Florence's artisan culture is a rich one, based on centuries of traditions and skills and apprentices learning from their maestri. Even today, the city's artisans are still active and as proud as ever of their work, many still working in the most traditional of ways, while others have modernised their crafts to suit contemporary ways. A walk through some of Florence's artisan quarters is an inspiring way to experience how the Renaissance backbone of the city's culture has influenced today's artists and artisans.
One of the best places to begin is the oltrarno, the “other side of the Arno,” where the little medieval streets between Via Maggio and Piazza Pitti are a maze of artisans' workshops. A morning or late afternoon wander to this area will give you an idea of what these artisan workshops entail – the studios of violin makers, bookbinders, gilders, ironworkers and sculptors will make you feel you are walking through Renaissance Florence.
Coming down Borgo San Jacopo from the Ponte Vecchio, take the third left into Via Toscanella, where you will almost immediately pass by the ironworker, Giacomo Giachetti. If he's not at work with his door open for a peek, take a look up, where you will see some of his handiwork – an iron eagle and a puffin are perched above the doors.
Wrought ironwork is a Tuscan tradition that goes back to ancient times, and in Florence it is literally everywhere you look: medieval and Renaissance buildings still bear the wrought iron hooks, rings, lanterns and doorknockers of their time. Even nails and bolts were created for purely decorative purposes, often noted on large wooden doors of enormous palazzi.
Following Via Toscanella will take you into the charming Piazza della Passera, a small triangular shaped piazza with local cafés and restaurants. In the right hand corner of the piazza you can find Bartolozzi & Maioli, a woodworking bottega, where since 1930 sculptures, furniture and other inspiring objects in wood have been delicatelty restored for the rich and famous. A peek in here is a bit like a behind the scenes view of a Renaissance sculptor's workshop.
Continuing along Via Toscanella, pass by the glass-lantern maker and gilders before taking the next right onto Via dei Velluti where you can walk past furniture restorers with chairs on the ceiling, wood sculptors and the fifth-generation bookbinder Enrico Giannini whose family were one of the first to create the famous marbled Florentine paper – a tradition that Giannini still continues, by hand. Further down on the right is a violin and string instrument restorer. At the end of this street, turn left onto the elegant Via Maggio with its large palazzi and gallery-like antique stores.
Take the first right into Piazza Santo Spirito, the lively and colourful local square of the oltrarno. Just on your left in front of the church you will notice a small cobbler's shop – the studio of Roberto Ugolini, master of handmade, custom leather men's shoes. Notice the shoe forms that cover the back wall like an art installation, and the maestro with his apprentices hard at work.
In the piazza, take a little break at the café Volume, once an artisan studio of the wood sculptor Alfonso Bini. To pay homage to the traditional workshop, which originally began as the place to get yourself a hatform (the wooden structure to keep hats in shape), the café still houses the tools along with the iconic works of the sculptor, who recognised the surreal nature of his hat forms and began to create all sorts of shapes such as items of clothing, daschunds and other animals. Artisan gelato, crèpes and a coffee or other drink can be taken in one of the stylish leather chairs or outside in the piazza.
At the back of the piazza, opposite the church at no. 12 is the studio of Giuliano Ricchi & Carlo Cecci. Now exclusively run by Ricchi himself, this wonderful little treasure trove is where traditional Florentine style metal works are painstakingly handmade and displayed for sale – find pill boxes, key rings, costume jewelry, frames and so much more at a fraction of the price that you'll find in Neiman Marcus or Santa Maria Novella, where Ricchi's works can also be found.
Heading now back towards the river, down the side of the church to Via Santo Spirito, a little detour along this elegant oltrarno road will take you to the modern and exclusive boutiques of artisans such as Aprosio & Co (intricate handmade beaded works), Studio Puck (handmade, hand painted prints and frames) and Angela Caputi (costume jewelry) – all evidence of Florence's lively artisan tradition that have successfully transformed themselves into contemporary boutiques while staying true to their handmade crafts.
Note that artisan workshops usually follow this tyical schedule: 9am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm Monday through Friday. At other times, appointments can be made to visit the artisans on the weekends - they always love visitors!
For the Address book:
• Giacomo Giachetti: Via Toscanella 5
• Bartolozzi & Maioli: Via dei Velluttini 5 (Piazza della Passera)
• Enrico Giannini: Via dei Velluti 29r
• Roberto Ugolini: Via dei Michelozzi, 17r (Piazza Santo Spirito)
• Volume: Piazza Santo Spirito 5r
• Giuliano Ricchi: Piazza Santo Spirito 12
• Aprosio & Co: Via Santo Spirito 11
• Studio Puck: Via Santo Spirito 28r
• Angela Caputi: Via Santo Spirito 58r