Artisans of the 21st Century

I’m not sure how well known this is at Stevens, given that we are a school focused on technology and innovation, but Florence is a very historical and primary location for the development of art and artists. This is something that I vaguely knew before arriving in Florence. Over the course of my time here though, I’ve really grown to realize the impact that art has had on history and how important it is today as well.

This week, my Italian class has gone on a few excursions throughout the city to learn a bit more about the culture of Italy, and specifically that of Florence as well. We’ve visited a few boutiques and bakeries within center city that show how art has continued through the generations here. It is also a primary component of many people’s lives here.

The first boutique that we visited specialized in gold-coating plates, tea sets, crosses, and other household decorative items. The shop would be described by many at Stevens as a “hole in the wall” type of place; it is a long, narrow hallway absolutely filled with shelves upon shelves of gold-coated items and in the back are a few tiny work stations. This is where one can witness the artisans and shop owners hard at work to create the beautiful works of art ready to be sold.

We practiced our Italian skills by speaking with the artisans about their profession. The art of gold-coating doesn’t take very long to learn, so one can create a career around it fairly quickly, as a few of them did. The art form itself dates back centuries and to this day is done in the same manner and with very similar materials. We were even given the chance to try out some gold-coating ourselves! A fish-based glue is made by mixing what seemed like fish scales with a few other ingredients and heating it on a hot plate. This glue is placed on the item that is to be gold-plated and then the gold sheets can be placed on top. These sheets are extremely thin and the way that they fall through the air almost makes it look like they’re falling through water because they are so light. As such, placing them uniformly was quite difficult. After the sheets dry, patterns are carved through the gold-coated wood using patterned rollers that look absolutely ancient. Creating these rollers we learned is a whole other profession in itself.

Another boutique that we visited specializes in creating customized picture frames and is a family profession of the second generation. Customization was the main specialty of the business that allowed the artisan/owner to create a frame that would encompass a picture of the Last Supper in the infamous Duomo of Florence. We watched a short video about how it was transported to the basilica, assembled, and hung there. This short video put into slightly clearer perspective how much time and energy many, many people must have contributed to the basilica’s beauty today.

The story of Pinocchio originated here in Florence, which explains the abnormally high amount of Pinocchio puppets that I’ve seen for sale around the city. Recently, the frame-making artisan branched out to creating wooden figurines of Pinocchio. The figurines are also built for young art students to practice their painting skills in Florence. This brought to light how Florence is still to this day the hub for art students to come and practice their work and learn from the works surrounding them everywhere here.

The artisans are but one beautiful thing about Florence. The generations-old bakeries are also gems scattered throughout the city. Some date back to the 19th century and all of them serve delicious breads, pastries, coffee, and drinks. An Italian’s breakfast typically consists of coming to these bakeries, which they refer to as bars, for a morning pastry and cappuccino and usually also lunch for a sandwich and a shot or two of espresso before returning to work.

It has been a wonderful opportunity thus far to have a complete change of surroundings for a few months and I’m almost in disbelief that I’ll be home in the U.S. in just six short weeks! Being in Florence specifically has truly been eye opening to the continued art forms that exist in the world today. It has also been the opportunity of a lifetime to learn more about the ancient art that remains preserved throughout the city and throughout Europe.