In Search of Tuscan Treasures

My sister, Elene, had the idea of purchasing a hand painted chest of drawers. She wanted the kind that bulge of out their contours in that rococco style that evokes a more graceful age. What better excuse for a pleasant trip to Italy? We were interested in antiques, but also in contemporary artisan products. We focused on Tuscany, and specifically Florence, as it is a known artisan center. While there, we were able to arrange an exclusive tour of the artisan workshops of Florence.

Our guide met us in the morning in the Piazza of Santa Spirito in the heart of the artisan district. She led us down narrow back streets past doorways to tiny workshops full of activity. I envied her knowledge of the city. First stop was a restoration workshop. We entered through an anonymous looking green door and she led us down a corridor. The workshop itself is arranged around an internal courtyard, hidden from the street. Sixteenth century altarpieces and candelabra were lying around on the work benches at different stages of restoration. Canvases to be cleaned and repaired lined the walls. Interestingly, the atmosphere was not restrained and reverential like a museum, but upbeat with the sounds of pop music playing on the radio. Our guide explained that this is one of the finest restoration workshops in the world. Florence has had a lot of experience in the restoration field, dealing with objects ravaged by time or disasters such as the flood of 1966. Antonio, one of the owners, told us the story of how they brought him what was left of a painting after the bombing at the Uffizi of a few years ago. The painting was in shreds and was delivered in a plastic bag. The restored painting, looking like a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing, now hangs in the back corridors of the Uffizi gallery.

Just a few streets over there is a workshop where they continue the traditional art of marble inlay. Our guide told us that this was an art that reached its height under the Medici grand dukes. They would send these artistic creations as gifts to the crowned heads of Europe when they wanted to impress. Here in the storage room we examined all kinds of exquisite marbles in their unpolished form. Orlando, one of the owners, wet the raw stone for us with a spray bottle and we could see the colours emerge. Today they still bring in slabs from Carrara, the same place Michelangelo got his marble. In the work room they were inlaying the surface of a large dining room table for an Arab prince in Paris. I don't have a prince's budget, but I did purchase a small inlaid panel for my home directly from the artisan. I had it framed, and every time I look at it I remember Florence.

Further on, we saw gilders and painters at work, hand decorating furniture with curling leaves inspired by the 15th century designs in their neighbourhood church of Santa Spirito. In one cramped workshop piled high with gilded frames and chairs to be restored, Beppe, the wood carver, let us choose from his collection of objects that were in need of repair. We selected a carved wall sconce and a small Venetian carved candlestick, then discussed having these pieces painted and gilded. The prices were reasonable, and they were ready at the beginning of the following week. The wait was well worth it.

Closer to the river, we visited a silk weaving factory where they are still using hand looms from the 1700's to create brocades and taffetas that shimmer in the light coming through the old glass windows. These silk weaves were once the exclusive property of individual noble families. In 15th century frescoes you can spot the female members of prominent families wearing their trademark silks. I was tempted to order some fabric to have made into a gown, but my sister encouraged me to maintain my focus on home furnishings.

Book binding and paper making are ancient arts that are still practised with love in Florence. In the tiny back room of his workshop, a craftsman talked to us as he worked. He told us that the Chinese were the first to invent paper and that the art of marbled paper came down to Florence through Venice. Meanwhile, he was creating swirling fans of colour with a comb on the surface of a tray of water. He laid a sheet of paper on top and deftly slid it off again, transferring the pattern to the paper surface, a small miracle.

And not to neglect the olfactory, there was a treat for our noses too. In the Antique Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella the fragrance of herbs and potpourri gently surrounded us. These are the headquarters of the artisans of scent from way back. The Dominican monks who founded the monastery of Santa Maria Novella in the 13th century had a garden of medicinal herbs, and with these they tended to the sick. The tradition has continued through the centuries. A peek out the back door gives you a view of the 14th century cloister of Santa Maria Novella. We lingered over the glorious potpourri but opted for a more practical choice, 'Sali di Pediluvio', relief in the form of foot salts for the weary tourist.

We were thoroughly pleased with these experiences, but we were still looking for that romantic chest of drawers. We found it in the most gracious of settings, in the gardens of the Palazzo Corsini. The Contessa Corsini opens up her private gardens, complete with hedges of lavender and potted lemon trees, once a year for a show of some of the best of Florentine artisan work.The show was called "Artigianato e Palazzo" The chest of drawers was there on display in a stone building that probably used to be a stable or a granary. That piece is now an exquisite focal point in my sister's bedroom, a uniquely Tuscan presence in our corner of the world.


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