Shopping for Fine Italian Crafts in the Oltrarno, Florence’s Left Bank

Ponte Vecchio Leads to Florence's "Left Bank" -- the Oltrarno (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

Ponte Vecchio Leads to Florence’s “Left Bank” — the Oltrarno (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

I could barely see the tiny dots of brightly colored glass as the artist arranged them inside a miniature gold frame. I watched, fascinated as a flower no larger than my little fingernail bloomed amid foliage in shimmering shades of green. This tiny floral portrait would soon join the other mosaic earrings and jewelry that filled the showcases of this studio shop in the Oltrarno – Florence’s Left Bank.

In your Bucket Because…

  • You can take home examples of beautiful crafts that have made Florentine artists famous since the Renaissance, at prices that are often unbelievably reasonable.
  • You can watch craftsmen working, even discuss and order custom-made works.
  • Good for anyone who loves Renaissance styles, fine craftsmanship and bringing home souvenirs that speak of local history and tradition.

Mosaic is only one of the historic crafts carried on in the studios of this neighborhood across the Arno River from the Florence’s best-known historic and artistic sites. If you love fine craftsmanship, cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the piazzi and narrow streets of this Medieval quarter. Here you will find, as I did, workshops carrying on the city’s Renaissance traditions of fine craftsmanship, creating leather-bound books, marbled papers and mosaics.

Mosaics in Glass and Semiprecious Stones

Mosaic work is a Florentine tradition dating from the 1700s, when craftsmen from the Vatican’s studios left Rome and established workshops in Florence. The art of mosaic is much older, originating in Byzantium and learned by the Romans in the days of their eastern empire. Originally pieces of semiprecious stone were set in backgrounds of marble to form altars, furniture and decorative architectural elements. Later the art was extended to miniatures popular in Victorian jewelry, and then to the miniatures I watched in progress, made of tiny bits of glass from the Venetian island of Murano.

Arte del Mosaico, at Largo Bargellini 2-4, began in Medici times and still produces exquisite hand-crafted mosaics from semi-precious stones — green jasper from the Arno River and peach blossom marble from Carrara as well as turquoise, alabaster and others. Filippini e Paoletti, at Piazza Santo Spirito 12, has created jewelry, pillboxes, rosaries, picture frames and other small items here since the late 1800s, using Murano glass, which is re-melted in the studio and drawn into delicate rods. Segments are painstakingly cut from these to form the tiny tesserae. At Pitti Mosaici, opposite the Pitti Palace at Piazza Pitti 17, the de Filippis Family has been working in semiprecious stone inlay for more than a century.

Not far away at Via Senese 68/B, you can watch artists at Fratelli Traversari di Franco Traversari create portraits and reproduce paintings in cut or spun glass and stones. Mosaic prices range from a few euros to several hundred, depending on the materials (stones or glass), size of the piece, size of the tesserae and the finesse of their coloration and blending. In antique shops you may find some very fine pieces that need a magnifying glass to distinguish the tesserae, and those will be priced as fine vintage jewelry.

Leather-bound Books and Marbled Paper

Marbled paper is a favorite for endpapers in fine bookbinding, so the two crafts are usually found in the same studios. Book edges are sometimes decorated in marbling, which is how the technique was originally used when it came to Florence in the late 1700s.

Leatherbound Books and Journals, Florence (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

Leatherbound Books and Journals, Florence (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

The process remains almost the same as it was in the Middle Ages, although materials have improved. The finest books are still bound in leather, or half-calf (leather back and other material for the covers), and one of the nicest gifts you can bring from Florence is a leather-bound journal or address book. The best have hand-marbled endpapers and tooled and/or gold embossed designs on the covers. Omero Benvenuti, at Via Romana 58, is one of the city’s best-known artists in both bookbinding and marbled papers. In addition to journals and notebooks, look for portfolios, paper-bound boxes, stationary and exquisite miniature books. If you are a craftsperson yourself, take home a sheet or two of hand-marbled paper to work with.

Arte delle Carte, at Lungarno Torrigiani 31, makes a wide variety of leather-bound and paper items, with leather journals, notebooks, portfolios and photo albums in several styles, from plain and contemporary to historical reproductions with gold embossing. They make their own marbled paper and also carry stationary and sheets of paper printed in beautiful Florentine scroll designs. Expect to pay from a few euros for an address book or small notebook to about €20 for a leather-bound journal, and up to €100 for an elegant oversized photo album.

Metal and Other Florentine Crafts

As you wander these streets you are likely to come upon various metal workers, most of whom do custom work for the neighborhood’s many restorers. In a palazzo at Via dei Serragli 10, Duccio Banchi’s workshop specializes in reproduction bronze fittings for furniture and doors, cast in the lost wax process. While you may not need a new bronze hinge for your palazzo door, you might find a distinctive picture frame in his shop. Certini, at Via San Niccolò 2, creates delicate natural designs of leaves and flowers from wrought iron. At Via del Leone 21, woodworkers at Borgheresi Leonardo reproduce antique chairs in a shop filled with vintage woodworking tools.

Mixed in with crafts studios are galleries and shops selling antiques of all sorts, along with restoration workshops specializing in everything from wooden furniture to chandeliers. Many of these artisans have no objection to visitors stopping in to watch them work.

Practicalities

  • While bargaining is expected in street markets, it is not in shops and artisans’ studios. The exception is antiques and vintage shops, where it is perfectly acceptable to ask if the dealer can do a little bit better on the price. In general, the more posh the shop, the less the likelihood of succeeding, unless you are interested in several items.
  • Some of these shops also sell by mail, so are experienced in packing and shipping overseas. If you don’t wish to carry something home, be prepared that shipping outside Europe is very expensive.
  • To avoid Florence’s epic crowds, visit in October through April, when craftspeople and shop owners have more time to spend with you. In November and December you can meet artists and see contemporary works at Christmas markets and craft shows.
  • When hunger strikes in the Oltrarno, seek out the family-run Da i’ Conte Diladdarno, at Via dei Serragli 108 for hearty and uncomplicated traditional Tuscan cuisine. The multi-course menù del giorno (daily set menu) for two with wine will be about E 35 ($45).

Comments

  1. Fran Folsom says

    When I was in Florence many years ago I bought gloves at the Madova glove factory in Oltrarno. I still have the gloves and wear them often. Reading this article was like walking in Florence’s Left Bank again.

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