Lufthansa Highlights Florence: "The artisans' quarter"
"Once upon a time, every door opened onto a craftsman’s workshop here", says Stefano Bemer. “If you needed a tool or some advice, you had only to go a few buildings further down.”
Mr. Bemer has a cobbler’s shop in Oltrarno. The streets south of the Arno have always been the home of craftsmen, at least since the 12th century, when Florence’s population mushroomed and the city’s ancient Roman buildings no longer offered sufficient living space. Oltrarno, comprising San Frediano, Santo Spirito, and San Niccolò, became a small town in its own right, an area where newly rich merchants found the space to build gaudy palaces while artisans could go about their ordinary trade.
After all, Florence’s well to-do citizens needed furniture, stucco, silverware, fabrics and frescoes. A close network of small family businesses arose that could produce anything that was needed in cultivated Renaissance life and later centuries – from porcelain and fabrics to a complete church altar.
When Stefano Bemer speaks of the past, however, he means a much more recent one. After all, the bespoke shoemaker only came to San Frediano in 1988, and unlike most of the people here, who carried on the trade practiced by their father and grandfather before them, he stepped in from outside and has succeeded in achieving remarkable renown. A pair of his entirely hand-made shoes costs upwards of 1550 euros, and those in the know mention his name in the same breath as Olga Berluti of Paris and John Lobb of London.
Shoes by Stefano Bemer are worn by Florentine aristocrats and American business magnates, by British esthetes and above all by the Japanese, many of whom would willingly take home a dozen pairs at a time.
But that is not possible since Mr. Bemer cannot make more than 15 pairs a month for his 800 regular customers in his 80-square-meter workshop with adjoining shop. Two Japanese apprentices assist him.
Fully absorbed, they bend over a low workbench, using ancient tools to polish soles, hammer on heels and sew uppers. There are very few people in Florence eager to learn a trade like this.
Recruitment problems are foreign to the silk weavery Antico Setificio Fiorentino. You can already hear the rhythmic clack of the twelve looms some distance from the workshop. At each of the looms sits a genuine Florentine weaverwoman, who will have trained for four or five years to master every move. Established in the 18th century, the manufactory was the joint initiative of a number of aristocratic Florentine families who no longer wished to keep their valuable bolts of silk, patterns and looms at home.
One of the founding families was that of the Marchesi Pucci di Barsento. Its perhaps most famous member, the fashion designer Emilio Pucci, took over the business much later and his widow, Cristina, still owns and manages the historical enterprise. “Keeping the silk weavery going is a moral obligation for me,” says the marchesa.
As in the past, the enterprise fits out entire buildings. Renowned interior designers use the costly materials to adorn their clients’ villas, Florentine ladies have their cushions, walls, furniture and bedspreads covered with the shimmering material, and a few years ago even the Kremlin placed an order with the silk weavery for reproductions of historical wall coverings and curtains designed and produced in the original style.
“But locals also come to us, perhaps buying only half a meter of material to cover two chairs,” says German Sabine Pretsch, who has been in charge of production and customer care for two decades. Hanging in the weavery shop are countless bolts of silk fabric in different patterns, colors and grades, ranging from the natural white Tela di Burette at 110 euros per meter to the fine, shimmering, typically Renaissance Ermesino silk that graces innumerable frescoes and costs 180 euros a meter.
But by no means everything in Oltrarno is this expensive. At Sabatino’s, where Sabine Pretsch and Stefano Bemer sometimes meet to discuss the colors and patterns of the silk velour Mr. Bemer uses in elegant slippers, a full meal costs just over 20 euros. No wonder besuited lunch guests are not the only ones tucking in here – there are plenty of dark-blue workers’ overalls to be seen, too.
Giuliano Ricchi prefers to frequent the quaint family-run restaurant La Casalinga near the lovely Piazza Santo Spirito. “They still cook traditional Florentine fare here, like ribollita, a kind of cabbage stew,” he says. Mr. Ricchi grew up in this quarter. His cousin runs the Ricchi cafe and restaurant on the piazza, and his sister manages his father’s grocery shop. He himself started out, age 14, in Carlo Cecchi’s metal workshop and later took the business over.
The Carlo Cecchi di Ricchi Giuliano workshop occupies a historical palazzo with a pretty courtyard and produces silver and enamel items – jewelry, pill boxes, hand mirrors, lockets, and the miniature hammers Sotheby’s recently ordered as gifts for their clients. The handcrafted cases are exported to London, Paris and Hong Kong. In Florence you will find them at the famous Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, where they are filled with herbs and sold.
Enrico Giannini also works in charming Santo Spirito. Five generations of Gianninis have bound books in leather, but the personable craftsman’s claim to fame is his rediscovery of marbled paper some 30 years ago. “The technique originated in the Orient,” he explains, “and came to Italy in the 16th century, when the paper was used in bookbinding.” Mr. Giannini started using marbled paper for other objects, like boxes, picture frames and cases. Many have emulated him, and his handicraft is now considered typically Florentine. “The colorful sheets of paper used to be called French paper,” he says, “but today they are known everywhere as carta fiorentina.”