This story of Italian artisans is one of valuables and values” writes Isabella Brega, author of the following article adapted from Traveler‘s Italian edition, Touring. The hallmarks of this artisanal tradition–creativity, innovation, craftsmanship–go back at least 3,000 years, to when Etruscans fashioned extraordinary works with bronze and Romans excelled in mosaics and glass.
Now travelers keen to avoid mass-produced generica can embrace a creative culture that puts a premium on the handmade, the painstakingly rendered, the movingly authentic. And with that they get a sense of the real, enduring Italy. “Made in Italy means products crafted with soul,” says Franco Cologni, former chairman of Cartier International and founder of Milan’s Creative Academy.
Pause to chat with a ceramicist in her workshop or a glassblower by his furnace, and you have a window into a place’s daily rhythms, its cultural history, its animating principle. Come away with an artifact custom-made for you, and that moment lives on long after you’ve resumed life back home.
For Gianni Gatto, it’s not just a hat; it’s art for the head. Learn more about this passionate sculptor/designer–and other Florentine artisans who are producing distinctive souvenirs with a strong sense of place, tradition, and style:
Wander into the historic neighborhood of San Frediano, just steps from the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Pitti, and you will find a narrow shop, Cappelli Antonio Gatto. Here, some of the simplest materials–felt, straw–come alive in the hands of Gianni Gatto, a sculptor of hats.
“I discovered my masters in Florence’s little markets, where I found hats by such legendary Florentine designers as Pietro Franceschini and Gigi,” he says. The fashioning of hats has a long lineage in this city where the Renaissance blossomed; 16th-century portraits show members of the aristocratic Medici family sporting gable headdresses and red caps.
Gatto attributes his inspiration to family members.
“As a child, I would hide under sacred vestments being embroidered by my aunts,” he recalls. “Watching their fingers dance on the cloth, I memorized how to do basting stitches.”
Gatto’s workshop, a short walk from the goldsmiths of Ponte Vecchio, is a favorite with style arbiters. Tellingly, he always keeps in mind the person he designs for.
“A hat by itself is incomplete,” he says. “It is the person who completes it, by wearing it a certain way, giving it a soul and a personality.”
Cappelli Antonio Gatto (Piazza de’ Pitti 5) is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
More authentic buys in Florence:
> Antico Setificio Fiorentino (Via L. Bartolini 4)
Silk fabrics–damasks, taffetas–woven on vintage looms continue a craft that first flourished in Florence in the 1300s.
> Scuola del Cuoio (Piazza Santa Croce 16)
Founded to teach orphans of World War II a trade, the School of Leather specializes in bags, belts, and wallets.
> Passamaneria Valmar (Via Porta Rossa 53r)
Decorative trimmings for drapes, cushions, and other furnishings fill this one-of-a-kind shop.
This piece was written by Isabella Brega, the executive editor of Traveler’s Italian partner magazine, Touring.