The World War II orphans from Pisa, Italy, who were relocated to Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce did not spend their time there idly. The Franciscan friars who operated the basilica had partnered with two local leather artisan families, the Goris and Cassinis, and transformed the dormitory of the 13th-century monastery into a leather crafts school. Under the vaulted ceiling of the main corridor, amid Medici coats of arms, the young men learned to recognize the subtle variations of different skins and how to cut leather for briefcases, handbags, desk sets, and other goods.
Although the basilica no longer houses orphans, little else there has changed in the ensuing decades. The Scuola del Cuoio (leather school) is still under the direction of Gori family members and continues to train the master craftsmen of tomorrow, while producing a full range of handcrafted leather goods—which, today, are sold over the Internet.
For clients who want something truly extraordinary, a custom creation can be developed by working one-on-one with an artisan. The process, which can take about six months from inception to delivery, begins with a consultation during which the customer may offer a sketch or simply relay ideas to a craftsperson who drafts some renderings. Once the customer approves the design, the artisan creates a prototype using a material called salpa, a pressed paper that imitates the characteristics of fine leather. This step allows the client to examine and handle a three-dimensional facsimile of the piece and suggest adjustments or a redesign. After receiving final approval, the artisan chooses the appropriate skin: crocodile, lizard, ostrich, calf, or lamb—all of which are softened in goat’s milk and conditioned with a variety of rich creams formulated to reduce or enhance luster. (Goat skin, for example, is treated with a mixture of egg whites and milk.) The artisan then fabricates the object, using a single piece of leather when possible, matching, gluing, and stitching the seams, and perhaps embossing it with 22-karat gold in the Florentine tradition.
Commissions can range from reproductions of classic designs to extravagant personalized accessories. One client recently commissioned his-and-her sets of solid luggage—a total of 18 pieces, each monogrammed with 22-karat gold. “It’s very rare these days to see a full set of parchment-leather solid luggage like they show in the old movies,” notes Tommaso Melani, marketing manager and a member of the Gori family. For another client, the Scuola del Cuoio created a $20,000 leather bag adorned with a family crest in solid 18-karat gold.
Melani adds that sometimes the school’s role is to educate its patrons. “We had one repeat customer who wanted a suitcase made from crocodile,” he says. “We had to explain that the scales in the skin would eventually cause the piece to come apart.” Those who wish to receive more formal tutelage can enroll in one of the school’s courses, which offer a range of instruction, from hand-stitching techniques to a 10-month interdisciplinary immersion.
Scuola del Cuoio