Coveting the Handmade in Florence

Once again, I’m participating in the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network this semester, where I’ll be posting two academic blogs on my experiences here in Florence. I’ve included my most recent blog below, although the original can be found here.

Enya playing in the background and hands covered in paint, I put the finishing touches on my work—dabbing red and blue paint on the stenciled flowers that I had painted on the scarf. As part of a fieldtrip for our “City of Florence” class, we were crowded into an artist’s studio in Oltarno, the neighborhood of narrow streets that lies on the south side of the river in Florence. The studio itself was eclectic. A nude cartoon baby statue sat near the front window next to a gigantic traffic light. Canvases in various stages of work leaned against the walls next to containers of half-used tubes of oil paint.

At Villa le Balze, the “City of Florence” class provides students with the opportunity to further explore aspects of the city itself. Last Friday, this kind of exploration took us to Le Zebre, a small shop owned by a couple that specializes in handmade garments and accessories. After touring their shop, we had the opportunity to create something of our own by using stencils and paint to decorate a scarf.

In a time dominated by huge department stores that demand cookie cutter mass production, it is refreshing to find artisans who put time and thought into each work. Art requires a type of patience that seems increasingly hard to find in our automatized and factory line world. This makes handmade works even more of a treasure.

Florence, after all, is a city of art. Every year, millions of visitors flock to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Bargello, or one of the many museums in the city to gaze at the famous works of the Renaissance masters. Yet I found it surprising to discover how much the tradition continues to thrive.

After our time in the art studio, a couple of us wandered the streets nearby, ducking into the tiny shops and workshops that line Via Romana. In a store called Reciclò, we met an artist who constructs innovative pieces of furniture out of salvaged parts from eBay—a bedside lamp made out of a retro hairdryer, a chair made out of a Vespa, a table constructed from sea wood. The artist took the time to talk to us, showing off his various creations and recommending a flea market in Arezzo to visit. Further down the street, an artist named Gianni Silvestri encouraged us to not only look but also touch his oil paintings. In another boutique and workshop, an artist named Chiara invited us to come back for a jewelry making class.

Repeatedly, I was struck by the openness of the artists and how willing they were to listen to our questions in halting Italian and to let us to peek around their studios. They were proud of their work, and they wanted to share it in whatever way they could. Quickly, we figured out that if we stayed in the shop long enough and attempted to speak Italian, they would return the efforts. In a specialty chocolate shop, another customer commented to the owner in Italian that we wouldn’t understand because we spoke English. After responding in Italian that we could—somewhat—understand, the owner graciously warmed up to us, describing the different types of chocolate and giving recommendations on what she liked best. At the end, she asked for our names, and we promised to return again.

Globalization may be changing the kind of products we use and how they are made, but there remains value in the kind of handmade work that can never be replaced by mass production or factory lines. It’s the difference between receiving something off a shelf and knowing personally the individual who made it. The latter requires patience, skill, and care. It necessitates love.

And that, after all, is the beauty of art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

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3 Thoughts on “Coveting the Handmade in Florence

  1. Pingback: They say a picture’s worth 1,000 words… | To Infinity and Abroad

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  3. Pingback: More art than they know what to do with | To Infinity and Abroad

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