My experiences in Florence are largely defined by scents. The enticing smell of fresh leather is pervasive in Florence and one of the nostalgic scents that envelopes my memories of the city.
The leather trade in Florence is a beautiful example of the marriage of economy and cultural heritage in a city. For almost a millennium, Florence has perfected the art of leather, bringing the city such international attention as well as international money, that today it is nearly impossible for a visitor to leave the city without a piece of genuine Florentine leather. At the heart of the trade, we find the internationally-recognized Scuola del Cuoio of Santa Croce. A visit to the leather school will take you beyond the endless rows of leather purses and jackets flapping in the wind at the leather markets, and give you a glimpse at the technique, the skills, and the talent that goes into leather production in Florence.
To get to the Scuola, simply exit Piazza della Signoria heading east alongside the Palazzo Vecchio on Via dei Gondi. Follow the road as it turns into Borgo dei Greci, and it will empty you into the vast Piazza Santa Croce in about six minutes. Exit the piazza alongside the left (north) side of the basilica. Continue on Via Giuseppe for about a minute. When you reach Via dei Macci, instead of turning down the street to your left look to your right to find the entrance to the Scuola dei Cuoio.
After entering the open passageway you will wind along the backside of the cathedral for some unexpected and inspiring views of the towering basilica. Due to the lack of signage and sudden dearth of tourists, you will most likely feel like you’re trespassing. If you are a stickler for laws, don’t fret, just keep following your nose and in a couple of minutes you will come across a seemingly abandoned courtyard, a rickety staircase and the entrance to the world-famous Scuola del Cuoio.
The Scuola was not founded until 1950, but the tradition of leather making in the Santa Croce neighborhood dates back to the ancient city of Florentia. With the easiest access to the Arno, and just outside of the city walls (keeping the not-so-pleasant odors of raw hide out of the center), this neighborhood proved to be the perfect location for leather making. The tradition continued through the centuries and the neighborhood became defined by its leather industry. In the fourteenth century the leather makers formed their official guild and in the Renaissance they perfected the craft that would bring international attention to the city. The neighborhood is still reflective of this trade as leather shops are more prevalent than gelaterie. Likewise, numerous street names in the Santa Croce quarter follow the leather making motif (my favorite is the Canto delle Mosche, ”place of the flies,” referencing the insect paradise created by heaps of fresh animal skins).
The Scuola del Cuoio, located in the heart of this leather making neighborhood, is a product of this cultural and economic tradition. In 1950, after World War II, the Father Superior of the Franciscans at Santa Croce, along with the artisan Marcello Gori, founded the school to teach veteran soldiers the historic trade. The school provided them a practical and cherished Florentine skill with which they could make a living and a life for themselves. For similar reasons, Gori also welcomed former inmates from the Florence prison to study here. The school was more than a rehabilitation center, however. The leather products being produced were quickly becoming some of the best quality leather wares offered in Florence and attracted attention from royalty and celebrities all over the world. In 1966 the school experienced a significant setback when the entire neighborhood of Santa Croce was devastated by the flooding of the Arno. However, even the wrath of the river could not stop the persistence of leather making in Florence and within a year the school had recovered and was back to the trade.
Well enough with the history! Let’s go inside! After you let your nose run wild, indulge your other senses to find that the sights aren’t too shabby either. Take a stroll down the long corridor showcasing the leather luxuries and adorned with 15th-century frescoes painted by the school of Ghirlandaio.
Along the left wall of the corridor find the artisans carefully detailing their leather crafts, allowing the visitors a one of a kind glimpse into the tedious handcrafted production of Florentine leather. Don’t be shy to peek over the shoulder of the workers to watch them carefully gild, emboss, and embellish their treasures.
After you’ve gotten your fix of leather making, head into the rooms on the right side of the corridor to check out the final products. In these rooms you will find some of the pricier pieces, that certainly never fit within the boundaries of my tight budget, but luckily, indulging your tactile sense is free! If you are like me and shop by running your hands through every item on the rack, then you’ll love sampling the buttery soft fibers of the luxurious leather jackets, purses and gloves featured in these rooms.
If you’ve realized there is no way you can leave without some genuine Santa Croce Florentine leather, then head to the shop at the end of the hall. Here you will find leather wallets, coin purses, book covers, key chains and various other trinkets that you can take with you without breaking the bank.
The Scuola del Cuoio will give you a new appreciation for the cultural and economic significance of leather to the city of Florence. Hopefully, it will also give you your very own leather trinket to act as your Florentine security blanket whenever you are missing the city.