Shop til you drop

I’m afraid I didn’t get the shopping gene, to the despair of my sisters and friends. I would rather sit in a caffe` watching the goings on in the piazza. I have friends who make military-style raids on the famous Mall—the designer shopping outlets—outside of Florence, but I have to confess I’ve never been there. There is a newish one now, in Barberino del Mugello, built by the Italian-British joint venture, Macarthur Glen – Frattini. Macarthur Glen is a huge British outlet company which already has outlets at Serravalle near Milan and Castel Romano outside Rome, as well as in Holland, Austria, France and the UK. This takes outlet-shopping to new and dizzy heights. At a cost of seventy million Euros, the new one near Florence boasts more than a hundred designer shops—all the big names such as D&G, Armani, Bulgari, Prada, Pollini, Missoni, Bruno Magli etc, endless bars and restaurants, and all encased in a new faux-medieval complex purpose-built to house it. It should be a knockout.

I’m afraid though that I would rather put pins in my eyes than go shopping. I actually prefer Italian cities on Monday mornings when the shops are all shut. I have a friend who guides shopping tour-groups. She despairs of me! But for those who know the famous leather goods brand, The Bridge, I can tell you that it was born in Florence and takes its name from the most famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio.

If you must shop, at least go to La Rinascente in Milan and Florence for the caffe` alone—the best views in town. In both stores, you go to the cafeteria on the top floor. The food and wine is alright, but it’s the view that counts. In Milan you gaze directly into the cake-icing spires of the famous Duomo, and in Florence you are greeted by the vista down into Piazza della Republica, the distant hills, and of course the great cupola of the Duomo.

And although you can buy leather from a million places in Florence, you have never seen leather until you have visited the Scuola del Cuoio—the Leather School in the rear of Santa Croce. This is leather as art. Leather as lusso. You go through the magnificent Santa Croce Sacristy with its intricate inlaid-timber choir and benches. A long corridor leads away to the back, with leather-craftsmen working at their benches on one side, and on the other, locked glass cases filled with handbags of every rainbow-colour, that begin at five thousand Euros each and are decorated with precious gems, ancient beads and nuggets of gold, fossils, ivory, quartz and antique silver. They are the work of Francesca Gori, daughter of the founder of the Leather School.

Marcello Gori and the Franciscan Friars founded the school immediately after the war, and the first leather-working apprentices were the war-orphans from Pisa. To give them hope and a trade, they were taught to work practical leather-goods, and those who showed special talent were encouraged to specialise in the more artistic areas of gilt-embossing with 22 carat gold, and the intricate leather punching with which the most exclusive objects are decorated. Later, with the encouragement of the Mayor of Florence and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a biennial scholarship was created for children from third-world countries. During the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the artisan-trades in Italy suffered a great neglect and subsequent decline, and the school shrank dramatically, but recently it has experienced a renewed vitality, and several of its students have been put to work for firms such as Gucci and Fendi. Even if you can’t see yourself buying one of Francesca’s handbags for every season, it’s worth a look just for the sheer beauty and extravagance of artistry and passion. And cheap compared to the Louis Vuitton bucket patchwork bag which I saw advertised recently for $30,800!!