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Florence Artisan Workshops Handcraft Renaissance Artifacts for the Extravagantly Wealthy

Hidden away in Florence’s side streets, artisans’ workshops keep centuries-old traditions of luxury alive.

It isn’t easy to find the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, a brick-walled silk-fabric workshop hidden behind a garden of geraniums, hydrangeas and palm trees a block from the Arno River, which bisects Florence. There is the soft clatter of wooden looms and spindles—one of them based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci and others dating back to the late 18th century, when the workshop began operating. And in the adjoining showroom, amid bolts of the finest silk, Sabine Pretsch, manager of the Antico Seticio, picks up a taffeta sample in iridescent red and gold and tells me, “Here are the colors of the Renaissance paintings.”

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Renaissance Redux”.

This is no idle metaphor, as I discover that afternoon on a walk across the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno to the Uffizi Gallery. In room after room, I gaze at paintings of aristocrats whose noble garments have been reproduced in superb detail by the Antico Setificio looms—the white and silver silk dress of a Medici child in Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of Bia de’ Medici (1540); the orange and yellow silk damask of the billowing robe worn by Jacopo Pontormo’s Woman with Basket of Spindles (1514–17); and the gold and black embroidered dress in Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni de’ Medici (1545–46).

The visible Florence is the ravishing architecture and art of the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Duomo, or, on a tackier level, the trinket vendors on either side of the Arno. But concealed from the crowds and visited mostly by discerning, wealthy clients and their decorators is the Florence of the master artisan workshops.

The Antico Setificio Fiorentino began its activity when the Medicis were still the leading Florentine family. Bartolozzi e Maioli, a famed restorer of Baroque wood objects, rose from the ashes of World War II to help reconstruct the interiors of churches battered by air raids. And Brandimarte, the leading silver workshop, was founded in the 1950s by a skilled artisan intent on raising the quality of the jewelry and decorative objects peddled to foreigners and locals.

The quality of the fabrics produced by the ancient looms of the Antico Setificio cannot be replicated by modern computerized equipment. The silk and cotton fibers—untreated by chemicals—would break on a contemporary high-speed loom. And no new machine is capable of satisfying the personalized demands of an Antico Setificio client. “We can change the colors, texture, weight of a single piece of cloth,” says Pretsch. “We can weave a fabric with the green of your favorite garden shrub, or with the color of your eyes.”

She reaches for samples of ermisimo, a pure silk weave first brought over to Italy during the Renaissance from the Persian city of Hormuz. While a computerized loom will typically use 3,000 chemically treated silk threads per standard 1.4-meter length of fabric, the Antico Setificio will weave together 8,000 to 16,000 threads of ermisimo per 1.2 meters of fabric. The result is a more resistant, lustrous cloth in which each silk strand seems to reflect light. “This is the luxury of weaving slowly,” says Pretsch.

While in Renaissance times the fabric was used mainly for clothing, nowadays it is turned into curtains—multicolored drapes that hang 15 feet or longer. The workshop also produces another ancient, exotic fabric, spinone, developed in Renaissance Italy and woven from silk and cotton or linen. It is used mostly for upholstering, wall covering and tapestries.

Pretsch, whose varied, peripatetic careers included journalism, social anthropology and architecture, arrived at the Antico Setificio 27 years ago and took up management at the behest of Pucci, the fashion designer family, who had owned the workshop since 1958. Two years ago, the Antico Setificio was acquired by the Stefano Ricci fashion house.

The dozen loom operators, all women, come from Florentine artisan families that have been employed at the workshop for many generations, with mothers often passing on their posts to their daughters—after five-year apprenticeships. Perhaps the most valuable individual at the Antico Setificio is Fabrizio Meucci, who repairs all the ancient looms, including the huge, cylindrical warping machine designed by Leonardo.

“We are producing the same fabrics that were made 500 years ago,” says Pretsch. “For clients, there is an attraction to owning something that cannot be bought in any store. They purchase the fabrics through architects and interior designers who in effect act as our representatives around the world, or they can come here directly.”

Besides the private residences of wealthy denizens of Milan, London, Paris and New York, the Antico Setificio fabrics decorate the Senate and the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, the Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen and the Royal Castle in Stockholm.

Occasionally, the master artisan workshops of Florence pool their resources for a large-scale project. This was the case, most notably, when the Antico Setificio and Bartolozzi e Maioli joined in the spectacular restoration in the late 1990s of the Kremlin’s great halls of St. Alexander and St. Andrew, whose interiors were destroyed by Stalin for ideological reasons. While the Antico Setificio provided the upholstering, curtains and tapestries, Bartolozzi took charge of the wood restoration, including furniture, angels, coats-of-arms, cornices and intricate wood embroideries. The restored rooms, with a larger floor space than the Duomo, are used to host receptions for visiting heads of state.

“We also do a lot of work for churches, especially the restoration of Baroque statues, columns, ceilings,” says Fiorenza Bartolozzi, owner of the workshop started in 1938 by her father, Fiorenzo, and another master artisan, Giuseppe Maioli. Bartolozzi e Maioli, even more hidden away than the Antico Setificio, is at the end of an alleyway in a former stable that belonged to a Florentine noble family in the 1500s.

The premises could still pass for a Renaissance stage set. Polychrome and gilded wood angels, saints, chandeliers and sconces, all in various states of disrepair, are stacked haphazardly in the cavernous building. In one of the less cluttered corners, Franco Pascale, the 74-year-old master artisan, carves ever so carefully on an intricately ornate painting frame. For major projects, the workshop hires up to 30 skilled artisans on a freelance basis.

The heavily ecclesiastical nature of the Bartolozzi’s inventory owes its roots to the workshop’s first significant project—the restoration of the interior of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was founded 81 miles southeast of Rome in 529 by St. Benedict. Considered one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the history of the Church, it was totally destroyed in a 1944 Allied bombing raid. The interior restoration, which lasted from 1957 to 1969, included the 82 seats of the choir, the bas-reliefs, the high altar and the decorative wood of the sacristy. Most of the work was done solely on the basis of photographs.

Beginning in the 1970s, when many Catholic churches in Italy undertook architectural modernizations, they sold their unwanted, older pews, stands, cornices and statuary to Bartolozzi e Maioli, which stores them in a separate warehouse on the outskirts of Florence. “The inventory is so huge that we will never run out,” says Fiorenza Bartolozzi, who runs the workshop with her husband, Carlo Alliata, and their daughter, Gaia.

The same techniques used to restore ecclesiastical properties are applied to secular projects as well. Using glues, gessoes, dyes and lacquer finishes developed in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Bartolozzi provided the Sultan of Brunei with a rocking chair finished in gold leaf and an exact replica of Marie Antoinette’s bed with a spectacular wood canopy. Closer to home, Bartolozzi decorated the boudoir of Marina Berlusconi, daughter of the billionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with carved, gilded bas-reliefs. “The Berlusconis are important clients,” says Bartolozzi.

But the biggest customers nowadays are the Russians. Following the Kremlin restoration, Bartolozzi has received major commissions from oligarchs. A prime example is the renovation of a library in a Moscow mansion involving the use of gesso layers on wood with a linen-gray-white finish and gold-leaf gilded edges to achieve an 18th-century French neoclassical style.

Extravagantly wealthy Russians have also become the major clients of Brandimarte, the silver workshop named after a character in the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso. Last year, an oil oligarch bought for his mistress a silver bathtub, five and a half feet long and weighing 1,320 pounds, with 24-carat gold plating on its four dolphin-shaped brass spouts. “Now, another oligarch has ordered one as well,” says Stefano Guscelli, Brandimarte’s designer and co-owner with his sister, Giada. (The founding father adopted the single name Brandimarte for himself, and his children decline to reveal either his first name or family name, though presumably it was Guscelli). Also available are copies of 19th-century samovars, four feet tall and all in silver. The animal and human motifs were removed from a samovar for Turkmenistan’s President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, because he is Muslim.

This is far removed from the era six decades ago when Brandimarte opened for business with simple chain-linked bracelets and necklaces and decorative vases. What hasn’t changed is the basic technique in the workshop, now located in an early 19th-century former warehouse a mile away from the showroom. In one room, an artisan traces a design with black ink on a silver urn and then pours pitch into the container. Once the pitch hardens, he hammers and chisels the design on the surface of the urn. Finally, the urn is reheated until the pitch can be melted and poured out. In an adjoining room, another artisan uses only a hammer to shape and design a vase. And nearby, an artisan practices a third technique, using an electric-powered turning machine to shape and design silver plates.

“While I love the traditional designs my father created, clients nowadays want silver for everyday use, not just to place in a corner of a living room,” says Stefano Guscelli. Therefore, Brandimarte’s current offerings include flower vases and urns, wine goblets and decanters, plates and flatware, and pots and pans—all in silver. But the tripling of silver prices over the last two years has shifted the market away from Western Europe and the United States. “Today, the Russians are the Renaissance princes,” says Guscelli.

On my way out, I pass a large flower vase with frenzied human figures chiseled in bas-relief on its silver surface. A closer inspection leaves no doubt that it is graphic depiction of an orgy. Guscelli shrugs, his palms raised upwards, and says, “I know, but the Russians love that sort of decoration.”

By Jonathan Kandell

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2012

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