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.
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
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.
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.
are dealing with an artisan, it means you are buying something for you,”
Santiccioli said. “No two artisans are the same.”
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
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.
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
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.
encourage the next generation of artisans, Context Travel developed a scholarship program with the Scuola delle Arti Orafe, a prestigious jewellery school in
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.”
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.