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My Five Lessons from the Artisans of Florence

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

When I came to Italy 30 years ago and started to work in an artisan 'bottega' decorating furniture, I found a unique environment where traditions were very much alive, there was a whole way of working that was, and is, very light hearted. All the historical baggage was not at all a heavy burden. I am dismayed that this may be disappearing in Italy too now, as it has disappeared in other parts of the world. It is one thing to study old masters from books, but to come into a tradition that is alive and well , an unbroken chain since renaissance times, is quite different. So, what is this Artisan way that I find so inspiring ? I've tried to write down a few points, maybe whoever feels a connection to this can add to them.

'Artisan' was not, and does not, have to be separate from 'Artist'.

Think of all those inspirational artistic artisans of the renaissance like Donatello, Botticelli, Luca della Robbia, Sofonisba Anguissola, or Michelangelo. Michelangelo was an artisan, a stone carver, hands, muscles, heart and soul. Working very much within the parameters set by his craft, commissions, society and patrons, yet infusing art into all that he created. He led the way through his own personal research and improvement to a new style of artistic expression that revolutionized the artistic language of his time and still speaks to us today on a profound level, through the centuries.

Techniques and materials are important. We need to master them, not be mastered by them. I like to remember that when Michelangelo got the commission to paint the Sistine chapel ceiling, he didn't know the fresco technique. He had to return to the studio of Ghirlandaio his maestro, and get the recipe. He mastered it, with some failures and adjustments for the weather conditions in Rome, as he executed the commission. In fact you can see cracking in the first panels, before he had mastered the technique.

Key your work to a high standard. Carry a big suitcase of visual references but don't let it weigh you down. Contemporary work needs to have enough strength to stand next to the amazing historical examples.

Be thorough. Try all possible combinations, and work on all aspects, even if it takes time. Be picky, look at it , step back. This is part of the discipline that modern pressures try to rush us through.

Put it out there. Putting work out for viewing to our peers, to the public, to clients, is important. A lot of artists are in isolation today. You may often be surprised by the difference between what your audience perceives and what you intended.The old studio system in Florence was a place of 'confronto' already and the studios were part of a network of artisan spaces full of visual professionals which led to plenty of feedback. Feedback is good!

If you would like to visit artisans in Florence you can get the Creative people in Florence App or follow them on Instagram

Some of my favourite Italian workshops for Interior design and decoration are Autentiqua near the Piazza of Santo Spirito (they have decorated canvases you can roll up and transport easily), and Bartolozzi Maioli in the same area for that authentic old time bottega ambience. Riccardo Barthel near Porta Romana is an all-round interior design enterprise, (be sure to tour their salvage yard of old armoires and other bits and pieces). I also love the interiors and collections of porcelain in the Richard Ginori shop in Via dei Rondinelli 17, near palazzo Strozzi. You can pop in just for inspiration if you are passing.


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