The great Florentine leather stitch-up

 Since the middle ages, Florence has been known for its fine leatherwork. Photograph: Getty Images

Since the middle ages, Florence has been known for its fine leatherwork. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 01:00

One of Florence’s most enduring commercial legacies is the leather trade. It has prospered virtually uninterrupted since the earliest days of the Florentine Republic: from 1283, the Guild of Furriers and Skinners was constituted as one of the seven arti maggiori, or major guilds, who (along with 14 lesser guilds) effectively controlled the city through the election of the nine priori, or city administrators.

When they weren’t engaging in the dirty business of politics, the city’s leather craftsmen spent their time cutting and sewing hides to create bags, wallets, coats, gloves, shoes and anything else that can be bound in some kind of treated hide.

That rich and noble tradition is very much alive, but terribly unwell, in the over-abundance of leather goods stores that line the streets of the historic centre. Look closely at the display of handsome bags in primary colours or the selection of gloves in a fan arrangement and you’ll notice shoddy stitching that in the good old days would have seen the merchant ejected ignominiously from the guild. Put your nose to the fabric and you’ll get a chemical smell because, yes, that made-in-Italy, handcrafted, oversized tote is actually a collection of sprayed calico sheets stitched by a factory worker in China. And, if you were charmed into parting with your money in Florence’s famous open-air San Lorenzo market, you’ll be lucky if anything survives a day in the rain.

Authentic, Florentine-made goods (it’s the subtle difference between Made in Italy and Italian leather, which is not) are available, but you have to know where to look.

Well-to-do Florentines like to get their leather fix at the supremely elegant Cellerini (Via del Sole 37/r;, which offers Gucci-quality at half the price – which still ain’t cheap. Still, everything here is made by hand in the workshop next door and you they’ll dye whatever you buy pretty much any colour you want. Also worth checking out is Bojola (Via dei Rodinelli 25/r;, which has an impeccable reputation for high-quality goods at more affordable prices.

But leather enthusiasts will undoubtedly want to peek inside an actual workshop, and one of the best is that of Florentine master craftsman Simone Taddei (Via Santa Margherita 11), whose speciality is domestic items like boxes, picture frames and desk sets.

Taddei’s work tacks closely to Florence’s artisanal traditions, also maintained by the Scuola del Cuoio (literally, the School of Leather), in an old dormitory of the monastery of Santa Croce.

Founded by friars in the aftermath of the second World War to provide employment to orphans, the workmanship here is of extremely high quality. It’s the kind of artisanal workshop that Michelangelo would have approved of: he happens to be buried in the church, alongside Galileo and Machiavelli.

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