visit the list of the ‘best small towns’ in the usa, all for a story on solo travel…..i have always been fascinated with the NW islands……can you suggest some of the towns i should visit? thanks.
    rt 81 north of interstate 40 has some amazing original usa towns, just have to get off the interstate

  6. We know Federico and Hanna from our twice yearly trips to Orvieto. He is just around the corner from where we stay. I spent 30 years providing technical assistance to small town downtowns in the U.S. helping them compete. It is a struggle but some continue to do well. Our interactions with people in Orvieto led us on a road trip to find an American town in which to live with some of the same people-to-people characteristics. We found it in Morganton, NC. Now we lead trips to Orvieto for people to experience the real Italy. It is still there! Glad you are promoting Federico!

  7. How true and how sad. I guess it all depends on us all. We decide what to buy and where. At least in Italy one has the chance to still choose. As soon as I pass nearby Orvieto I shall definitely search Federico.

  8. Att: Bill Steiner:

    You have put into words something I have been doing for the past 5 years: road trip to find an American town in which to live with some of the same people-to-people characteristics
    I am so glad Steve posted this story and you commented!. my travels so far have only included towns off of 81, 95 and 85 as well as any coastal towns i can visit from Charleston to Toms River, NJ. but if you can give me a list of the towns you found that might be ‘possible’ candidates, I would like to try to visit or drive through on one of my next trips. Actually Morganton would be an easy detour.

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