Artigianato e Palazzo

An interview with Neri Torrigiani

Devin Tooma
April 21, 2011

It's been said time and time again: Florence is changing. Whether or not it be with the times, modernity is beginning to replace museum visits with Google street views, gelato with Ben & Jerry's, and, sadly, artisanal handicrafts with cost-friendlier, foreign-made goods. Luckily, there is an event that attempts to halt this trend in its tracks for three days: Atigianato e Palazzo, the event that has brought artisans to the Giardino Corsini since 1995. Surrounded by spring flowers and lemon trees, you'll see craftsmen revealing their authentic skills and secrets as they use ancient techniques working wood, bronze, glass, iron, paper, marble, fabric and much more (this year, there are even artisanal kites!). The event's founder and director, Neri Torrigiani, spoke with us about the event's genesis and the future of artisan crafts.


How did you come up with the idea for this event?

In my work as an industrial designer, I learned the importance of the artisan: the person who took my sketches and designs, then executed my prototypes by hand. Artisans take an idea and give it form, often in a way that is better than the designer could have ever imagined. I wanted to make it possible for artisans to talk to people again. You see, artisans had become like pandas in a zoo: you could see them in their workshops, even watch them work, but you couldn't talk to them; the apex of your interaction with an artisan was whether to buy the product or not. Artigianato e Palazzo is an opportunity for exchange between the consumer and the hands that make a product that you use, that you love. When I first took the idea to the Countess Corsini, she said that an event of this kind, especially in Florence, a city of artisans, had to exist!


Describe the schedule of Artigianato e Palazzo and who each day is for.

Each day is open to the public, but generally, Friday is the ?professional' day: architects, interior designers and buyers come to get the first pick for their clients or shops. One year, a hotel decorator came and bought an artisan's entire collection of handmade doors! For the artisan, 60 doors represented an entire year of work. On Saturday and Sunday the public comes. People may be looking for a gift, for pieces for their own homes, even for a nice, sunny day in the park with their families or their dogs. We have a restaurant and refreshments. It's a great way to spend a day.


Many worry that artisans are becoming extinct. How can we keep this tradition alive in Florence?

We need three things. First, we need a school, a true school exclusively for artisans, with all the proper materials and guidance. There is no single school of this kind in the area, and that limits entry into the craft.


Second, we need to support new workshops and budding artisans. There is too much bureaucracy. Young people cannot pay for the insurance, let alone the costs of a workshop. They need to be able to begin working without all the hurdles that currently block them from even starting. Even the internship requirements are a hurdle. We need to simplify.


Third, we must better commercially publicize artisanal products in much the same way we publicize major brands. We need to make these products interesting, desirable, exciting, appreciated. The commercial culture-including its politics- needs to evolve, to start encouraging people to move away from always wanting brands. People need to understand that artisan-made products carry a personality, often your personality, and not a logo.


At Artigianato e Palazzo, we've been stressing these three points for 17 years, and we've always sought partners who understand this.


Any thoughts about the growing number of foreigners who come to Florence to learn artisanal techniques?

It's an interesting question. What I love about the young Japanese, German and others who come to Florence to become artisans is simply the fact that they come here to learn! That they then take their new skills home. Their presence is proof that ?Made in Florence' still has value, that the art of craftsmanship survives-and it survives here. I also appreciate when these artisans use ancient Florentine techniques to develop their own, recognizable work, not imitations of Italian design. I'm especially proud that our tradition is being adopted by so many cultures: it means that we remain the ?knowledge holders.' They choose Florence for a reason.


What are some of the new things to see this year at Artigianato e Palazzo?

This year we're celebrating unity, so there will be a heavy Italian presence. We have a new section dedicated to food. It's small, but we did manage to get a birrificio in the garden, so artisanal beers will be available for tasting, and you'll learn about the ingredients and see the beer being filtered and brewed. This year, we're also proud to host a violin-maker from Berlin who learned to make violins and cellos here in Florence in 1997 and now lives in Fucecchio. He makes just four violins a year and works almost exclusively on a custom basis. There is so much to see: there are 15 miniature workshops to visit!


more articles