Perhaps one of the most beautiful things which I have noticed about Florence is how well the church is integrated within the lives of its residents. Regardless of the religious views of the visitors, basilicas and cathedrals are the most popular tourist attractions throughout Italy. The beauty within these places is undeniable, yet the most stunning features are the people who run these places and the work they do for the community. The School of Leather, or Scuola del Cuoio, is a treasure brought to Florence with the help of the Santa Croce church.
During post World War II, life was not easy in Italy. While speaking with Laura Gori, one of the current managers, I learned that they faced many trials, one of which was finding a way to educate orphans. In 1950, Marcello Gori, Laura’s father, offered a solution to this problem. He and Father Bernardino Farnetani, a friar of the church, decided to pass on the craft of leather to the children, and opened Scuola del Cuoio in the monastery of Santa Croce. This brilliant idea fostered a place for children to gain skills that would take them off the streets and give them a place in the community, not to mention giving them a place within a centuries old tradition.
When Italian law made school required for all children in 1970, the School of Leather had to find new apprentices. Their students shifted from orphans to the underprivileged Florentines, and later they expanded to offering classes in the city jail. Scuola del Cuoio also continues to support the Friars of Santa Croce. In these ways, they are able to continue the tradition of both teaching how to work the leather and positively affecting the community. Today, Marcello Gori’s family continues to run Scuola del Cuoio in the same fashion. His legacy is carried on by his daughters Laura, Francesca and Barbara, and his grandson Tommaso. Francesca has created her own special line of purses known as Le Borse-Gioielli, or Jewel-Bags, some of which are pictured below.
In the tradition of her father and Florence, Francesca’s bags have taken artisan craftsmanship to the extreme—each bag is hand cut, assembled and stitched, then decorated with unique jewels and beads. Each of these pieces is considered to be part of her “Permanent Collection” of Jewel-Bags. This collection truly speaks to the history of leather craftsmanship. While expensive, these are more than just purses; they are tangible pieces of Florentine history and craftsmanship.
Walking around the showroom of Scuola del Cuoio is an incredible experience. Visitors can easily look into the workspaces of the artisans and see the care and technique which is placed into every piece, be it a purse, pillow, jacket, or wallet. Mirrors are placed above stands such as this one so people can easily see the artist work.
It is also possible to have an item which you have purchased be stamped in gold with your initials—the perfect way to personalize any item. One of the most fascinating things in the school is watching the craftsmen work with the gold leaf. It is an extremely delicate process which obviously requires much skill. The leaf is hammered out to be thinner than paper, then carefully placed upon a stencil before being affixed to the leather. I could never imagine being able to keep my hands so steady or making the gold so smooth, watching these people works makes one realize how much these products are truly works of art. It takes true skill to be able to perfect these pieces. This is underlined by the fact that the tools they use seem to be so simple.
These look as though they are just for show, yet each of these tools is still used to create the magnificent works on display throughout the store. It is humbling to look around and realize that the products around you were mostly made with the same simple tools which they have been using for years—these are not mass produced pieces from a factory. Instead, each product represents the talent of the artisan who crafted it, and the years of tradition behind it.
It would truly be a shame to visit Florence, see the breathtaking Basilica di Santa Croce, and not continue your walk out of the church’s gift shop directly into the Scuola del Cuoio. This family run business has now been quietly improving Florence for over sixty years; a rather impressive feat. My pictures and words do not do this place justice. If you ever have the opportunity, it is essential to visit this place for yourself so that you may see the beauty it has to offer. The staff is friendly, the work is beautiful, and you would be hard pressed to find a better place from which to buy a quality souvenir!
Blogger Kaytie Norman is a soon to be graduate student of Syracuse University currently studying in Florence. She is an English major and Italian minor with a deep admiration for the arts.