Shopping in Florence: the Artisans

by nicky.swallow

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).

More shopping

Visit my overview on Shopping in Florence or read my other guides: Shopping in Florence: fashion and shoes and Shopping in Florence: for foodies.

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.
 

nicky.swallow

I moved to Florence in 1981 to play the viola in the opera orchestra; the contract was for 3 months, but inevitably, I stayed much longer. It was the food that got to me first. On a sunny Sunday in December a couple of weeks after I arrived, a colleague took me for a walk in the Chianti hills. In his backpack he had some rustic sausages, a loaf of saltless Tuscan  bread, a head of garlic, a flask of rough red wine and a bottle of his family's grass-green, freshly-pressed olive oil. In the incomparable, timeless setting of the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by vines and olive groves, he lit a fire, grilled the sausages and toasted the bread: he scraped garlic over the toast before dousing it with olive oil. It was all very romanitic, but I was much more interested in the bruschetta than in my colleague; I'd never tasted anything like it and knew that I had to have more, lots more.

Almost 30 years (and many bruschette) down the line, I no longer play music professionally and now divide my time between freelance travel writing and, as a nod to my musical past, running a chamber music festival in southern Tuscany (www.itslafoce.com). Much of my writing has been based around various aspects of life in Florence and Tuscany, but I've also written (or made contributions to) travel guides to Naples, Milan, Venice, Turin and Cape Town for the AA, Frommer's, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley and Insideout. It's a great way to get to know the the heart and soul of a city providing a valid excuse for being very nosey and eating in as many restaurants as possible in a short space of time. I'm the Tuscany and Umbria editor for the Charming Small Hotel guides and the Italy editor of the Hotel Guru website (www.thehotelguru.com). Magazine work includes regular contributions to Condé Nast Traveller. 

Downtime is spent with my Florentine photographer partner in our olive grove just outside Florence where our 300 olive trees produce copious amounts of deliciously pungent olio extra vergine di oliva each year.

My Florence

Where I always grab a coffee: My local bar is Caffé Ricchi in Piazza Santo Spirito, one of the lovliest squares in the city. Daniele makes fantastic cappuccino and knows that I like mine steaming hot (not always a given in Italy) and not too milky. Bag a table on the terrace to watch the daily drama of life in the neighbourhood unfold. 

My favourite dining spot: family-run Da Ruggero, one of the few genuine old-style Florentine trattorie still in business.

Best for people watching: Florentine designer Roberto Cavalli's café (Via della Spada 10r), just off chic Via Tornabuoni, comes complete with  trademark faux animal skin pouffes and a never-ending procession of chattering, designer-clad Italians. 

My favourite stroll: The Oltrarno, which hugs the south bank of the river, is a lively, Bohemian neighbourhood characterised by grand palaces, quiet squares, narrow lanes lined with artisan workshops, a lively nightlife and a relative lack of tourists. Start at Porta San Niccolò to the east and work your way west sticking to the backstreets wherever possible.

The most breathtaking view: from the terrace in front of the church of San Miniato al Monte at sunset. You see the city laid out before you as, in the forground, the Arno turns to molten gold in the evening light.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: the nether reaches of the Boboli gardens best accessed through the Annalena entrance on Via Romana. 

Shopaholics beware!: the Tuesday morning market that is laid out along the north bank of the Arno in the Cascine park sells everything from plants and flowers, fresh produce, bargain-basement fashions, imitation Vuitton and Prada and, if you're lucky, the genuine article fresh off the back of a lorry. The Florentine signoras love it.  

Best new attraction: celebrated antiquarian Stefano Bardini bequeathed his extraordinary, eclectic collection of Renaissance and medieval paintings and sculpture, furniture, arms and armour, musical instruments and the decorative arts to the city of Florence on his death in 1922. After a torturously long restoration, grand Palazzo Bardini and its contents are once again open to the public (Piazza dei Mozzi 1). 

Don't leave without....seeing Domenico Ghirlandaio's sublime 1480 Last Supper housed in the refectory of the convent of Ognissanti (Borgo Ognissanti 42).