Travels & Traditions: Florence, Italy - #1302

This is the second program in a series in which I team-up with Steve Perillo to travel around Italy. Steve’s grandfather started a company that eventually became the largest organization taking American tourists to Italy. And this program is about the city of Florence. And to make it truly challenging we brought along my youngest son.

Steve thinks the two things that every tourist to Florence wants to see are the Cathedral which is called the Duomo, the name comes from Domus Dei, which is Latin for the House of God. They also want to see the Baptistery, and I agree. No ancient building in Rome could have spanned the immense distance envisioned for this structure. Nor could any architect working in the early 1400s, until Brunelleschi figured out how to do it.

There are actually two domes, one inside the other. The inner one is made up of self- supporting bricks in a herringbone pattern. When that was completed it was used as the support for the scaffolding to erect the outer shell. The fresco on the underside of the dome depicts the Last Judgment. It was completed in 1579 and intended to be Florence’s version of the work by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Most of the art created in Italy during the Renaissance was produced under a system of commissions. The church would announce that it was interested in having a nice little sculpture for a spot on the outside of a building. A guild, which was like a super powerful trade union would offer to cover the cost. The guild would choose the artist, often after a public competition.

Then the work would be created and donated to the church. In this case it is a statue by Donatello. It represents St. George, the patron saint of the armorers’ guild, they were the guys who paid Donatello for the work.

Of course the armorers’ guild would like you to believe that St. George was standing there fearlessly because he was using one of their new shields - model 1477, in bronze available with or without the gold trim. Product placement was a basic part of Renaissance art.

Directly across from the Duomo is the Baptistery. Florentines claim that it was originally a Roman temple built to honor Mars, the god of war who had just given them a hand in a battle against the Etruscans. In fact it appears to have been built in the 500’s but it did use some old Roman stones. Italian cities are always trying to extend their history into the past unlike my cousin who keeps maintaining she’s getting younger. Italian cities keep claiming to get older. The mosaics in the dome illustrate the history of the bible from creation to the Last Judgment.

In 1401, the wool makers’ guild announced a competition for the north and east doors of the Baptistery. Ghiberti won. His north doors illustrate the life of Christ. The east doors present the stories of the Old Testament. When Michelangelo saw them he called them the “Gates of Paradise”.

Santa Croce was originally a Franciscan Church, and at the time it was built, it was one of the largest churches in the world. It became the burial site for many of the most famous Florentines. The walls are lined with monuments to Dante, Michelangelo, Boccaccio and Machiavelli.

Since the 1300s, the area around Santa Croce has been the leather working center of Florence and the Santa Croce Monastery was a big customer. The monks were in constant need of leather covers for their manuscripts.

At the end of the Second World War, the Franciscan friars at the Monastery teamed up with the Gori and Casini families, who were master leatherworkers, together they created a school that would teach children who were orphaned in the Second World War how to make things in leather and earn a living.

Laura Gori, the daughter of one of the founders, took us on a tour.

LAURA: And this is what they make when they come for the short term classes which are 3 hours. They start by selecting the leather with the color, the combination of colors. Then Carlo, who is a master craftsman helps them punch the holes and tells them how to put it together, and imagine for such a plain item it takes minimum 3 hours. Since Florence became the capital of Italian fashion, my father decided that these kids needed to be able to find a job after they left the school so we specialize in handbags. We have 2 parallel activities now, one is the school, which is here and is now international, and one is the workshop and display room upstairs. Down here the master craftsmen with the help of the younger artisans whom I select from the best of our students and enroll in our workshop, produce the leather lines displayed upstairs in our showrooms.

For over 300 years, one of the most powerful families in Florence were the Medici’s. They appear to have gotten started in the farming area north of Florence. The name is the plural of medical doctor and at some point that was probably the family profession. During the 1300s, they were very successful in the wool trade. That was OK, but they soon realized that the real power was in banking.

They open their own bank, which vastly increased their wealth. They also became extremely popular with the general public by supporting the introduction of a proportional tax. Imagine that, a banker suggesting that the rich pay more taxes than the poor.

The biggest accomplishment of the Medici, however, was their sponsorship of art and architecture in Florence, which was made possible by their great wealth. During the Renaissance a leading artist would only create a work after he had been paid. Masaccio,

Donatello, Fra Angelico, even Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci worked without an accounts receivable department. The Medici were also great supporters of scientific projects. They hired Galileo as the science teacher for their children, and Galileo repaid the compliment by naming four of the largest moons of Jupiter after the four Medici children he tutored. How cool is that?

In addition to commissioning great works of art, the Medici were serious collectors. It is their private collection that forms the core of the Uffizi Museum. The buildings that make up the Uffizi gallery were originally commissioned by a member of the Medici family to house the city’s administrative offices. Having everybody in one place gave him greater control. He even built a secret walkway that allowed them to walk between their private Palace and the seat of the government without coming into contact with the people they ruled. Something like the private subway in the U.S. Senate. In 1737, Anna Maria Ludovica, the last of the Medici, donated the family’s entire collection to the people of Florence. Today the Uffizi contains the world’s largest collection of Renaissance art.

It is virtually impossible to walk around Florence and not be confronted with the Medici, and that includes the hotel were Steve and I stayed.

The Hotel is the Grand Hotel Villa Medici. It has an ideal location at the very edge of the historic center of the city. It’s just a few blocks away from the Duomo and the Baptistery and the most important shopping streets. The hotel itself was built into an 18th century residence and still has much of that traditional character. And there is the bar. Now every animal has a series of natural habitats and one of mine is a hotel bar.

The creation of certain drinks is associated with certain cities.

The Bellini was created in Venice. Irish Coffee in San Francisco. Manhattans in New York. Florence created the Negroni.

Count Negroni would come into the bar every day and ask for a drink made up of Campari, red vermouth and gin. And eventually they named it after him. 


BARTENDER: Grazzi Senore 

STEVE: That looks good 

BURT WOLF: Here’s looking at you kid. Cheers. 

STEVE: Cheers.

BURT WOLF: Proost, Nostrovia. Mmmm. It’s just the way my mother made it and drank it.

BOTH: (Laughter)

One of the advantages of the location is that the hotel has a private garden where guests can relax. It also has a swimming pool. Which is very unusual for Florence.

The Villa Medici has a well respected restaurant called the “Lorenzo de’ Medici. Steve and I asked the chef to prepare a meal of typical Florentine specialties.

He started with panzanella salad, then a potato pasta, and a Florentine steak. Florence is in Tuscany, and Tuscany is world famous for its wines. Accordingly, the hotel has an extensive collection of Tuscan wines. There is also the Conservatory restaurant that looks out on the garden.

There are less than 100 rooms and suites in the hotel, which gives the entire property an intimate feeling. And there are two styles of decoration to choose from. One keeps the antique feeling of Florence. The other has a contemporary style. And one suite is actually listed as a landmark by the Italian Ministry of Arts. Ahhh -- Lorenzo would have loved this place.

For over 700 years, Florence has been a world epicenter for craftwork with particular skills in leatherwork paper production, and clothing design. We have seen some of the leather working tradition in the Leather Works School and that’s a great place to learn about the craft, but it is also practiced in dozens of shops throughout the city. One of the objects I admire is the Florentine treasure box. and Simone Tadei is a master at making them.

SIMONE: This is my third generation, my grandfather, my father, and me. My grandfather started and learned from other master craftsmen in the 1920’s and now I have the same process I adopted from my grandfather and my father. Strips of leather are soaked in water until they are soft enough to wrap around a wooden box. The box is then heated. The leather dries and hardens. Once it is completely dry the leather is shined with wax and vegetable dyes in order to achieve the desired color and shine. In the final step, the wooden mold is removed and the leather box stands on its own. It’s all done by hand and can take as long as eight weeks.

When Catherine de Medici of Florence married King Henry II of France her jewels were carried to Paris in hard leather boxes that were part of the leather crafting tradition of her home city.

SIMONE: Everything is all done by hand only better and with the passion, time to make these authentic boxes today is very hard.

BURT WOLF: We’re heading into this place Nicholas because they make gloves and they are supposed to fit you very well.

STEVE: Like a glove.


STEVE: Good afternoon.

BURT WOLF: We’ve come for our fitting.

STEVE: Is this a big hand?

GLOVE MAKER: Yes, large size.

STEVE: What size is this do you think?

GLOVE MAKER:  9+1/2 or 10, want to try one pair just for..?

BURT WOLF: 8+1/2.

GLOVE MAKER:  8+1/2 yes, try first of all in size 10. 

STEVE: So what does that thing do?

GLOVE MAKER:  This is to stretch the gloves in the finger because when the glove is new.

STEVE: This is the first hand that’s ever been in the glove?

GLOVE MAKER:  Yes, then after you have tried the gloves, you’ve used the gloves it is not necessary, it’s just when the glove is new. OK push your elbow here. Thank you. The winter it fits much better the glove. Because now the hand is a little bigger than...It’s size 10, I think it’s the right size.

BURT WOLF: Are they lined?

GLOVE MAKER:  It’s cashmere lined.

STEVE: Oh yeah...

GLOVE MAKER:  It’s a classic style for men.

STEVE: This is beautiful.

GLOVE MAKER:  Size 10 is your size.

STEVE: All right, ready?


BURT WOLF: How do we know if it’s a good quality glove and it’s a good fit?

GLOVE MAKER:   Try the gloves. Check first of all that it has to fit correctly in the length. 

BURT WOLF: Right to the tip and solid there.

GLOVE MAKER:  If you find a glove that is too long or too short in the finger it is not the right size. To know that if it is good gloves first of all you have to know the leather the kind of leather because many gloves look similar but is completely different. Also the cashmere, the composition inside

Anthropologists believe that gloves go back to the time of the cavemen and I assume cavewomen.



Apparently, whenever there was a situation where people wanted to protect their hands they developed a glove. Gloves were found in the tomb of Egypt’s King Tutankhamun. You couldn’t be a well-dressed Knight at the Round Table or anywhere else for that matter if you didn’t have a nice pair of gloves. Most gloves come in pairs and you’d think that half a pair would not be particularly interesting. Well quess again. Michael Jackson’s single glove sold for just under a half million dollars.

There is also a long tradition of making marbleized paper. 


PAPERMAKER:  Hi Nicholas, How you doing? 


My son Nicholas stopped in for a lesson. 

PAPERMAKER:  Let’s go together here, so what we have here, see this is a glue and we use this material to decorate the paper following this old method. It was used by the book binders. Let’s start with the blue. You hold this, hammer, on top. All around. Let’s go with another brilliant color first as we did before, and keep going like that. This is fine, you see we have already a kind of pattern. Now look I will take this simple item and you go inside this liquid and then in this part you go with a different movement. Hold it here, OK. You dip it in and go to the right. You see. A new pattern came out. But you can change again. You can change again and we can turn into a pattern we call peacock, peacock tail. Now we have to transfer all of this onto the paper. You go down when I tell you. Hold it. Hold it. OK. Now, we lift it up, a little, hold it, and we did it. Leave it, Leave it down. Here we are. See, and you can make just one at a time. See, every piece it’s unique.

NICHOLAS:  It’s nice. 

PAPERMAKER:  Did you like it? 

NICHOLAS:  Yeah, I like old fashioned stuff.

PAPERMAKER:  See Nicholas, this technique, once it was very popular. The book binders they used to use this kind of paper to cover the end page of the books, so the beginning and at the end. Here you are Nicholas.

NICHOLAS:  Thank you.

PAPERMAKER:  This is your job.

NICHOLAS:  Thank you.

PAPERMAKER:  Congratulations.

NICHOLAS:  Thank you, bye.


Florence is a good town for walking which may have something to do with its long history as a center of production for shoes. In fact there is a museum in Florence dedicated to a shoe designer. It is a private museum, open to the public, and dedicated to the history of the Ferragamo company and its founder Salvatore Ferragamo.

BURT WOLF: They told me that that shoe was originally made for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot

STEVE: They told me you can have it for 5,000 dollars.

BURT WOLF: Do they give you a discount if you buy the right shoe too?

He was an extraordinary talent. His anatomical studies of the foot led to a revolutionary technique for making shoes. Salvatore Ferragamo was the inventor of the platform shoe, and this is one he developed for Judy Garland.

This shoe was created in 2010 for Angelina Jolie for her appearance in The Tourist. He made special shoes for Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, and Julia Roberts. In films, it was sound technology that made it possible for women to talk. But it was Salvatore Ferragamo who made it possible for them to walk.

Well that’s a quick look at Florence, Italy. I hope you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS . I’m Burt Wolf and I’m Steve Perillo.

STEVE: Hey guys what about ice cream. I love Gelato.

NICHOLAS:  Yah Dad, we haven’t done anything about Gelato. 

BURT WOLF: You’re a tough crowd, I promise, the next show.


For more information about the people in this show, visit their websites.