pictures and text by Victoria Kelly
In the narrow, winding streets that thread throughout the area south of Florence’s Arno River between Santo Spirito and Ponte Vecchio, known as the Oltrarno, the city’s artisans can be found hard at work. Here you will find bookbinders, shoemakers, metalsmiths, artists, wood carvers, bronze sculptors and antique restorers busy in their workshops. Many of these artisans’ skills have been handed down through generations and can be traced back to the Renaissance and beyond.
Today, however, these artisans face several challenges, not least the march of technology, the high cost of employing apprentices and a changing job market. Consequently, their skills risk being lost as the centuries-old Florentine tradition of apprenticeship slowly disappears and demand for hand-crafted objects dwindles. In some cases, apprentices from abroad – from Japan, America and elsewhere in Europe – are filling the skills gap. But in others, the skills acquired, often over many centuries, risk dying out along with the artisan.
Bookbinding is one of the oldest artisanal traditions in Florence. In a small shop cum workshop on Via Romana, Omero Benvenuti has been hand crafting books and other leather and paper objects for most of his life. Omero, who is 67 years old, began learning basic bookbinding at the age of 11 when he was at school. When he was 16, he started his artisanship in earnest, working alongside a professional bookbinder. In 1967, when he was 22 years old, he set up his own workshop, which he continues to run until this day.
Many of the design elements Omero incorporates in his work draw on bookbinding and design traditions that stem from Renaissance Florence, such as the marbled paper he can be seen creating in the picture above. But he also plays with modern themes and says he is often inspired by what he sees in the street. “When you master your trade you can do what you want,” he says.
Omero is pessimistic about whether traditional artisan skills will be able to survive in modern Florence. He believes mass production is rapidly succeeding demand for individual, hand-crafted pieces. “My work is going to disappear because technology works against artisans,” he says. He also points out that Italian employment laws make it prohibitively expensive for many artisans to take on apprentices. When Omero started learning his trade, he was paid 100 lire a week, which, at the time, was not even enough to buy a cinema ticket. Today, he would have to pay an apprentice €1,500 per month in wages and social benefits – a figure he says he cannot afford. Consequently, the number of bookbinders in Florence has shrunk rapidly since Omero first started. In 1967, when he started working, there were 125 bookbinders in the city. Today, there are around just 10.