Like any great story, this one begins with love. In the grim destitution following the Second World War, Scuola del Cuoio was born from the joint effort of the Franciscan friars of Santa Croce monastery and the great Florentine artisans of the Gori and Casini families to teach orphans how to make leather goods. However, the school’s designs soon became so successful that it quickly opened its doors to the public.
An ardent US following emerged after sealing contracts with the US military and American embassies across Europe. Glamourous movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were soon found sporting the school’s exquisite leather goods, while politicians such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower opted for the smooth embossed desk sets. In fact, it has since become a tradition at Scuola del Cuoio to provide each US President with a briefcase.
(Artisanal Ardour) Today, Scuola del Cuoio remains tucked behind the grand Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. Surrounded by verdant patches of serenity and tangles of vibrant flowers, the school’s exterior appears almost too idyllic to be a place that teaches the laborious art of leather. The interior, however, tells a different tale. Dark, with a deep leathery musk and a sharp scent of old metal, the corridor where the workbenches are stationed reminds guests that this is a place of serious craftsmanship. In fact, it is the largest artisanal laboratory in the city, and despite is monasterial origins, it is not cloistered but accessible to the public for viewing.
(Labour of Love) When I arrive, Benedetta, a member of Scuola del Cuoio’s staff, welcomes me with a wide smile, ushering me to a workbench. Dozens of handbags crafted by the school’s artisans sit daintily in their glass cabinets, their beauty and quality undeniable, but today I am more interested in the painstaking process behind these exceptional creations. How does one make the finest quality leather handbag?
The first step is to identify the best tannery. Scuola Del Cuoio selects tanneries that use hides from the best animals across the world, whether they are ostriches from South Africa, or crocodiles from the Nile. Aside from the origin of the animal, it is important to choose a tannery that has the patience to prepare the skin so that it results in the finest quality leather. For optimal results, a tannery should soak the its calfskin in vegetable tannin for 45 days to produce cuoio (solid calfskin), but many will opt for 30 in order to improve sales turnaround despite a lower quality result. Devoted to excellence, Scuola del Cuoio always uses tanneries that appreciate the 45 day rule.
When the skins are finally ready, they arrive at Scuola Del Cuoio for the artisans to inspect, before being cut according to the patterns. Cutting the leather is an ordeal. As a traditionalist institution, Scuola Del Cuoio cuts the leather by hand, which is gruelling and time consuming, as artisans must practice absolute vigilance to avoid the costly mistake of tearing a python skin or making swiss cheese of an alligator.
The techniques for putting the leather together vary widely depending on the design, and this is where Italy’s centuries-old arsenal of knowledge comes into full force. Benedetta beams as she explains the myriad processes used to enhance the stitching and moulding of the leather. For instance, in order to protect the leather, salpa, a fabric resembling a cross between suede and cardboard, is inserted between layers. For stiff, rounded shapes, the leather is kept wet much like an elaborate papier maché.
Once the handbags are completed, they are placed in luxurious green pouches ready for their new owner to take home. The clients who purchase the handbag become a part of the Scuola for life, with many of the artisans, keeping records of the handbag model and the client so that it is not duplicated. The school knows the importance of individuality. Francesco, who stands at the workstation beside me, is responsible for embossing names and personalised messages on the leather book covers and wallets. Today, a number of excited young women are lined up, clutching their leatherbound books.
(Brave Old World) In a world of fast fashion and disposability, Scuola del Cuoio is a paragon of resilience and tradition. The school is intimately aware that in spite of society’s addiction to cheap, mass-produced items, we will always value products that have been treated with the same care and attention that we desire for ourselves.