I once read that the technology involved in making something as common as a nr. 2 pencil is so complex that if one person were left to construct one on their own, they would fail.
This is an interesting symbol of our modern world – we are completely dependent on technologies and the goods and services they produce, but without the collaboration between these different technologies, we as individuals would have to revert to an almost primitive state (imagine all the saffron and turmeric stains!). In some ways, this is a sign of progress – mass produced goods at cheap prices allow us to have more stuff. The downside is that without any regard to how the stuff we buy is produced, our vote on which techniques will last is made inadvertently by the low price we’re happier to pay.
Recently in Florence, on the Made in Florence: Oltrarno Artisans tour organized by Context Travel, I learned not only about traditional crafts and the incredible amount of skill and artistry that makes them possible, but I was also horrified to learn about the dismal future these artisans, and their techniques, are destined for.
“The Florentine tradition of producing artisan goods has been in existence for centuries and remains one of the cornerstones of Florence’s visual and social history, as much as it did in the times of the guilds. Florentine leatherworkers, silversmiths, shoe manufacturers and hat makers have produced handmade goods for countless generations of kings and queens, princes and noblewomen, and continue to this day, mostly in the area known as the Oltrarno (on the other side of the Arno).”
My three-hour walk explored these private workshops and provided a behind-the-scenes look at the current state of artisan production. Unfortunately, there are few to no apprenticeships to learn these traditions. The laws have changed so drastically in modern times that many laboratories where these artisans work will no longer be authorized once these “masters” die, and the rents, which are controlled to a certain degree for artigiani storici, will ultimately be raised and the only businesses that will be able to afford them are the high-end boutiques and hotels.
I was amazed by what I saw and learned — the amount of training, skill, artistry, and practice that goes in to making these creations. I’m not a shopper. I rarely buy anything, but I couldn’t resist. Seeing how these things were made, and hearing the stories of the people behind them, made a huge impression on me. I wanted to buy something not just to have the thing, but to be able to pass on that story to the person I gave it to. I felt like I became part of the process – I felt connected to the hands that produced these things, and could tell my kids or my wife, when I gave them a simple metal box or a bracelet about the person who made it.
When I saw that the Italy Blogging Roundtable was inviting other bloggers to post something on the subject of gifts, I knew this was what I’d write about. If you want to buy something that is truly Made in Italy, and supports the real people making them, the generations of Florentines who honed these skills, and hopefully the generations to come that will keep them alive, here’s a handful of shops to check out:
1) Ditta Carlo Cecchi di Giuliano Ricchi – Piazza Santo Spirito, 12. Giuliano makes bracelets, boxes, picture frames, and other gifts in brass and silver. Over the years he’s sold to Neiman Marcus, Dior, and other worldwide brands. He even has a picture of Bill Clinton buying one of his business card cases. Now, with imports from China, sales have slumped. For around 50 euro you can buy a number of beautiful things, and whether you buy something or not, he’s happy to have you there, show you around, and tell you stories.
2) I’Ippogrifo Stampa d’Arte by Gianni Raffaelli – Via S. Spirito, 5R – www.stampeippogriffo.com - Gianni and his wife make original etchings, engraved entirely by hand on copperplate.
The etchings are all made in mirror images. The detail and accuracy is mind-boggling.
They are then inked, and run through a manual press, one at a time.
They are then colored in watercolor by hand and signed by the artist in limited editions. It’s impossible to capture how alive these images are.
There are many things I’ve never seen in real life that I’ve seen countless images of — both real and digitally enhanced. It’s easy to take a beautiful scene for granted because they are so accessible to us. But when I look at these prints, and think about the period they were used, before photographs and easily accessible images, I can imagine what it would have been like to hear about Florence and to see it for the first time, like this:
These are the same Acquaforte techniques that were conceived and developed in old artisan workshops of Florence more than 500 years ago.
3) Francesco da Firenze – Via Santo Spirito, 62R. Francesco and his son make shoes by hand.
If you’ve ever owned a pair of handmade, leather shoes, you should be able to relate to the love I feel for these.
I bought this pair for myself. They have inspired a good deal of envy in others that I feel is well-warranted.