Florence’s fading artisan culture
A magnifying glass helps visitors to L’Ippogrifo see the details of an old etching. (Chris van Hove)
The Oltrarno area of Florence refers to “the other side of the Arno River”, the quieter, working-class district made up of the suburbs of San Frediano, Santo Spirito and San Niccolo. For years this was considered the poorest part of Florence, worth visiting only for attractions like the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.
But those who venture beyond the highlights of Florence’s seemingly unfashionable side will quickly discover one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the Oltrarno artisans, who have been moulding, crafting and creating elaborate leather, silver, gold and paper products for nobles, royalty and other elite for more than 500 years.
At an unmarked corner of the Piazza Santo Spirito, Luca Santiccioli, a local guide for Context Travel’s Made in Florence: Oltrarno artisan’s tour, led us into the workshop of artisans Carlo Cecchi and Giuliano Ricchi, who have been creating metal items such as jewellery, pillboxes and cardholders for more than 50 years. As Cecchi took us down a flight of rickety steps into his sweltering basement workshop, it was hard not to stare at his rough hands. Despite having palms as thick as a bear’s paws, his hands moved as swiftly as a hummingbird as he flitted between the old fashioned machines that press, stamp and embellish their products.
While Cecchi’s workshop is hidden from the street (and only open to tour group members), many artisans can be seen toiling away in the studios and shop windows that line the Via de Michelozzi, a road that runs from the Piazza San Spirito towards the Pitti Palace. Strolling along the narrow street, you may glimpse a chandelier maker tinkering with a frozen crystal fountain, a cobbler fetching moulds from a shelf, or a bookbinder buried in rows of bookshelves, his head bowed as he works at his desk.
Next on the tour, we visited silversmith Donato Zaccaro’s retail shop and studio, located just off Via de Michelozzi on Sdrucciolo dei Pitti. (While the retail shop is open to the public, the studio is only accessible via the tour.) In the back of the shop, past several glass cabinets filled with silver resting on deep blue velvet, Zaccaro’s workshop is a warren of skinny rooms with high rafters, cluttered with tools, workbenches, large safes and packages wrapped in brown paper.
With tools he designed and made himself, Zaccaro demonstrated his trade – working a small dull silver disc, pressing, moulding and sculpting, eventually creating a candleholder for an ornate candelabra.
“When you are dealing with an artisan, it means you are buying something for you,” Santiccioli said. “No two artisans are the same.”
At Zaccaro’s silver shop, each item is custom-made and stamped with a unique serial number. At L’Ippogrifo, an etching house, husband and wife team Gianni and Francesca Raffaelli treat each etching like a negative, which decays over time, destroying the copperplates after 150 prints to preserve its quality..
In the Middle Ages, books like the Bible were printed using etchings; today L’Ippogrifo uses the same techniques to make custom prints and invitations. Smearing a small copper plate with black ink, Francesca rubbed the excess away, carefully pushing it into the etched grooves. Layering it with paper, she cranked a giant press over it, gently peeling back the thick paper to reveal a perfect stamp of the image.
Despite an increased demand for handcrafted products around the world, the area’s centuries-old artisan culture is under threat. Most of the Oltrarno was not included in the building and restructuring work that took place in Florence between the 1850s and 1950s, which helped the neighbourhood maintain its local, old world feel. But today, as tourism to the city grows, there is also a greater demand for space, and increasing rents and new development are making it difficult for the artisans to stay.
There has also been tightening of workplace safety regulations over the last few decades and most of the area’s centuries-old traditional workshops no longer comply with regulations. Plus, there is a lack of apprentices willing to learn the time-intensive trades, with one artisan bluntly admitting that there is no easy money in making handcrafted goods.
“Students are not just interning at the artisan’s workshops, they are also learning new, modern techniques at the Scuola delle Arti Orafe,” said Petulia Melideo, a marketing director for Context Travel. “These techniques will merge with the traditional ones, making the new artisans stronger, more competitive ones, but still artisans who keep living and working in the Oltrarno area.”
And the increasing gentrification of the Oltrarno is not all bad news. Areas like the Piazza Santo Spirito have begun to fill with bars, cafes and shops, bringing a new energy to the area and hopefully, in turn, a renewed interest in artisan traditions.