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The Other Side of the Arno

Just steps from the Pitti Palace is Florence's best-kept secret: a warren of ateliers and workshops whose wondrous handcrafted wares make you feel you're stepping back in time.

Every day Florence wakes to thousands of visitors trekking through the city toward the Pitti Palace, in what remains one of the world's most beautiful—and popular—secular pilgrimages. But as the crowds pour southward off the Ponte Vecchio, few among them are aware that they're entering the city's historic New Town. Kicked into life in the 12th century when the old Roman settlement outgrew its borders, this southern addition, Oltr'arno—or "the other side of the Arno"—spilled out over land that had hitherto been home to vineyards, olive groves, and market gardens (as well as a few scattered religious communities). Merchants, squeezed out of their old quarters, found plenty of space in Oltr'arno, and the district was soon populated by them and the people whose livelihood depended on their patronage: servants, laborers, shopkeepers, and most importantly, skilled artisans.

The move to Oltr'arno coincided with both a trade boom and a lifestyle revolution. Newly rich merchants who had once been content to live simple lives now wanted to live like princes. And for this they needed furniture, frescoes, bedding, tableware—everything to deck out their new single-family palazzi. So a vast number of artists and craftsmen decamped to nearby tenements and workshops and began to create everything their socially ambitious customers desired. They've been here ever since, very often in the same hole-in-the-wall ateliers, practicing their same trades. Although these days their customers aren't merchants but rather their contemporary equivalents: interior decorators, film designers, movie stars, and stylists, not to mention museums, hotels, and luxury department stores.

Take the Luciano Ugolini & C. bronze-working shop, for instance. Here the titular brothers, Luciano and Guido Ugolini (along with their sons, Daniele and Francesco) work in a garagelike space near the Church of Santo Spirito. Like many ateliers in Oltr'arno, theirs is an old family business, one which has been producing exquisite bronze door handles and lamps since the end of the nineteenth century. Today the Ugolinis also produce hand-hammered copper amphorae and basins ($340-$17,000) that are virtually indistinguishable from those that were made by Bernardo Buontalenti for the Medicis' Pitti Palace. "We design everything ourselves," says Luciano proudly. "Lamps, vases, urns, everything; and we still use the lost-wax method—we start with a wax model, then make a cast from it with holes drilled in for pouring the metal through."

Across the street from the Ugolinis' atelier is that of Ivan Bardi, who works with his daughter Consuelo and two friends in a streetside sprawl of little workshops. Bardi, a goateed man in his fifties, decorates and paints headboards, bureaus ($2,500-$4,500) and tabletops ($1,350) in a tradition that dates back to the fifteenth century. The raw material for his work he procures from the furniture markets or from individual clients. After having been stripped to the wood, it's coated with thin layers of gesso, onto which are painted layers of ornamentation—anything from floral motifs and decorative grisaille patterns to full-blown pastoral scenes. Bardi's warren of workshops is a chaos of furniture and bookcases, but out of the clutter emerges breathtakingly elegant furniture, all of it mellow and lustrous with varnish and wax. Touching their smooth, sheeny surfaces, I am reminded that both Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi once moonlighted in botteghe exactly like this one, painting cassoni (hope chests) to earn extra money.

In medieval and Renaissance Oltr'arno, little distinction was made between art and the sorts of crafts produced by the Ugolinis and the Bardis. Andrea del Verrocchio, after all, made terra-cotta figurines, and Luca della Robbia created wall tiles for kitchens. The whole quarter was in effect a factory whose artisans produced whatever was in demand, whether it was wall-hangings or decorated tabletops. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—Oltr'arno's heyday—the workshops, which opened directly onto the street, functioned as ur-storefronts of sorts: Passersby had the opportunity to inspect the artisan's wares while witnessing their production. The workday began early in the morning. For lunch, errand boys would be dispatched to the great slaughterhouse on Via Bartolini, near the easternmost of the four gates in the city wall (which was erected in the fourteenth century to protect Oltr'arno from the army of the rapacious Holy Roman emperor Henry VII). Slaughterhouse workers would haul enormous vats of tripe soup onto the street, and the errand boys would hurry back to their workshops, their flasks filled with steaming liquid.

Today, the slaughterhouse is long gone, but in its place is a relatively new arrival, Brandimarte, a silver shop established in 1955 by Brandimarte Guscelli, a silversmith from Bologna. Like many ateliers in the Oltr'arno, Brandimarte is a multigenerational effort; today it's run by the founder's son, Stefano, and sister, Giada. The atelier's 25-person staff produces hand-worked silver, using, in Stefano's words, "Renaissance technology" to create "modern items," from goblets ($200-$300) and candelabra to stunning silver pots and pans ($110-$1,830). The melted and molded silver is embossed and engraved in a clutch of small workshops ringing with the sound of hammers beating out patterns onto metal: stalks of wheat, olive branches, lilies, grapes, and oak leaves. "We can do anything a customer wants here," says one of the engravers, Fabrizio Aquafresca, a young cousin of the Guscellis'. He shows me a photograph of a vast solid-silver bath decorated with four gold-plated bronze fish. "It was one of a pair designed by Stefano," he says, "for an extremely rich Russian client."

Just down the street from the Brandimarte's shop is Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the great-grandmother of all Oltr'arno's ateliers. After the city's golden age, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, commercial silk production virtually died out, becoming the domain of aristocratic families, who considered silk making a prestigious—and exclusive—industry. In the mid-eighteenth century, six of these families decided to pool their looms and pattern books in a bid to consolidate their power; Antico Setificio is a descendant of that early conglomerate. "The company came to where we are now in 1786," says the managing director, Sabine Pretsch, "but our archives date back to 1492, the year of the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent!"

With this, Pretsch, who is passionate and brisk, leads me across a little gardened courtyard to a workshop where a cluster of local women—"from the parish of San Frediano, that's the silk guild's rule"—are busy weaving beautiful iridescent silks and hand-knotted damasks on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century looms. "The patterns are determined by a punched pattern-block system that dates back to the eighteenth century," says Pretsch, a one-time architect and journalist, over the constant clacking of the looms. "But the threads have to be knotted by hand, up to 33,000 of them for the most complicated textiles." Against one wall is an odd-looking wooden machine resembling a bobbin (used for warping) "which was invented by Leonardo da Vinci."

The Setificio, which was once—and is now again—the most famous silkworks in Europe, was given a new lease on life after World War II, when Count Emilio Pucci di Barsento (a descendant of one of the founding families) bought a controlling interest in the company. Now Antico Setificio, which is a favorite among couturiers, filmmakers, and interior designers, also specializes in restoring and reproducing old silks for churches, museums, and European royal families. Setificio's showroom is filled with the results of what Pretsch calls "the luxury of going slowly": Walls are ablaze with bales of hand-dyed silks in an astonishing range of textures and lusters (a yard of handwoven cloth costs between $275 and $975) and custom pillows ($200-$565). There are handwoven damasks and brocades originally made for Renaissance aristocrats and re-creations of centuries-old designs. When the Russian government recently needed over 3,720 yards of silk for copies of wall hangings and furniture covers in the Kremlin, it entrusted the job to Setificio's looms.

The Russian project involved the re-creation of two nineteenth-century halls that was virtually destroyed under Stalin. The job, which took several years to complete, was overseen by another Oltr'arno workshop, Bartolozzi e Maioli, which sits on Via Maggio. Via Maggio was once a dirt track used for hauling produce into the city, but today it is home to the city's best antiques shops, and at first glance Bartolozzi e Maioli looks like any other of the street's charming cluttered stores. But tucked away behind its plate-glass facade is a series of workshops and display areas crammed to the rafters with furniture and decorations in every shape and form: chairs (from $680), tables (from $800), chandeliers (from $1,125), and cupids ($350-$7,000).

The store, which is one of the most famous woodworking shops in the world, was founded in 1938 by two men who after the war spent a dozen years restoring the sacristy and choir of the famous bombed monastery in Monte Cassino, and later went on to decorate palaces in Brunei and Qatar, villas in Beverly Hills and San Francisco, the Holland Village in Nagasaki, and the Kremlin halls. For the Kremlin re-creation, the company employed over a hundred woodworkers, including apprentices from all over Europe. "About 35 different kinds of wood were used," says Gaia Bartolozzi, the late cofounder's granddaughter, who now runs the shop with her mother.

While Bartolozzi e Maioli and Antico Setificio may be among Oltr'arno's most famous ateliers, every one of the neighborhood's workshops contains its own delights and surprises. On Via Toscanella, for example, Giancarlo Giacchetti and Paolo Rossi are hard at work on a 60-yard-long wrought-iron staircase—which costs about $1,000 per yard—for a house in San Francisco. On Via de' Serragli, in a shop front dating back to the 1850s, bronzista Lamberto Banchi and son Duccio are making gold-plated brass candlesticks and picture frames for Neiman Marcus. And just off Santo Spirito Square, Giuliano Ricchi is packing up objets de vertu—enameled jewel boxes and pillboxes ($22-$34), gold-plated mirrors ($28-$90), and tortoiseshell-backed compacts ($46-$90)—to send to luxury stores in London, Paris, and Hong Kong.

But unlike many owners of these small, family-owned businesses and shops, Ricchi will not be handing down his business to the next generation: "I have no son to take over from me," he says with a shrug, "and even if I could get an apprentice I couldn't afford to pay him what I'd have to while he trained."

This is a common complaint these days in Oltr'arno. "Many of the ateliers have gone out of business because of it," says Fabiola Lunghetti, who operates from a small workshop directly opposite Pitti Palace. Like Picchi, Lunghetti, who is 54 years old, has no heir apparent. Twenty years ago she single-handedly revived the sixteenth-century art of scagliola: the use of gypsum stucco, transparent stone, rabbit-skin glue, and natural pigments to create a beautifully modulated marblelike surface for tabletops ($2,250-$8,000), boxes ($170-$565), and frames ($100-$225). "Others do an imitation," she says, "but they use synthetic resin, which can't be restored or polished." Today she occasionally restores old scagliola items for museums and for the antiques trade on Via Maggio, and laments the disappearance of many of Oltr'arno's artisans. "There used to be a lot of coppersmiths here, for example," she says, "but very few survive."

And although Lunghetti, like all the artisans in this close-knit neighborhood, would like to see Oltr'arno's traditions continue to the next generation, she too has neither the time nor the money to pass her skills on. "If I teach, I can't work," she says simply.

But Oltr'arno's artisans are a practical lot, and for all the importance Lunghetti and her neighbors place on tradition, they also understand the importance—the necessity—of innovation, of change. Their predecessors, after all, developed their crafts in response to the changing tastes of their customers (not to mention the Medicis and the Grand Dukes of Lorraine, who over three centuries beautified Pitti Palace).

That progressive spirit still energizes the denizens of this ancient neighborhood. Thirty years ago, for example, Stefano Ficalbi, who has a studio and shop on Via Romana, was an Expressionist painter. Now he's a specialist in trompe l'oeil and grisaille. Twenty-five years ago, Anna Anichini at Il Torchio, on Via de' Bardi, was "a woman with a house full of books and a certain manual dexterity," when she began producing exquisite bindings for diaries, albums, and notebooks "the traditional way," using leather, handmade paper, and parchment. Ten years ago, Christian Bernabé and Martina Fagorzi were students at the Florence Academy of Art. Now they sit behind a shop front near the Specola museum, dabbing egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed poplar to create modern versions of thirteenth-century masters (from $550). It might not be apparent, but change is everywhere you look.

So, also, is modernization: Ilio de Filippis, the owner of Pitti Mosaici, has assembled a 14-person team of craftsmen skilled in pietra dura, in which semiprecious stones and colored marble are used to create luminous patterned tabletops ($2,000-$50,000), clocks ($100-$2,800), and jewelry ($50-$600). De Filippis, an architect whose family has been selling marble and other stones since the 1890s, began his business by purchasing the workshops, archives, and sketches of a venerable pietra dura company called Menegatti, and has been expanding ever since. In the showroom on Pitti Square are sumptuous reproductions of tabletops made for the palace opposite, and in a workshop in a nearby alley, amid heaps of raw malachite, jasper, and turquoise, workmen are carefully assembling for a Japanese customer a 20-foot-long landscape of Mount Fuji, all in lapis lazuli. Later, in his office, de Filippis shows me computer-generated images of works in progress: an extraordinary frescoed and columned Roman bathroom for a client in Laguna Beach and a 23-foot-long pietra dura panel with life-size models for a fashion university in Tokyo. "A new technology in service to an old one," he says, smiling. "You see?"

But of all Oltr'arno's remarkable workshops and artisans, two—to me, anyway—epitomize that balance of ambition and humility, modernity and tradition, adaptability and consistency that make this neighborhood what it is: not an anachronistic relic, but rather a vibrant, breathing community where artistic integrity and commercial practicalities coexist in relative harmony. The first is one of the most extraordinary of them all: the studio of Alessandro Dari, where the long-haired proprietor creates objects that almost defy description and dazzle the imagination.

Dari is a jeweler, but only in the sense that Cellini was one (and Picasso a maker of plates). For this fortyish Sienese, who trained in pharmacology, creates objets d'art—some wearable, some not—which are suffused with a profound knowledge of ancient jewelry-making techniques, as well as alchemic ideas and symbols. "I feel very strongly within me," he says, "the need to transform ephemeral and intangible emotions into matter."

Dari's pieces, which include Gothic sculpted rings, talismans, and pendants, are provocative meditations on the nature of love and power. One series of heavy gold rings, inspired by the four seasons and the work of Luca and Andrea della Robbia, are topped with tiny plates loaded with individually sculpted fruit, each not much larger than a nailhead (from $300). Another, inspired by the music of Mussorgsky, features mystical castles (from $5,000). These are museum-worthy pieces, and as the tall, dark Dari sits bowed over his workbench in a high-ceilinged fifteenth-century room, lute music quietly playing in the background, it's not hard to imagine him as the reincarnation of a Renaissance artist—of Donatello, say, who began his career not far away as a goldsmith.

On the other end of the Oltr'arno triangle at the Borgo San Frediano is the atelier of Stefano Bemer, who appears to be the exact opposite of Dari: Bemer is short, fair, and cheery, his simple, welcoming shop a sharp contrast to Dari's magnificent cathedral-like space. But what unites the two men is an obsessive love for their craft and its traditions. Twenty years ago, the 39-year-old Bemer was a village shoe repairer. But then, just as Dari was studying metallurgy in Siena, Bemer apprenticed himself to an old Florence shoemaker, and later spent a year at night school learning pattern making. "I was driven. Almost from the beginning," he says, precisely echoing a remark of Dari's, "I knew that this was what I wanted to do."

Today Bemer hand-makes 200 pairs of men's shoes a year (from $1,925 a pair) according to strict nineteenth-century protocols. "The construction is entirely leather," he says. "I make my own wax for finishing. I use vegetable glues, and there's no rubber anywhere—except for rubber soles." The leathers can be arcane: from kudu and elephant to hippopotamus and shark, and in one case cured reindeer hides recovered from an eighteenth-century Russian shipwreck. The results, though, are seen by connoisseurs as the ultimate expression of the shoemaker's art. And like many of the craftspeople in Oltr'arno, Bemer is both a purist and a pragmatist. Every year his atelier attracts apprentices from the world over—including the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

"He came for a fitting in the late nineties, pursued by paparazzi," remembers Bemer, "and he took refuge in the workshop for a while. And then he said: 'You know, I'd like to learn this. Is it something I could learn?' Well, in the end, he stayed. He rented an apartment and he worked here for 11 months, very serious and talented. He was a very fast learner. In the last two weeks," Bemer continues, "he said to me: 'Make a pair of shoes for me and I'll make one for you.' See?" He points down to the pair of brown shoes on his feet and beams. "Look. I'm wearing them still."

We linger at the doorway of the workshop where five apprentices, one a woman from Japan, are crouched around a low table. Then Bemer says thoughtfully—and he could be speaking for all the artisanal workers of Oltr'arno, from Dari and Fabiola Lunghetti to the Ugolinis and the Guscellis—"I think what attracted him was the passion. You know, when you make something with your hands, when you hold it for hours at a time, you transfer to it all your energy and your love." After visiting this remarkable neighborhood, you understand exactly why Day-Lewis wanted to stay.


Visiting the Workshops

The best introduction to Oltr'arno is via a three-hour guided tour ($150; in English) by Walking Tours of Florence, which is part theatrical production and part wandering city seminar. (2 Piazza Santo Stefano; 39-055-264-5033; cell phone, 39-329-613-2730; www.artviva.com). All the ateliers below are open to the public, but call first to make an appointment:

Luciano Ugolini & C. (23r Via del Presto di San Martino; 39-055-287-230) • Ivan Bardi (4, 6, 8, 10, and 18r Via del Presto di San Martino; 39-055-287-967) • Brandimarte (18r Via L. Bartolini; 39-055-239-381; www.brandimarte.com) • Antico Setificio Fiorentino (4 Via L. Bartolini; 39-055-213-861) • Bartolozzi e Maioli workshops (5 Via de' Vellutini; 39-055-281-723; showroom, 13r Via Maggio) • Giancarlo Giacchetti and Paolo Rossi (3-5r Via Toscanella; 39-055-239-8088, by appointment) • Lamberto and Duccio Banchi (10r Via de' Serragli; 39-055-294-694) • Giuliano Ricchi at Carlo Cecchi (12r Piazza Santo Spirito; 39-055-214-942) • Fabiola Lunghetti at La Scagliola (14r Piazza de' Pitti; 39-055-211-523) • Stefano Ficalbi (49r Via Romana; 39-055-233-7697) • Il Torchio (17r Via de' Bardi; 39-055-234-2862) • Christian Bernabé and Martina Fagorzi (47r Via Romana; 39-055-219-879, www.bernabefagorziart.com) • Pitti Mosaici (23r Piazza de' Pitti; 39-055-282-127; www.pittimosaici.it) • Alessandro Dari (115r Via San Niccolò; 39-055-244-747; www.alessandrodari.com) • Stefano Bemer (143r Borgo San Frediano; 39-055-211-356; www.stefanobemer.it).


Navigating Oltr'arno

NORTH OF THE RIVER is tourist country. South of the river is where the city lives and trades and works. The quarter's heart, the place to see and be seen, is Piazza Santo Spirito, which hosts a daily farmer's market, a buzzy night scene (be sure to check out the CAFFE RICCHI, the BORGO ANTICO, and the CABIRIA BAR), and on the last Sunday of the month, a crafts fair.

WHERE TO STAY The most luxurious hotel in Oltr'arno is the LUNGARNO, which is owned by the Ferragamo family and has 74 rooms, some offering spectacular views over the Arno and Ponte Vecchio ($400-$1,025; at 14 Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055-27261; www.lungarnohotels.com). Much more modest—though more atmospheric—are the PENSIONE ANNALENA, housed in a quiet 14th-century convent ($190-$280; at 34 Via Romana; 39-055-222-402; www.hotelannalena.it) and the tiny PENSIONE SORELLE BANDINI, whose kitchen was used for the film Tea with Mussolini ($ $150; at 9 Piazza Santo Spirito; 39-055-215-308). You could also stay on the north side of the river. The HOTEL SAVOY on Piazza della Repubblica ($500-$1,900; 39-055-27351; www.roccofortehotels.com) is a bit farther afield, but it's the friendliest and finest—and my favorite—boutique hotel in Florence. WHERE TO STAY The most luxurious hotel in Oltr'arno is the LUNGARNO, which is owned by the Ferragamo family and has 74 rooms, some offering spectacular views over the Arno and Ponte Vecchio ($400-$1,025; at 14 Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055-27261; www.lungarnohotels.com). Much more modest—though more atmospheric—are the PENSIONE ANNALENA, housed in a quiet 14th-century convent ($190-$280; at 34 Via Romana; 39-055-222-402; www.hotelannalena.it) and the tiny PENSIONE SORELLE BANDINI, whose kitchen was used for the film Tea with Mussolini ($ $150; at 9 Piazza Santo Spirito; 39-055-215-308). You could also stay on the north side of the river. The HOTEL SAVOY on Piazza della Repubblica ($500-$1,900; 39-055-27351; www.roccofortehotels.com) is a bit farther afield, but it's the friendliest and finest—and my favorite—boutique hotel in Florence.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK Virtually all the restaurants south of the river are family businesses, offering hearty Tuscan home-cooking. Recommended are the unassuming OSTERIA ANTICA MESCITA SAN NICCOLO, which offers a fine wine list (dinner, $46; at 60r Via San Niccolò; 39-055-234-2836); DA RUGGERO, owned by the Corsi family and much favored by Florentines (dinner, $60; at 89r Via Senese; 39-055-220-542); and just south of Florence, in the village of Arcetri (where Galileo spent his final years), OMERO (dinner, $110; at 11r Via Pian de' Giullari; 39-055-220-053).

WINE BARS Try the tiny LE VOLPI E L'UVA, in the equally tiny square behind Santa Felicita (1r Piazza de' Rossi; 39-055-239-8132); and FUORI PORTA, with an astonishingly deep list of 600 or more wines, which includes rare vintages of Chianti Classico (10r Via del Monte alle Croci; 39-055-234-2483).

MUST-SEES IN OLTR'ARNO Between atelier visits, stop by SAN MINIATO AL MONTE, the most beautiful church in Italy; BRANCACCI CHAPEL IN SANTA MARIA DEL CARMINE, where you can gaze at the breathtaking frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio, and Filippino Lippi; Brunelleschi's great SANTO SPIRITO CHURCH; the museums of Pitti; and the BOBOLI GARDENS.

Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.