The hallmarks of Italy’s 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.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Bologna was the capital of finely crafted men’s shoes, led by such distinctive manufacturers as Testoni and Lemanni. Few of the 1,850 workshops from that time remain; after 1970, industrialization replaced shoe workshops with factories.
But not at Peron & Peron, a workshop that painstakingly crafts handmade shoes to order—about a thousand a year, 80 percent for male customers. Simone Peron, currently at the company’s helm, took over from his father, Bruno.
“The passion for this work is in our DNA,” Peron says. “We go visit a client’s home and try to establish a sense of him, observing his clothing, his furnishings. We have to be both good artisans and good psychologists.”
Tall wooden cases that display footwear in all shades of brown and black (with an occasional blue outlier) greet visitors to the small shop. The shoes are studies in types of leather and hand-stitching techniques.
Many of Peron’s materials come from France, England, and Germany, but the methods and style are wholly Italian. Molds of each client’s feet are taken and later archived so that new pairs may be ordered from anywhere in the world.
Shoes crafted by Peron & Peron are of such quality that they earned the recent admiration of other master shoe crafters: the Japanese. “My greatest satisfaction,” Peron says, “is having brought my father’s name to such a distant land.”
> Peron & Peron (Piazza S. Francesco 14/a) is open 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. (closed Thursday afternoon). Handmade shoes for men start at $1,000; for women, $800.
More authentic buys in Bologna:
> Studio Fenice (Via Sant’Isaia 30/c)
Antique stained glass is reproduced and restored using centuries-old artisanal techniques.
> Bottega Prata (Via Caldarese 1/d)
Tables, chandeliers, and other wrought iron furnishings take artful shape in this family workshop.
> Crete Pièce Unique (Via de’ Giudei 3/b)
Fanciful ceramics and jewelry depicting corals, flowers, and more reenvision nature.
This piece was written by Isabella Brega, the executive editor of National Geographic Traveler’s Italian partner magazine, Touring, and ran, in adapted form, in Traveler‘s February/March 2014 issue.