Artisans in Italy
Italy is often associated to art. Indeed, it is enough to glance at books from history textbooks to travel guides, to movies from blockbusters to documentaries to see them overflow with images of the work of great Italian painters, sculptors, and architects of the past. We all can name some of them: Michelangelo, da Vinci, and many others.
However, just like in our collective mind there is something missing from these documents and media. The artisans. Leatherworkers, mosaicists, goldsmiths, woodworkers, potters, blacksmiths, weavers, and many more “artisans” whose centuries-old traditions are not just historical but also living.
Artist vs artisan
What is an artist? What is an artisan? If you think about it, we seem to be giving more prestige and importance to artists than artisans. Where could this be coming from?
Going back to the Middle Ages helps understand where we got our notions of an “artisan” versus an “artist”. Prior to about 1300, makers of all kind – including both the ones we would call artists and artisans today -were organized into a strictly regulated guild system. At the top of the hierarchy of the guild the master or “maestro”. His role was to follow a set of guild statutes and ensure that apprentices and journeymen worked their way up the ranks over many years of practice and well-defined stages of accomplishment. Customers seeking the beauty and symbolism of social status that the works of the maker brought regarded them collectively rather than individually. Whether they were goldsmith, painters, or other, a veil of anonymity characterized these medieval makers.The patron who commissioned and paid for the work—whether it was a fine chair, a stone sculpture, a gold necklace, or even an entire building—was more likely to get credit for it than those who designed or constructed it. There was no exception to the rule, not even for those who created the most impressive works destined for churches and civic buildings.
All of that changed around 1400 when In Florence, a new cultural ideal that would later be called “Renaissance humanism” was beginning to take form.
At that time, people started to consider painters, sculptors and architects in a different class from, other makers. Florentine intellectuals began to spread the idea of reformulating works of classical Greece and Rome, and to place greater value on individual creativity than on collective production.
The birth of the art rockstars
A divide appeared between those who valued such novelty and those who sought to maintain tradition.
A few brave painters—who for many centuries had been paid by the square foot—successfully petitioned their patrons to pay them on the basis of individual artistic merit instead. In the course of a generation, the work of some painters, sculptors, and architects rose from the status of “artifact” to “art.” And while the makers of traditional objects such as candlestick holders, ceramic vessels, gold jewelry, or wrought-iron gates continued to be seen as faithful laborers recognized communally in trade guilds, a few of their counterparts—virtually all of them painters, sculptors, or architects—rose to international and lasting fame as the rock stars of the Renaissance.
Paradoxically, the new concept of “art” did little to stem the demand for those old-fashioned ceramic vessels, gold jewelry, or wrought-iron gates. In fact, Italian cities and towns continued to boast some of the strongest guild systems in all of Europe, and they continued to flourish well into subsequent centuries. In fact, ruling families such as the Medici of Florence counted themselves among history’s greatest supporters of the so-called “minor arts,” offering legal protections for goldsmiths, leather workers, and other craftspeople.
Craftmanship in Italy, today
Today in Italy, many of the trades of the past remain living traditions. The medieval guilds may be long gone, but their arts, their techniques, and their soul still thrive. The skills, the forms, the knowledge, and more importantly, the spirit of the past, is kept alive in the hands of a small number of individuals who take pride in their own towns’ and cities’ unique visual essence. These living traditions are passed down verbally—and through hands-on practice—from generation to generation. In this way, each work acts as a historical document as valuable as anything written on a piece of paper.
In this context, the role of historical reproductions is critical. A “reproduction” does not have to mean a slavish, dull copy of an artifact from long-ago glory days. If those artisan studios carrying on the traditions of their ancestors suddenly all disappeared, think how barren Italian towns and cities would be. These works would be shut away in museums, and the streets would be reduced to chain fashion stores with no individual character. Today’s master artisans continue rely on the skills they learned watching their parents, grandparents, and the master craftspeople to whom they were apprenticed turn out small wonders day after day. In artisan studios across Italy, production remains limited, quality high, and a sense of carrying the torch of tradition stronger than ever.
Artisans in Venice in History
Just as with Florence, Venice was a Republic during the Renaissance. Actually, Venice was an empire that controlled land in what is modern day Italy, a whole lot of sea coast down the Adriatic and countless islands. It enjoyed a stable political climate and thriving trade economy, both of which survived outbreaks of the Black Death and the fall of Constantinople (a major trading partner). Venice was, in fact, so prosperous and healthy that it took someone named Napoleon to undo its empire status… but, that was quite a while after the Renaissance had faded away and had nothing to do with art.
An Economy Supporting Art and Artists
The important part is, Venice (again, like Florence) had the economy to support art and artists, and did so in a big way. As a major port of trade, Venice was able to find ready markets for whatever decorative arts Venetian craftsmen could produce. The whole Republic was crawling with ceramists, glass workers, woodworkers, lace makers, and sculptors (in addition to painters), all of whom made entirely satisfactory livings.
The state and religious communities of Venice sponsored massive amounts of building and decorating, not to mention public statuary. Many private residences (palaces, really) had to have grand facades on at least two sides since they can be seen from the water as well as land. To the present day, Venice is one of the most beautiful cities on earth because of this building campaign.
Current situation for artisans in Venice
Venice has been a city of high craftsmanship, precious products and style for centuries. It launched printing, lace, perfume, weaving techniques, diamond cutting and other wonders.
These living arts are alive and can still be seen and touched today in the Venetian artisan shops. Unfortunately, only a few of the artisans of the past are left today in Venice.
A late 2020 article in the Nuova Venezia, reported the artisans in Venice to be 1087 in the historical center and 5035 in the entire “commune”, which includes Venice, its islands and mainland.
It is unclear to us where these data come from and therefore what kind of artisans are included in the figure: artistic artisans or all artisans? We suspect the former and will update this article with more information as soon as possible
The 20th century challenges
We at Venezia Autentica work closely with artistic artisans in Venice historical center and lagoon. Their trade is now an endangered one and they are battling to survive every day. These keepers of 100 years old know-hows and traditions are on the verge of collapse and so is the intangible heritage they represent. To give you a few examples, only a handful of women still know how to handmade the lace Burano was world-famous for and which was once the must-have of the wealthiest and most sophisticated kingdoms. Similarly, Murano glass masters, mask makers, and all artisan trades are plummeting.
In fact, the same piece report that the island city past has been losing 51 % of its artisans in the past 40 years. 40 years is an interesting milestone to us as it coincides with the beginning of the development of mass tourism in Venice.
Link impact of tourism
When we speak with the artisans that we support through Venezia Autentica, we hear over and over again how being able to pay the rent is their biggest concern. In a city crippled with mass tourism, the next monthly rent increase is a threat which is always at the corner.
Data points towards the cost of rent as one of the culprits in the situation of the local artisans, too. Indeed, about 70% of the local artisans work in a place that they rent.
We created Venezia Autentica in 2015, to help halt the displacement of the local population and contribute to the preservation of the local community and heritage both natural and cultural. Back then, the situation of family businesses and artisans providing their customers with high-quality products and services was already critical. Today, as we write this piece as 2020 nears its end, their situation after over a year of crisis in Venice, combining the impact of the exceptional Acqua Alta of 2019 and the Covid-19 crisis, is alarming.
It is therefore important, now more than ever, to ensure that we support them.
There are a few ways you can Venetian artisans and cultural heritage.
You can shop online or here in Venice, and you can try an experience that gives you the opportunity to get hands-on.
We have created plenty of content to help you do so and you can find them all summarized here:
- Repository of vetted local businesses where to shop
- An experience website where to book activities with Venice artisans
- An online shop where to shop Made in Venice online
- A number of guides to help you understand and discover the crafts of Venice (link to a hub coming soon)
To entice you to dive in the world of Venice handicraft, we thought of sharing a bit about, there are several crafts to discover in Venice, to entice you to do so, we are sharing with you some of the most
Venetian Crafts that you should know
Murano Glass Beads
Why is Murano Glass so important in Venice and renown in the entire world?
Ever since its foundation in the middle of the Lagoon, Venice has had to find ways to overcome the scarcity of local resources and its isolation from the rest of the world.
The solution came through maritime commerce, and in particular through the production and trade of salt (for food preservation) and its spectacular production of glass crafts. In regards to glass, while works such as the stunning Murano glass chandeliers were a must for the wealthiest European families, Murano glass beads were more affordable and easier to transport.
Because of this and their beauty, Murano glass beads were worn and desired by people and cultures all over the world, from Africa to South America. They were so valuable that, in several cases, they became the preferred currency in trades with African countries!
A word about the technique
Using the fire of a hot torch, the artisan softens and molts hard Murano glass rods, combine them with more glass and powders, and transform them in breath-taking glass beads.
Links to discover this art for yourself
Shop Online: Buy Murano Glass Jewels from the artisans online
Experience: Try your hands at Murano Beads Making
Learn more about glass: Visit the Murano’s Glass Museum
Bookbinding and Marbled paper
Venice claims an important position in the history of bookmaking and publishing. The city’s geographic position as a gateway to the East, its preeminence in international trade, and its place as a center for knowledge exchange and artisanship made the Venetian Republic a natural setting for large-scale bookmaking to take root. The legacy of Venetian paper was born.
Innovations in print
Prior to Johann Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the 1450s, each and every book was handmade. Books were precious, expensive, and highly coveted, prized possessions of monasteries and learned collectors wealthy enough to purchase them. Parchment vellum was made in a laborious process of preparing sheepskin in the tanneries, and a parchment sheath was never discarded, only occasionally scraped down and reused in a new book. Traditional monastic scriptoria could no longer meet the exploding demand for new books that occurred over the course of the fifteenth century.
With the innovations in moveable type, engraving, book printing, and distribution by the late 1400s, Venice was poised to be a leader in this expanding trade. Bookbinding studios, or legatorie, are documented in Venice by the 1450s, and bookmakers enjoyed esteemed social status. One of the most influential publishers of the era was Aldus Manutius, whose legatoria in Venice typeset many scholarly books in Greek and Latin destined for scholars and universities all over Europe. A French-born engraver named Nicholas Jenson opened shop in Venice in 1470 after studying under Gutenberg and became an important figure in the history of type. Based on centuries-old, well-established trade routes, Venetian printers and publishers found easy distribution channels to the newly emerging booksellers across Europe.
Book production was a natural art for Venetians, who were already skilled at working with leather, pigments, and gold leaf. Knowledge of paper-making made its way from Asia to Europe during the Middle Ages. Venice, with its strategic location as the gateway to the East, was the natural place for this new art form to take root. From Venice, the tradition of decorative papers moved south to Florence, where it also flourished.
With the widespread use of moveable type instead of script, paper instead of vellum, and woodblock prints and engravings instead of hand-painted illuminations, the interior pages of books were dramatically transformed from their medieval predecessors. However, a book’s exterior, its binding, remained essentially the same as its medieval models. Often, the legatoria only bound a book once a patron purchased it, and therefore the binding was customized and could be as simple or as fancy as the book buyer’s budget and desire.
Early bookbinders discovered that when leather bindings came into direct contact with end papers, the result was discoloration and damage to the paper. They began facing the inside of the leather covers with hand-colored papers. This practice not only meant blank pages for creative and colorful paper displays, but also later the bookbinders realized they could reduce the amount of expensive leather they used in binding. Eventually, many bookbinders began using leather only for the spine, disguising the cover boards with colorful decorative papers.
Venetian Marble Paper
The practice of “marbling” paper—decorating paper with colorful patterns that imitate marble veining—probably originated in China. By the fifteenth century these techniques had made their way across East and Central Asia. While the practice of using marbleized end papers was widespread in Germany and France by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most Venetian and other Italian bookbinders used surprisingly little colored decoration, preferring plain, white end papers and focusing on the leather binding of the book itself. By the mid-eighteenth century, several prominent Venetian bookmakers incorporated marbleized paper into their repertory of woodblock prints, copperplate engraving, leather binding, and other book production services.
The production of Venetian books involved specialists of several stripes—masters of leather, paper, engraving, printing, gilding, and other trades. Many famous Venetian painters, including Tiepolo and Canaletto, produced an enormous number of engravings and etchings during the middle of the eighteenth century, many of which were destined for bound books. Wealthy English travelers on the Grand Tour of Europe fueled demand for individual prints and books that contained prints by these well-regarded artists. These artists’ vedute—or views—of Venice served as precursors to modern-day postcards for these international visitors who wanted to take a piece of Venice home with them.
Links to discover this art for yourself
Shop Online: Buy handmade leather books from the artisans online
Experience: Learn the ancient art of handmade bookbinding
Thanks to the great international relevance and space given to the Venice Carnival, several millions of people have seen the Venice Carnival masks and the Venice Carnival costumes.
Few people, however, know the steps behind the creation of these beautiful and renown masks.
While the “Carnevale” is mentioned for the first time already in documents of 1092 C.E., the first official Mask Making School was founded only in 1271.
Since that day, authentic Venetian masks makers in Venice hand craft their creations following the rules and guidelines of this 750 year old tradition.
Traditional steps for the making of a Venetian Mask
A word about the technique
An authentic mask maker starts the creation of a new mask by crafting a clay sculpture.
Plaster is then poured over the finished sculpture, to obtain a plaster mold, which will be the exact negative of the sculpture.
Once the mold is ready, small pieces of a malleable mixture of paper and glue, known as papier-maché, are spread inside of it and left to dry.
Once the papier-maché has completely dryed up, the mask is removed from its mold and painted in white, giving an ideal background on which to paint and give at the same time further resistance and flexibility to the mask.
As soon as the white colour is dry, the creative process begins. Since the mask maker can decide to cover the mask with beautiful fabrics, pearls and feathers, or to immediately start painting by hand the whole shape, there is no limit to the number of different mask a creative mind can craft!
Links to discover this art for yourself
Experience: Decorate your Venetian Carnival Mask