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Made in Italy?

Nancy GreenleeseJune 19, 2013

Italy is renowned for its artisans. They create unique masterpieces by hand, even in an age in which most products are mass-produced. But these artisans and their work are at risk of disappearing.

Scissors dating back at least 40 years are an essential tool of tailor Paola Gueli. She inherited them from her father, a retired tailor who once had 30 employees. (photo by Luigi Fraboni)
Image: Luigi Fraboni

The Michelangelos of the manual arts are dying and their mastery with them. Italians, despite high unemployment rates, just aren't learning crafts anymore. Giuliano Ricchi works in Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood where artisans have crafted masterpieces from metal for centuries. His rough hands hold a metal plate decorated with Florentine gigli, delicate lilies that are a symbol of the city.

"It takes almost a month to carve a metal plate like this one. All by hand," Ricchi told DW. The 66-year-old places it inside an early 20th century pressing machine along with a smooth sheet of brass´. The hulking machine whirs before popping out the piece of brass with the flower design. He'll cut it to create pill boxes, ring holders, and other objects that are sold in luxury stores worldwide.

A machine in Giuliano Ricchi’s workshop stamps a hand-etched design onto brass. The brass plates are transformed into pillboxes, business card holders or other small, elegant containers. (Photo: Nancy Greenleese) Bilder wurden am 18.6.2013 von Emma Wallis mit der Versicherung angeliefert, dass alle Rechte mit den Fotografen geklärt sind.
A machine in Guiliano Ricchi's workshop stamps a hand-etched design onto brass.Image: DWN.Greenleese

Boys meet art world

More than a half-century ago, he started working at this workshop that still bears the name of its late owner, Carlo Cecchi. Ricchi was 15 years old and one of many apprentices. "I immediately started working at the bench to learn how to cut the metal with a special saw and to etch," Ricchi said. "With time, we learned the craft. It was a school, truly, a school."

Almost all the boys toiling in Florence's workshops were unpaid and worked long hours, impossible today due to labor laws. The apprentices eventually became artisans. Ricchi took over Mr. Cecchi's workshop when he died. Nowadays it's a different story. "There's nobody capable of taking over the workshop," Ricchi said.

Giuliano Ricchi is an artisan etcher in Florence, he holds one of his creations in his workshop. (photo: Nancy Greenleese)
Giuliano Ricchi holds one of his creationsImage: DWN.Greenleese

However, nearly 40 percent of young people are out of work, according to the latest government figures. That number soars to 50 percent in southern Italy. Yet no young people eager to learn a craft and find work are fighting for elbow space on his studio's work bench; even his own daughter opted to pursue another career. "If I decide to retire, this space will be converted into an apartment. The metal workshop will disappear. It will be a real shame."

In search of: artisan patrons

Artisan workshops are closing their shutters throughout Florence, the city that nurtured Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Brunelleschi. "Most of the masterpieces that came from the Renaissance were also made artisanally by the skillful hands of artisans and artists," tour guide Luca Santiccioli said.

Yet young Florentines can't follow in their artistic ancestors' footsteps. Apprenticeships aren't available and Italy's public universities do not offer art training. The story of Negar Azhar Azari, an aspiring artist born in Florence to Iranian immigrant parents, says it all. She sought out an apprenticeship, but found things very difficult. "I knocked on so many doors," the 34-year-old explained, hearing over and over "no way." Aging artisans simply can't afford to pass along their knowledge. Due to Italy's legendary bureaucracy, hiring an apprentice is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. It cuts into their profits more sharply than Florence’s famous etching tool, the bollino.

34-year-old Negar Azhar Azari studied etching and jewelry making for nine years before opening her own gallery and workshop. (Photo by Simone Pierroti)
Negar Azahar Azari had many doors shut in her face before she finally found an apprenticeshipImage: Simone Pierroti

Tour guide Luca Santiccioli, who often brings tourists to see and meet artisans, has watched the workshops disappear. A few years ago, an artisan that he often visited fell ill. With no one to take over the business, he was forced to close a century-old workshop. The tour guide pleaded with his employer, Context Travel, to help him keep these businesses alive. Context now funds a scholarship for a budding Florentine artisan to study etching at a private school and do a paid apprenticeship. Negar Azhar Azari landed Context Travel's first scholarship which opened the doors of Giuliano Ricchi's studio to her for a six-week apprenticeship.

Learning by doing

She learned from Ricchi how to engrave objects in a style that has "a history longer than my own life. You feel like this sort of art is not finishing. Somebody else is taking [it] on his or her shoulders and bringing [it] far away."

Not too far in Azhar Azari's case. In November, she opened NAA-Studio, her own artistic etching and jewelry workshop and store a few blocks from Ricchi's workshop. But she's the rare success story.

Negar Azhar Azari’s studio showcases etched pieces that she created using the pictured Florentine etching tools called bollini. She learned many tecniques during her apprenticeship with Giuliano Ricchi. (Photo by Simone Pierroti)
Examples of etched work from Negar Azhar Azari's studioImage: Simone Pierroti

Tailoring unraveling

In Rome among the city's renowned tailors, the story is similar. Optimism is rarer than peddle-operated sewing machines. A few blocks from the Coliseum, Paola Gueli grips a gigantic pair of scissors. They're a symbol of her past and uncertain future. Her father, a retired tailor, gave them to her after he taught her how to make garments that clients gush over.

Tailors Paola and Raffaele Gueli, daughter and father, have about a century of combined experience. Today one in five tailoring jobs goes unfilled, despite record unemployment. (Photo by Luigi Fraboni, DW Correspondent, Italy)
Family business: tailors Paola and Raffaele Gueli have about a century of combined experience.Image: Luigi Fraboni

Their personal touch is endangered. In the 1950s when her father launched his career, Italy was home to four million tailors. Today, this figure has plummeted to 700,000. The world outside Italy's boot is bearing the consequences with no one capable of repairing clothing or making it to measure. A part of Italy's artistic heritage risks extinction.

Losing touch

"Italy would lose enormous hands," said Gueli. "Mine are small but, in the end, they're enormous, too. Unfortunately, we're not valued. Actually, we are ignored."

Gueli says the state and, in particular, artisans' associations and unions don't provide sufficient support to tailors, such as loans, assistance and workers. Gueli recently had a car accident and injured her right leg which she uses to control the sewing machine. She had to close the shop for a month.

The hands of Italian tailor Paola Gueli transform garments with a finesse that’s impossible to achieve with the most sophisticated sewing machines. (photo by Luigi Fraboni)
Gueli's hands transform garments with a finesse impossible to achieve with the most sophisticated sewing machinesImage: Luigi Fraboni

Designers vs. tailors

At the National Academy of Tailors in Rome, three students sketch by hand patterns for a morning coat. They're learning the craft as their forefathers did at this school founded in 1575 by Pope Gregory the 13th. For centuries, Italians, even those without much money, have turned to tailors to repair a favorite garment or create elegant outfits.

"This is the image of the European," said Academy President Mario Napolitano, dressed sharply in a made-to-measure tan, checked suit and sky blue shirt. "Unfortunately, we are letting it disappear and we shouldn't. Behind the Italian style, there are vested interests, economic interests. That's why I say that we have to take the lead in teaching tailoring."

The Academy wants to expand to create a three-year program but lacks the funding and the government's approval. Another threat also looms: the appeal of designers. Student Federico De Peppo admits that he's "obsessed" with the designs of Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani. He wants to learn everything he can about menswear tailoring yet has no plans to become a tailor. "I don’t want to work as an artisan," admitted De Peppo. He plans to become a designer.

Neglected: 'The art of tailoring'

"The art of tailoring has been neglected," said Academy President Napolitano. "I remember in the 1980s at the Rome fashion shows, the first thing the organizers said was to not criticize the fashion designers. I understand that they were plotting the rise of the fashion designer as an iconic figure. But they shouldn't have done this at the expense of the tailors."

Spools of thread in Paola Gueli’s tailor shop in Rome. (photo: Luigi Fraboni)
Tailoring skills are being lost in the rush to be a designerImage: Luigi Fraboni

Yet it happened and has unraveled the fabric of this ancient craft. Designers have fame and fortunes yet face their own fashion crisis: there are no capable tailors to sew their fabulous collections. Italy's artisan association revealed in a recent study that one in five tailoring jobs goes unfilled.

The Mafia in the kitchen

Further South, in Palermo, Sicily, Francesco D'Aloisi pushes uncooked loaves of bread into the oven at his bakery called Il Fornaio. The 70-year-old baker started working when he was nine years old, getting up at dawn to form the bread and deliver loaves by bicycle. "I am passionate about my work since it's what I’ve always done."

D'Aloisi knows how to make scrumptious Sicilian bread with its crunchy, sesame-covered crust and soft insides. Yet he's convinced that his culinary art is dying. Italian families are smaller and paychecks too, prompting many to buy fewer loaves or non-artisan bread from supermarkets. Bread sales in Sicily have plummeted 30 percent in the last five years, according to a national consumers' association.

At Il Fornaio bakery, Michele D’Aloisi carefully sprinkes sesame seeds on every loaf. Artisan bakeries are closing in Sicily, victims of the crisis, Mafia extortion and the trend to buy industrial bread from supermarkets. (photo by Luigi Fraboni)
The art of baking: Michele D'Aloisi at Il FornaioImage: Luigi Fraboni

Sicilian artisans, like D'Aloisi, are not only fighting to stay open in a globalized society but must defend themselves from extortion from organized criminals. A few years ago, the Mafia attempted to get its hands on the bakery's dough. "We received a telephone call," said Michele, Francesco's son and bakery manager. No introduction just a "suggestion" that the bakery stop making certain products with the objective of helping pro-Mafia enterprises.

Just a joke?

"I took it as a joke." But, at 3 a.m. one morning, he received another phone call - from the fire department. The bakery was on fire. "It was a horrible experience," Michele said. "Not only did they set fire to the bakery but they also tried to burn down our house."

Il Fornaio reported the Mafiosi and joined Addiopizzo, an anti-Mafia group. About 800 businesses have signed the group's pledge to say "no" to the Mafia. It's a risk but one that many artisans must take in order to keep from giving their limited earnings to the Mafia. But the threat of declining sales still loom. Il Fornaio has confronted this problem by diversifying its products, adding mini-pizzas and pastries. Nevertheless, founder Francesco D'Aloisi remains convinced that bakeries will soon disappear. But his son and grandson are confident that creativity and barring the Mafia from the kitchen will help.

The bakers and brains behind the family-run bakery Il Fornaio in Palermo. (L to R) Michele D’Aloisi with his son Francesco D’Aloisi and father Francesco “Franco” D’Aloisi. They refused to bow to Mafia demands to alter their products, prompting the criminals to set fire to the bakery. (photo by Luigi Fraboni)
Keeping it in the family, three generations of bakers at Il Fornaio in Palermo.Image: Luigi Fraboni

"The youngsters like my son will do much better than me, than my generation. And his children will do even better," said son Michele. Grandson Francesco has even opened his own café that serves artisan baked goods and a loud "no" to Mafia extortionists. "Perhaps, the 'no's' will eventually be the majority. And this parasite, this virus will disappear." The hope is that sales might rise again, just like bread, and give new life to Italy's struggling artisans.

This article and accompanying radio features are part of the Global Story Project, with support from the Open Society Foundations. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.