Scuola del Cuoio: A Day in Florence

Today we visited the Scuola del Cuoio, otherwise known as the Florentine Leather School. The Florentine Leather School has a rich history in Italy. It was founded after the second world war by the Franciscan Friars who lived in the Monastery of Santa Croce. They Friars housed many of the war orphans in the monastery and wanted to teach them a trade so that they could support themselves in their futures. In order to do this the Friars reached out to some of the local leather artisans to come to the monastery and teach the orphans. This was the start of the Scuola del Cuoio. Eventually the orphans became so skilled that the artisans moved their workshops to the monastery and sold their goods to the public from there. Nowadays the Florentine Leather School carries on its tradition of crafting artisanal leather goods in Italy. They still offer classes and training in artisanal leather crafting as well as creating and selling goods to the public.

In terms of the supply chain, the Florentine Leather School serves a very niche role in the leather market. They are a manufacturer and producer of goods. They are also a retailer to the direct customer. The Florentine Leather School is unique in that it can craft items from requests as well. They offer both online ordering and operate a storefront for purchasing directly by the customer. Shipping is managed by an outside company. Typically they serve higher end clients as well as the tourist market. They are supplied by leather skin providers from all around the world. The hides they purchase are sent to their local tannery outside of Florence and are tanned in the traditional Italian way. The leather school prides itself on maintaining the tradition established by the artisans back when the school was founded. Along this line the school still does gold gilding by hand. The gilding is done with gold foil. In preparation the leather is treated with olive oil, milk, and egg whites to condition the leather and make it more adhesive. The leather is then coated in gold foil with a horsehair brush. The foil is from a Florentine gold shop and many of the tools date back to the Franciscan Friars. The tools are heated in a fire. Once hot enough, the artisan applies the tool to the gold foil as many times as necessary to complete the pattern. The excess gold foil is removed with a small cotton cloth. When the clothes are no longer useful they can be sent back to the gold shop to be burned and have some of the gold foil retrieved. 

The leather school uses a variety of leathers ranging from typical to exotic. Depending of the rarity of the hide, the price per square foot can range from 0.60 euros to greater than 30 euros. Alligator tends to be the most expensive, though it is 30% more expensive if purchasing a rare type of Australian allegator. Ostrich and snakeskin are also among the very expensive hides. The leather school receives its hides from a variety of countries. The deer and alligators come from the USA. Ostrich and lamb come from South Africa. Goat comes from Italy and crocodile comes from Egypt. Despite where the hide comes from, it is important to note that all the hides from the animals are sent to the leather school’s preferred tannery, making the tannery a direct supplier of tanned hides to the leather school. In constructing purses the the leather often needs reinforced to give it the desired texture of strength. In order to do this, in between the leather there is often placed either foam, a material similar to cardboard made of crushed leather scraps, or a material called texon. All of these materials are provided by supplier within Florence, though they made be crafted elsewhere.

Due to the unique nature of the Florentine Leather School, it also featured a unique organizational culture. The school is organized by skill and experience. Those with the most skill and experience are the most free to explore artistically with their craft. Since every piece is handmade and not meant to be mass produced there is a good amount of artistic license available to the artisans and they are able to craft whatever pattern they see fit. However, those still in training are limited in the supplies they can use. While creativity is still encouraged, you must have an understanding of the skill before you can branch out. If students were allowed to use the high quality supplies before their training was complete, they could end up costing the school a lot of money. Instead students are trained using basic leather crafting materials. However, to encourage the creativity, students at the end of the six month course are required to design their own bag from scratch. The bags are shown to the public and the best is voted on. The bag that wins is then made and sold in the retail store

The Scuola del Cuoio was very interesting and unique. Students there gained insights and instincts into the products they craft. Often those looking to work in the leather industry come and train at the leather school just to gain an instinct and understanding of how leather goods are crafted for buying and selling purposes. Those who decide to stay on as artisans have a long road of training ahead of them. To become a full fledged guilder, the artisan we saw today began training at 18 years old. He has only recently become a full guilder and is now 32. Artisanal skills are truly an art and an admirable craft. The people who craft the products have an instinct for what they are creating. It was a treat to explore the Florentine Leather School.

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