The Oltr’Arno – The Left Bank of Florence
I wrote this article about the Oltr’Arno, the artisan’s quarter of Florence, for the Wall Street Journal in May of 2003. For a while in the early 80s I lived in Florence and the city is still one of my favorite places.
Florence has 400,000 permanent residents and about three million visitors each year
Most flock to the city’s artistic treasures, waiting for hours to view Michelangelo’s David or cramming into the Uffizi when it’s as crowded as the New York subway during rush hour.
But, all that is on the north bank of the Arno. On the south bank, known as the Oltr’Arno, things are different.
The Oltr’Arno is the artisans quarter of Florence, where skilled craftspeople make things for their wealthy neighbours on the north bank and the style conscious everywhere. The narrow streets are lined with workshops. Peek inside and you’ll see ghostly figures of sawdust covered men carving wood or jewellers shaping precious metals over a small open flame.
Culturally, the big attractions on the Oltr’Arno are the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens and the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine but, it has a few surprises.
In Piazza Santa Felicita in the Church of Santa Felicita is an unsung Renaissance masterpiece, Jacopo Pontormo’s The Entombment of Christ (1527- 8). The church is usually dark and empty. €1 in a wall mounted meter buys five minutes of light. Pontormo depicted the moment the virgin let go of her son so that he could be buried. Look at Christ’s followers bent over with grief and the heartbreak on the virgin’s face and you’ll understand more about the Renaissance than you learned in Art History 101.
At 17 Via Romana is La Specola, the city’s strangest museum, entrance fee €5. Located on the forth floor (one hundred steps, no elevator) of a palazzo belonging to the University of Florence, La Specola opened in 1775 and remains largely unchanged. On display in the zoological section are thousands of mounted, preserved and stuffed creatures, from a rhinoceros to an ant, along with a shark, hundreds of birds and a tapeworm extracted from an adult human and now floating in formaldehyde.
La Specola also houses a Museum of Waxes, 1,400 wax models representing every muscle, organ, bone, vein and artery in the human body. In the 18th and 19th century the models allowed physicians to study anatomy without dissecting cadavers.
Museums however, will never replace artisans as the soul of the Oltr’Arno. If you’re looking for something you won’t see in department stores all over the world, the Oltr’Arno is the place to start. But, don’t expect to find lots of sales assistants and price catalogues. The workshops are small businesses and the emphasis is on the craft and not the retail environment. While all artisans sell off-the-shelf articles, their preference is for ‘unique-to-you’ commissions, so prices are not determined until they understand exactly what you want.
At Antico Setificio Fiorentino, (Via L Bartolini 4) they’ve been hand-weaving silk for almost five hundred years. Clients include several European royal families, the Gettys and the Agnellis. On offer are silk wall coverings, upholstery, curtains, lampshades, book covers and scarves.
What the Setificio is to silk, Brandimarte, immediately next door, is to silver. Every year they hand make silver trays, plates, bowls, tureens, fruit stands, cups, flasks, goblets, compote jars, amphora, and candlesticks. Recently, a Russian customer ordered a sterling silver bathtub.
Since 1800 the craftsmen at Locchi Laboratorio di Moleria su Vetro e Cristallo (Via D. Burchiello 10) have cut glass and crystal, from huge chandeliers to delicate perfume bottles. Senora Paola Locchi oversees the work with the help of her daughter-in-law and two glass grinders. Locchi also restores glass and crystal for museums around the world, even those in Venice.
Enter the premises of Bartolozzi e Maioli (Via dei Vellutini 5r) and you’re immediately struck by the tangy scent of wood as it is shaped and carved into furniture for customers as diverse as the Russian government and the Sultan of Brunei.
The doors of the great palazzos of Florence are usually oak, but the doorknobs, knockers and key plates are always brass. Today, most of this ‘door furniture’ is created in tiny workshops like Banchi Lamberto & Duccio at Via Serragli 10r. Lamberto, the father and Duccio his son use brass to make anything you like. Customers include Neiman Marcus, Christian Dior and the Queen of Denmark.
For something lighter than brass, like paper, head for Giulio Giannini & Figlio Piazza Pitta 37r. Most of the paper sold here is hand made while the notebooks and photo albums are bound in a studio on the second floor.
For unusual jewellery, mostly in yellow gold visit Alessandro Dari, Via San Niccolò 115r.
Today the artisans of the Olrtr’Arno are slowly losing ground as gentrification forces up rents. Still tradition fades slowly in Flronece. Walk around the neighbourhood you never know what you might find.
Of course, if you get hungry, the best place on the Oltr’Arno for a quick snack is Le Volpi and L’Uva, Piazza de Rossi 1. For something more substantial Trattoria 4 Leoni, Piazza della Passera, is a favourite of Hannibal Lecter’s cinematic interpreter, the actor Anthony Hopkins, even though lamb is not on the menu.