Holy Men and Handbags: Craftsmanship and the Catholic Tradition in Florence

By: Allison Zack

December 11, 2014

If you find yourself in Florence next December, resist the sparkling lights and festive garland hung above the doorways of high-end designer shops along Via Calzaiuoli. Do not be drawn in to brand-name stores with bright signs advertising “Christmas Extravaganzas.” Do not for one moment think that the chic leather handbags and coats behind those shop windows are any more Italian than is the artificial snow sprinkled around them. Florence is a city built by merchants; the city owes many of its most important civic and religious monuments to medieval trade guilds or wealthy merchant families, and its modern-day merchants speak the language of holiday shopping well. Drawn in by the irresistible glow of blinking icicle lights, tourists will empty their wallets in order to stuff their suitcases with leather products manufactured in factories overseas.

Florence is abundant with open-air markets where sellers of leather goods set up shop side by side. These goods must be priced competitively or risk being passed over by discerning shoppers, and buyers are often able to haggle the price down even further. Visitors walk away without ever learning that their wallet or belt was imported and stored in a warehouse behind the market, where it was outfitted with Italian labels and zippers.

For the most authentic Italian specialties, follow the scent of genuine leather to Florence’s most famous leather artisans. In partnership with two Florentine families, the Franciscan friars of the Monastery of Santa Croce opened the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School) after World War II to teach orphans a practical trade. Today, in the old dormitory corridor of the monastery, it remains active as a workshop for artisans still living and thriving in Florence. Visitors will find Francesca Gori, daughter of one of the founding artisans, at her workbench with needle and thread in hand, fashioning deerskin and pieces of antique jewelry into one of her world-renowned hand-sewn bags. While a centuries-old banking and financial sector helps its commercial center to flourish, crafts like jewelry and leatherwork continue to provide considerable sources of income for Florentines.

The Franciscans have played an important social role through the scuola. In the 1950s, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, they began offering courses to inmates of the city prison and juvenile detention centers. Some of the young people admitted to these re-education programs can still be found at workbenches in the scuola itself. Today, the provincial friar awards annual scholarships to those in need. Not only does the school still offer classes in which master craftsmen work side-by-side with “apprentices,” classes in digital design, marketing, and management comprise a curriculum that prepares students for the leather making business.

Over the years the scuola has attracted high-profile clients such as the British royal family and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose leather desk set was handcrafted by the school. Despite its celebrity, the scuola remains faithful to the great traditions of Florentine craftsmanship with the quality of products and its commitment to tradition. Labels sown into the products allow artisans to keep track of where and with whom their creations end up.

At Christmas time, the tradition of craftsmanship born within Church extends beyond its walls into the piazza, where Il Mercato Tedesco di Natale, a German Christmas market, opens up at the beginning of December. In the heart of the city’s commercial district lies this seasonal setup where Northern European and Tuscan holiday traditions find a place to coexist. There, against a splendid backdrop of the thirteenth century Franciscan church, Italian specialties are sold alongside German bratwurst and pretzels. In the inclusive spirit of the monks who founded it, Santa Croce offers something for every size budget; one can take home a ceramic plate hand painted in Bassano for the price of a panini! Everywhere are reminders of Catholic traditions, in exquisite hand-painted Neapolitan nativity scenes and in Franciscan nuns selling ornaments to support their orphanage alongside the other vendors.

If you listen closely, you might be able to make out hymns being sung by one of the local choirs also hosted by the church at Christmas time. Despite the popularity of its commercial center, Florence is a city deep-rooted in great traditions of quality craftsmanship. The world’s biggest names in fashion can compete for most festive storefront, but during the holidays the markets at the Church of Santa Croce hold the real attraction. In these markets Florentines are able to cultivate and preserve a shopping culture based on human interaction, quality, fairness, and Catholic traditions.

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