The neighborhood of San Frediano once resounded with the hammers of leather workers, hat makers and numerous other artisans, but today the soundtrack of its streets is the gabbing of tourists and rumble of their suitcases’ wheels over the cobblestones.In the search for a true experience in the city, some of those same vacationers have been discovering courses in traditional crafts, like those at the Alchimia Contemporary Jewelry School, on a back street in San Frediano. Here, the hammer clangs carry on — the classroom’s aural backdrop as students learn the art of goldsmithing, a Florentine forté since the Renaissance.On a Monday morning in September, a couple of new students in the school’s two-week intensive class set themselves up for their first day: a tackle-box of hand tools at their feet and desk lamps illuminating the wooden benches where they would drill, saw, forge and solder metal into jewelry.The school, established in 1998, offers bachelor’s and master’s programs, but also welcomes everyone from absolute beginners to seasoned experts for these short courses. In 10 days of six-hour class sessions, most students make a ring, a necklace and a project of their choice, honing the required goldsmithing skills along the way.“Today, creative jewelry is often poorly crafted, but, first and foremost, we believe the basic techniques have to be strong,” Daniela Boieri, a class instructor and jewelry artist, said as she inspected student projects.
The sun shone into the classroom, a workshop lined with racks of mallets, anvils, polishing wheels, rolling mills and other tools, with rows of jewelry benches flanked by flex-shaft drills and butane torches. Wall-mounted vitrines displayed examples of projects, from an Irish claddagh ring with a jointed shank to a multitude of intricate chain links.
“I wanted to use a torch,” said Shiloh Helberg, a lifeguard from Canada on her first trip to Europe, who added that she had been thunderstruck by Florence and its “famous paintings in the flesh, brushstrokes and all.”
Schools today are either about art or about technical skills, but we’re trying to foster the idea of the workshop fueled by both,” said Lucia Massei, who founded Alchimia with Doris Maninger and serves as its director. Some of contemporary jewelry’s most distinguished artists have taught at Alchimia, including Manfred Bischoff, Giampaolo Babetto and Lucy Sarneel; David Clarke and Evert Nijland lead courses today.Classes, including supplies and the use of tools, are 1,900 euros (about $2,035) for a two-week session, and were created for visitors to the city. So many wanted to do more than sightsee, Ms. Massei said — “they wanted to learn to use their hands.”While Florence’s prowess in gold and metal working was once the envy of Europe, modern jewelry retailers have almost entirely supplanted the goldsmith workshops on the tourist-thronged Ponte Vecchio, and jewelry makers such as the technique traditionalist Nerdi Orafi and the Alchimia graduates Giselle Effting and Francesco Coda are among just a handful still creating jewelry in the city.“Because of mass tourism, Florence has been overtaken by places with cheap things to eat and cheap things to buy,” said Maria Pilar Lebole, who heads the Osservatorio dei Mestieri d’Arte, an organization promoting artisans. Soaring costs and competition from tourist-oriented businesses have forced the closure of many of Florence’s old workshops, she explained.