The unique side to Florence's shopping scene is its long history of artisan craftsmanship.
The Oltrarno, the area of Florence that lies ‘beyond the Arno’ was solidly working class until the Medici moved into Palazzo Pitti in the mid 16th century. Other Florentine VIPs soon followed suit, building magnificent palaces in streets such as Via Maggio and Via Santo Spirito and bringing with them a rich and varied pool of artisan talent to furnish and maintain their grand homes. This artisan community is still present today (albeit in seriously depleted numbers) in the labyrinth of narrow lanes around Via Maggio and Piazza Santo Spirito, which are dotted with shops and workshops where everything is still made by hand by master craftsmen practising skills handed down over centuries.
To have a look at how these artigiani work, and to buy their products at source, I suggest following this walk which begins in pretty Piazza della Passera. Artisan botteghe are open between about 8.30am and 12.30pm and 3-6pm Monday-Friday and visitors are usually welcome. Note that the street numbers referred to in the addresses are red (for commercial addresses) rather than black.
Breakfast at the Caffè degli Artigiani (Via dello Sprone 16r; 055 291882) in the piazza is a good place to start as it lies at the heart of the artisan community. From here, take Via Toscanella and on the at no. 31r is Borgheresi and Chiti (055 211437) who make beautiful stars and lanterns from glass and brass. Next door is the glass bead workshop, school and shop where Timothy James creates exquisite Venetian-style glass beads using traditional techniques while his jeweller wife Lily Mordà works them into pretty necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
A right turn down Via dei Velluti takes you past several restoration workshops to no. 10r and Enrico Giannini’s little bottega (055 2399657). The fifth generation of a clan of well-known bookbinders and paper makers, Giannini left the big family business to go back to his artisan roots and concentrate on quality rather than quantity. In a miniscule workspace, he makes traditional marbled papers, binds books and crafts beautiful leather boxes decorated with gold leaf; all the items you see are for sale.
Retrace your steps and continue along Via Toscanella to Sdrucciolo dei Pitti. The Sarubbi brothers’ map printing shop (Sdrucciolo dei Pitti 11/r; 340 9842320; www.sarubbibros.com) across the street is worth a look; they make prints from zinc plates of wonderful 17th- and 18th-century maps and hand-paint them.
Turn right and cross over Via Maggio; to your left and right, occupying the ground floors of the city’s most opulent palaces, are some of the most exclusive antique dealers, a perfect spot to pick up that Renaissance chest you’ve always wanted.
Walk down Via Michelozzi towards Piazza Santo Spirito. On the left is the workshop of bespoke shoemaker Roberto Ugolini (055 216246; www.roberto-ugolini.com), one of the few artisans still working in leather in an area which was once full of workshops making and selling leather goods. His shoes are magnificent, extraordinarily expensive and will last a lifetime.
Turn left in the square and walk straight ahead and up Via delle Caldaie. Just on your right at no. 14r is ironmonger Mimmo Muratore’s workshop. Mimmo learned his skill from his father and grandfather, but now uses this in a more contemporary context making wonderfully quirky lamps and chandeliers, chairs, hat stands and other smaller objects, all of which make arresting window displays.
The last place I suggest you visit is a little different than the rest and shows an example of an artisan business that began life on a very modest scale but which has expanded. In spite of her success, Ornella Aprosio’s beaded jewellery business stays true to its artisan roots; she designs the exquisite, unique pieces herself and has them made up in a small workshop. Retrace your steps through the square and head north into Via Santo Spirito. Aprosio e Co. is at no. 11 (055 290534; www.aprosio.it).
Where to stay
For suggestions on where to stay in Florence, see my Florence Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Florence page.