The Jewel of Tuscany
Florence’s Artisan District
By John-Paul Pietrus
With a sigh of relief, one early February morning I boarded a tiny airplane and left behind London’s cold, dark, and wet environs, in the roar of a jet engine. This was the start of my month long Italian ‘minisabbatical’. Although I love being a fashion photographer, last year I was stung by some of the industry’s thorns and realized that I needed a break.
My new plan was to live a glorious life in Florence, while studying the art of Florentine jewelry making and design. I’d always had an interest in jewelry and thought; why don’t I learn something new for a month and keep my brain on a creative track with something not directly related to my work?
As one of the creative capitals of the Renaissance, Florence is a city of artisans which still prides itself on creative traditions and incredible craftsmanship. One walks down the narrow streets of the city and passes cobblers, goldsmiths, printmakers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.
Metallo Nobile (noble metal) is one of Europe’s top jewelry schools, and is set in the heart of the artisan district of Santo Spiritu. This area is located just a stone’s throw away from the historic Pitti Palace and the Ponte Vecchio.
Walking into the scuola, I was greeted by the sound of blaring opera music and pounding metal hammers. The air lingered with the unmistakable scent of hot wax and morning cappuccino. Geometric glass lamps hung from the ceiling above two dozen jeweler’s desks, at which an international selection of students from Salvador, China, Chile, Latvia, Brazil, and Japan, were busy at work setting gems, engraving, and casting. And thus began my programma.
Classes were from 9 a.m until about 7:30 pm from Monday to Thursday. It was a strenuous schedule to say the least, but I found myself reinvigorated being a full time student again, and learning something completely new. It was inspiring and I looked forward to it every day.
On the first day I didn’t quite know what to expect, and was thrown straight into hands-on jewelry making. My teacher, Ignacio, introduced me to smalto (enameling). Enamel is colored glass powder that you mix with water to form a paste, apply to a surface, and fire in a kiln at very high heat, to solidify and make permanent. The lesson was one-on-one instruction, so I learned very quickly.
Friday’s were my day off from class, so I would saunter down the city’s narrow cobblestone streets and stop in the various artisans workshops and stores, fascinated by everything I saw. I would also visit the city’s museums; the Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi, and my favorite, the Palazzo Bardini in San Nicolo.
Back at school, my next task was to learn the Cathedral technique. This requires not only steady hands and a keen eye, which I achieved wearing jeweler’s magnifying glasses, but also maximum patience. Ignacio began my lessons with a Florentine style silver ring, with a few holes in the design, which I would fill with enamel paste and then fire in an oven at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit.
The enamel had to be applied as cleanly as possible, because once it’s fired, it is difficult to correct mistakes. After a few days of hard work, my first ring was finished, and it looked like a first ring – messy! Afterwards, I took a technical class for drawing and painting jewelry, with Bon Jovi haired Enrico. The class was not only boring, it was also difficult. After nine hours of class, I was exhilarated and exhausted. Later, I ate a hearty bowl of truffle pasta, collapsed on my bed and slept like a bambino.
Most of my evenings were spent at many of the city’s amazing restaurants such as il Santo Bevitore, which had an incredible steak tartare with truffles and an expansive wine selection. Al Antico Restoro di Cambi had the best steak (the famed Fiorentina) I have ever sunk my teeth into.
Making progress at school, I made my first medallion featuring a monkey figurine. It took me about three days and 13 applications of paint to create it, but I found the work satisfying and my patience was growing stronger. I felt alive, creative, and optimistic, but at a pace which was not hustle-bustle or manic.
I fell in love with Florence and all that it had to offer. My four-week experience extended into six weeks, as I just couldn’t seem to leave. This city has the makings of an art history book and fairy tales, with one foot in modern times and the other foot in the Renaissance. I’m sure my love affair with Florence has only just begun.