I spent the first years of my life on a horse farm. Combine that with how powerfully our brains associate smell with memory and you’ll see me almost drool when I smell leather. The outdoor leather markets in Florence, then, are a must for me every time I’m in the Tuscan capital – whether or not I’m actually shopping for anything.
(But let’s be real, I’m always shopping for something.)
Florence has long been well-known as a place to buy beautifully-made leather goods, at both stalls in the outdoor markets and in boutique shops throughout the city. But what you may not realize is that Florence’s history with leather is tied to one of the city’s most visited churches – the Basilica of Santa Croce.
Santa Croce is where visitors go to see the graves of some of the most famous Italians – including Michelangelo and Galileo. It’s also home to artwork by Giotto, Donatello, and Cimabue. But continue through the church and you’ll find a long hallway with desk-like work stations set up along one side. You have, without realizing it, walked into the Scuola del Cuoio – Santa Croce’s Leather School.
Established after World War II, the Scuola del Cuoio was begun as a partnership between the Franciscan monks of Santa Croce and two of Florence’s most respected leather-working families. The goal was to give war orphans an opportunity to learn a trade that would sustain them – a trade that already had a long history in Florence. The school was set up in the former monastery dormitory, with leather work benches set up in the aforementioned hallway – work stations where leather artisans learn and work to this day.
Florence’s leather school in the Santa Croce Basilica continues as a partnership between the Franciscan monks and one of the original families that established the school, training newcomers in the leather trade as well as offering one-day workshops for visitors who simply want to try their hand at a new skill while traveling. Artisans at the Scuola del Cuoio create fine handmade leather goods, including purses, belts, briefcases, and much more – and many of them continue plying their trade all over the world as graduates of the program working for other leather designers.
Artisans are usually in the workshop from Monday-Friday between 10:00am-5:30pm, and you can often watch them work – there are mirrors placed at an angle above each work station so you can see what’s being made without bothering the person making it. You can also buy items that are produced at the school, directly supporting the long tradition of leather craftsmanship in Florence.
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