The buttery soft leather slipped on so easily that it felt like a second skin on my hand, each finger the perfect length and without creases or pulls. As I flexed my fingers inside this cherry-red casing, all I could think was “This fits like a glove.”
Fine leather work has been a tradition in Florence at least since Renaissance times, when Catherine di Medici carried her jewels to Paris in beautifully worked leather boxes made by Florentine craftsmen. The leather legacy lives on here, and like me, few travelers can resist the lure of at least one leather souvenir of their stay in this Tuscan city.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Tanning and fine leather craftsmanship has been a Florentine specialty for at least five centuries.
- Tuscany produces a major part of the leather accessories for name fashion houses, including Armani, Prada, Ferragamo and Gucci, and you can buy at the source.
- Good for anyone who loves the feel of fine leather.
Inside the cloister of Santa Croce, the church where Michelangelo is entombed, is the Scuola di Cuoio, a school of leather working that was founded following World War II. The Gori and Casini families, both Florentine leather artisans, joined with the Monastery of Santa Croce’s Franciscan friars to create a place where war orphans could learn a trade, and thereby earn a living.
The school continues to create fine hand-made leather goods, and I toured the workshops to watch the students carefully fashion leather jackets and smaller items, including wallets, boxes, and handbags.
Francesca Gori’s one-off handbags, designed for the school and made from deerskin and rare leathers such as python and ultra-durable ostrich skin, were the highlight of the school’s shop. I loved the bright colors and the clasps decorated with semi-precious stones and other materials from antique jewelry. Desk accessories, luggage, wastebaskets, bound books and albums, belts, jewelry boxes and picture frames, along with leather clothing, were well-designed and beautifully crafted, at considerably lower prices than in the shops of Via dei Calzaiuoli.
I was tempted to order a custom-tailored leather jacket after seeing those displayed, but resisted. Instead I set out to explore the streets of the Santa Croce neighborhood, which in Renaissance times were lined with tanning and dying workshops. As both required plenty of water, the riverside location was a handy one. And with a ready supply of materials, leather workers soon set up shops nearby.
Sightseeing at Santa Croce
On my way back out to Piazza Santa Croce, I stopped to explore the church, where I found a who’s who of Florentine history and art. Besides Michelangelo, Lorenzo Ghiberti (the artist responsible for the incomparable doors of the Baptistery), Machiavelli and Galileo are buried here, and the church is adorned by frescoes by Giotto, a cloister and chapel by Brunelleschi (of Duomo dome fame), sculptures by Donatello and Cimabue’s crucifix. This latter masterpiece, sadly, was badly damaged in the disastrous floods of 1966.
Piazza Santa Croce is one of the city’s largest, and the scene of the raucous Calcio Storico, a no-holds-barred soccer tournament that’s played in medieval costume and turns into a free-for-all. So much so that a statue of Dante that stood in the square had to be moved to a safer spot, snuggled up to the church façade. But today the piazza is its usual self, a broad expense bathed in sun, surrounded by non-descript buildings.
Leather Shops around Piazza Santa Croce
A look at signs tells me that this is still the center of leather craft in Florence, or at least for leather shops and outlets, of which I counted at least half a dozen around the piazza. One building stands out to my left, a former palazzo covered in fading frescoes, where I find Misuri.
Misuri is the oldest (they’ve been selling leather goods in Florence for over 100 years) and has maintained the traditional standards and styles. The craftsmanship is superb and I found the prices reasonable. Glasses cases, phone sleeves and credit card wallets tastefully embossed with traditional Florentine designs ran in the €20 ($30) range, as did beautiful reversible belts. Little bookmarks with gold embossing were €4, easy to pack and welcome gifts. Misuri will add three hand-gilded initials at no charge to any leather item bought here. Luxurious gloves lined in cashmere, handbags, luggage and jackets for both men and women round out a full line of leather goods.
Having just seen and handled leather work from two of Florence’s most respected sources, I was ready to tell the difference between fine and mediocre – or just plain shoddy, as I now recognized is much of the stuff hawked on the streets. So I gave a quick pass to several other shops after only a quick look inside. Be aware that most of the shops on Piazza Santa Croce are just that – shops, even though some call themselves factories. This is tour-bus central and most of these cater to that market. That’s not to say that you won’t find just what you want at Caesar’s or other well-known outlets, but be sure you know what you are looking for and can recognize quality leather and stitching.
Paolo Carandini’s studio on Borgo Allegri, behind the church of Santa Croce, is a complete change of pace from the traditional leather works, and I was hopelessly in love with his work at first sight. Smart contemporary designs and the juxtaposition of parchment with fine calfskin are as much a contrast as his striking, almost Crayola colors. Flat planes of vivid hues show off the textures of the leather, and are used in bold cubist forms for boxes, journals and the only handbag I couldn’t leave Florence without.
Carandini’s Shopper is a stylish leather take on the square-bottomed, cord-handled shopping bags from chic boutiques, interpreted in dreamy colors of fine calfskin. Contrasting leather cord handles end in single knots that are the only decoration on each side. I agonized over the color – emerald, cobalt or cherry red. Red won; it was a perfect match for the gloves.
- The old adage “you get what you pay for” is true for leather shopping in Florence. You can get things cheaper at the street markets, but most of what’s sold there is inferior quality leather or not leather at all. And much of it is imported from Asia, so poorly sewn that the stitching will give out after minimal use.
- Unless you know the feel of real leather well, if you’re not buying from an established shop, ask a vendor to test any item with a flame. Vinyl will melt; real leather won’t even scorch.
- The leather school at Santa Croce will give discounts on larger items if you pay cash.
- Bargaining is expected in leather outlets, such as Caesar’s, but not in the better studios. Take your clue from salespersons: if they offer discounts, keep looking doubtful and the price will continue to drop.
- Look for sales with deep discounts in July and January. Although reductions are far more dramatic in the chic shops of Via Tournabuoni and Via dei Calzaiuoli, there may be bargains anywhere.