“Closing his eyes, the misty spires of his city rise up in his mind; the red, white and green marbles of the Duomo… He takes a deep breath and, all at once, the smells of his garden and of the city overwhelm him. His sense of smell is not in his head but in his heart. And this city, this marvelous city he ran away from as a young man in pursuit of a dream, is the very city that brought the dream to him.” (The Artisan’s Star – Loc 4317)
The last time I was in Florence was while inter-railing around Europe sometime in the 1980s, living on a budget of $10 a day and sporting the far-from-chic fashion items of reliable boots and a rucksack. What a world away from the Florence we meet in Gabriella Contestabile’s novel The Artisan’s Star!
My 19-year old self would never have had the temerity to enter the perfumery owned by our protagonists, sixty-something Elio Barati and his exquisite wife Sofia, as not only would I have felt decidedly underdressed, but I would never have been able to afford the perfume anyway. I may have wandered past the large windows and gazed in at the marble counter, recessed lights and “crystal atomizers with trailing quilted pumps on mirrored trays” as I trudged to my youth hostel, but the magical world of Elio’s establishment would have been well out of my reach.
Fortunately fiction is about transporting us to times and places we do not know, and this novel takes us to the heart of Florence, where artisans such as Elio are plying their trade in a world that for the most part has moved on. Through Elio and his friends we explore the rich lives of those Florentines who continue the traditions and crafts of their forefathers. Much of the novel is about the past – Elio’s own as well as that of the city – and we are asked to decide how much it means to us; how far we will go to protect it.
Elio once had a dream, but it remained unfulfilled as a sense of duty triumphed and he took over the family perfumery. He has lived a contented life, but it is only when he approaches his more mature years, with his family following their own passions, that he once again considers fulfilling his younger ambitions.
While Gabriella Contestabile gives us many characters to enjoy in this novel – Elio, Sofia, their feisty daughter Romina, and the indomitable Marina who runs the linen shop next door – it is, as always, the character of the location we like to dwell on here at Packabook.
And in this we are blessed – the novel reveals many of Florence’s hidden corners as well as shedding new light on her more famous landmarks. And even better, Gabriella has joined us today to give us her own tips and insights into the city she clearly loves, as well as sharing some of her personal photographs.
Gabriella, what came first for you with this novel, the idea or the location?
“As they run across the street against the light, cars swerve around them but no one honks. Even the tempers of the ever-pragmatic Florentines mellow at dusk. The streetlights snap on just as they reach the stone railing along the Arno. Above them a gray sky begins to turn a faint lilac blue. Romina takes a deep breath and smiles.” (Loc 613)
Location. I’m consistently drawn to the sense of place and its influences on a character and a community, and throughout my life I’ve wanted to travel to the places I saw made real through literature. In a bookstore I’ll reach for books set in a country I’ve been to or another I’ve yet to visit. While traveling on business I’d load up on books written by local authors, sometimes in the local language to immerse myself in the day-to-day lives of the people I would be working with. I know my emotional ties to South Africa are connected to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, that the architecture along the streets of London will remind me of Dickens and Austen, and that anything written by Marguerite Duras will deepen my understanding of the mysteries I will encounter when I finally get to Vietnam.
When a tragedy or injustice occurs in any part of the world one finds deeper truths and paths to understanding in that country’s literature. Consider the profoundly affecting works of Edwidge Danicat, Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Tell us a little about your own relationship with Florence?
“When he was a small boy, his parents told him that all Florentine life led to and emerged from the Duomo. Florence’s streets had been arranged in the shape of a star, to protect it from invaders. All the roads led to Santa Maria del Fiore at the city’s northern center and the illustrious Duomo crowning its walls. That meant you could never get lost, no matter how far you wandered from the city’s central point. That meant too that there was always a central point drawing your heart.” (Loc 1229)
That too started with a single book. When we emigrated from Italy to New York my father gave me a copy of The Passionate Sightseer by Bernard Berenson. He told me there was nothing more important than books or more exciting than travel, and that the two in tandem would open my eyes to the world around me. I was still a child and it was the end of the McCarthy era when being Italian didn’t have the cachet it does today. In fact it was quite the opposite. We were foreign and we were different, so while I wanted more than anything to fit in, my parents held firm on preserving our Italian heritage, and that meant frequent travel to Italy and more books about Michelangelo, Artemesia Gentileschi and Da Vinci.
The first time I saw the Duomo it took my breath away and I will always remember those dazzling colored marbles from Carrara, Prato and Maremma. I devoured every book I could about Florence, the Renaissance, and the Medici. This all came together in my adult years when I worked in a family owned perfumery in Florence and years later when, while working for a fragrance company, we launched a Tuscan-inspired perfume for women. That project took me through the fields of Tuscany and into the flower fields and perfume laboratories of Grasse and started my love affair with Florence and the art of perfumery.
And, since I’m passionate about certain social issues, especially the importance of arts and humanities education, I’m drawn to this Renaissance city whose art and humanism changed the western world.
Is there a particular area of the city you’d most recommend people stay on a visit?
“Oltrarno means the other side of the Arno, which is probably why Romina chooses to live there. They all say it’s fine, a bit bohemian and the real Florence. Still, the galleries and art restorers’ shops shutter and close early, the now dark streets are often deserted. A beautiful young woman should not be making her way alone. She laughs at his concern…” (Loc 634)
During my last trip I rented an apartment on Via Romana in Oltrarno. It’s a quiet residential area where you can find unusual shops, friendly local bars and trattorie, food markets, pastry shops, butchers. After a single day it became my ‘hood’. The apartment was a fifth floor walk up with very high ceilings, and when I opened the bedroom shutters what greeted me was a terra cotta ledge and the sprawling Boboli Gardens. That single joyful gesture of pushing shutters out into the sun is what I most associate with Tuscany.
On the other side of the river, in the magnificent Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, is a quintessentially Florentine three-star hotel, the Loggiato dei Serviti. Its early Renaissance architecture directly mirrors Brunelleschi’s archetypal Ospedale degli Innocenti across the piazza. There’s a cozy breakfast room and a bar where everyone gathers for an evening aperitivo. I feel very much at home here, and when I take my early morning walk along the Via dei Servi, and look out towards the end of the street I see the luminous marble façade of the Duomo appear like a sliver of light between dark buildings on either side.
I’ve never stayed at Palazzo Guadagno but it’s situated in one of my favorite places to hang out, Piazza Santo Spirito. I may try it out on my next visit for a day or two. But I much prefer renting an apartment, for a more authentic experience. I feel I’ve returned home to my native country where I will speak Italian everyday, shop in the local food market, and make espresso on a stovetop.
(NOTE FROM SUZI: This article in The Guardian also has lots of ideas for Oltrarno)
Would someone visiting Via della Vigna Nuova be able to find a perfume shop like Elio’s?
“At Via della Vigna Nuova, Elio rings his bell, waves to Marina pounding a comforter inside her linen shop and admires willowy Lucilla as she wiggles out the front door of her flower shop, dragging a giant ficus tree. Minutes later he lifts the creaking gates in front of the oldest perfumery shop in Florence.” (Loc 125)
Elio’s shop is actually modeled after Profumeria Aline on via Calzaiuoli. In the mid 1980s I worked there for a short while. I’d just started a dream job, as International Training Director for Clinique Cosmetics, and part of my orientation was to work in various perfumeries in Italy and France. I was intrigued by this family-owned business that had been around since 1911, and by the concept of family businesses that spanned generations and centuries in a city with strong artisan moorings.
I loved the elegance of the space, the soft lighting, polished wood, and the crystal atomizers with their trailing pumps. The family members and their staff conducted business with uncompromising grace, and respect for client and product, as if everything one touched and described were a work of art. When you entered you felt like a special guest, and when you left like a family friend.
While there are fewer classic perfumeries than before in the city center one can still find the characteristic erboristerie (herbalists), like the Antica Erboristeria San Simone on Via Ghibellina and Antica Erboristeria Inglese on the elegant Via Tornabuoni. To bring home olfactory memories of Florence in an exquisite fragrance diffuser check out Dr. Vranjes’ Antica Officina del Farmacista.
Towards the end of the book we are introduced to Florence’s first Museum and School of Perfumery. Is this a place people can visit?
“He would stand inside the lobby waiting for the small elevator to take him upstairs to the studio. And while he waited he would consider that soon this fifteenth-century family palazzo will be transformed into a museum and an academy to rival those in Grasse, but created with an Italian heart, vision, and style.” (Loc. 4144)
Most definitely and very soon. This academy and Museum of Scent has been a life-long dream for master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, whose studio is housed in the same 15th century building on Via de’ Bardi and overlooks the rooftops of Florence. It’s not only the first museum of perfumery in Italy but an interactive atelier that takes the visitor into the mysterious world of fragrance creation through a ‘hands on’ olfactory experience center, an opulent secret garden, a research library, and a conversation salon. The plan is to engage all the senses in a childlike experience of wonder, and process those impressions via workshops, and encounters with sensory experts. Lorenzo and Ludovica Villoresi want to give a ‘location’ to this ephemeral art form and educate visitors on the sense of smell which they feel has been suppressed through modern living.
Tell us a bit more about Oltrarno, where Romina lives? That sounds like my kind of area.
“It even keeps his blood pressure down as he checks their charge card bills: Mara Broccardi, Faliero Sarti, more potpourri from Santa Maria Novella, jewelry from Angela Caputi.
‘Oh don’t complain about that, Elio,’ Sofia quickly rejoins. ‘Her pieces are gorgeous and affordable. I go into her studio in Santo Spirito and pull out those drawers and play – you feel like a young girl at dress-up. How can a woman resist?” (Loc 3982)
Oltrarno, which means ‘the other side of the Arno’ is my preferred part of the city because of its artisan workshops and hidden piazzettas. Every small twisting street takes you off the beaten track to something unexpected. This is where I discovered Michelangelo’s wooden crucifix in the Basilica di Santo Spirito, the quirky leather boutique Monaco Metropolitano, the Café’ degli Artigiani in Piazza della Passera, and the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.
Walk Via Santo Spirito into the San Frediano artisan district early in the morning as the artisans open their shops and the smell of espresso fills the air. I’ve stopped in to watch Angela Caputi string resin beads in her studio, and Gianni Raffaeli engrave metal plates in his print making and lithography shop.
Weave in and out of the web of streets and piazzettas to discover wood sculptors, bookbinders, silversmiths, and seamstresses. This is where you will find some truly original fashion and household items. Nothing is as you would expect, and therein lies its magic.
What about the Hemingway? Is that a real place, or a fiction fantasy for hot chocolate lovers?
“The cioccolateria Hemingway smells of cedar, burning wood, liqueurs. Soothing chatter from the tables and the bar fills the room.” (Loc 716)
Hemingway’s is real and serves delicious hot chocolate. It’s in the tiny Piazza Piatellina not far from the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. Inside you’ll find books and photos of Papa Hemingway along the walls. It’s the perfect spot to settle in with a good book after a long walk through San Frediano. Daniel Day Lewis would stop in frequently when he apprenticed at Stefano Bemer to learn shoemaking.
What are your top three things for people to do while in Florence, perhaps some of the less-publicized attractions?
” ‘Ah, the Brancacci Chapel, stellina!’ He clasps his hands. ‘Some of the finest Renaissance frescoes in Florence! And so few tourists know it!’
‘Good. Keeps them away.’ “ (Loc 689)
Have a morning cappuccino and cornetto in one of many cafes inside Piazza Santa Spirito while the farmers and antiques merchants set up their stalls, and students gather for a morning espresso. Enter the Basilica di Santo Spirito to see one of Michelangelo’s earliest sculptures, a wooden crucifix whose quiet, simple beauty will make you pause.
Walk along Via Santo Spirito, in the San Frediano section of Oltrarno, greet the artisans as they open their shops, see the game changing Masaccio, Lippi, and Masolino frescoes inside the Brancacci Chapel, then continue on towards the San Frediano gate.
Bike to Santa Croce, stop into I Mosaici di Lastrucci to see the mosaicists use 15th century techniques and tools to shape stones into visual masterpieces. Stop at Vestri for a gelato and bike to Giardino della Gherardesca.
Can you suggest a not-to-be missed cafe or restaurant?
“If someone had told him that Florence would seem fresher and more contemporary than Grasse, he would have laughed. Give me the lobby of the JK Place right now. Or the aisles of La Strozzina, or… What was it that Michele was raving about? Ristorante Ora d’Aria.” (Loc. 3519)
Il Santino, the teeniest wine bar where you can sit along the wall and order up sliced salumi, cheeses, greens, and wines from local farms and wineries. There’s a wall of eclectic picture frames across the street where the art students paint, draw or hang samples of their work.
Café degli Artigiani, a locals hang out in Oltrarno. I had a delicious ‘pappa al pomodoro’ here, my ‘go-to’ dish whenever I’m in Florence. Fresh tomatoes, Tuscan olive oil and bread-what else does one need? Follow with an espresso. Also nice for an early evening glass of wine or aperitivo.
Vestri for true artisanal gelato and chocolates. The family members are so passionate about chocolate they purchased a plantation in Santo Domingo.
Via del Te’, a tea house, where you can experience tea time a la fiorentina and purchase loose teas named after places in Florence.
JK Place Firenze outdoor patio in Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
And somewhere for people on a budget a little less than Sofia and Elio’s?
“He clicks to a photo of Romina holding a chocolate and pistachio cone topped with panna at the door of Vestri near Santa Croce.
‘But see, Michele, Vestri stands out because they are true to their craft.’” (Loc. 4102)
The cafes and bars in the San Frediano section of Oltrarno, and the side streets leading away from the river. Around Piazza Santo Spirito, along Via Romana and Via dei Serragli and their connecting streets are numerous pizzerie, trattorie, and bars, where you will find mostly locals, or students. That means good prices.
In Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, just outside the Basilica is a tiny café bar that serves up delicious cornetti, salads, and sandwiches. There are a lot of American students and professors in Florence and you can eavesdrop on some fascinating scholarly conversations.
Around my reading spot, Piazza Torquato Tasso, are a number of truly local trattorie serving exceptional and well-priced food. Al Tranvai is one of the best. It’s so low-key and unpretentious you never want to leave.
A great way to stay on budget is to opt for the popular evening aperitivo hour vs. a full-fledged dinner. In most places like Colle Bereto outside Palazzo Strozzi you can order an aperitivo and then help yourself to a complimentary buffet of small plates; pizzas, salumi, salads, pastas, meat and fish dishes.
Stand at the bar vs. sitting at a table for your espresso. It cuts the price in half. Also, best not to have the espresso in a restaurant after your meal. You’ll pay more. Do like the Florentines, walk outside into a local bar/café and have it there, standing up.
Stay away from cafés, bars and gelaterie around popular tourist spots. And if you want true artisanal preservative-free gelato look for places that store the gelato under covered metal lids, like they do at Vestri. If you see gelato piled up high in un-natural colors – real pistachio is not lime green – walk away.
In general you will find better prices in Oltrarno, and better prices all around if you visit Florence before mid-May or after October 1st. It’s less crowded then and far more enjoyable. Try to avoid Florence in summer. It’s set inside a valley so it gets unbearably hot.
It’s also important to note that in the U.S. we pay up for what the Italians consider everyday staples; a good espresso, fresh produce, unprocessed real food, olive oil. A true espresso in Florence costs half of what a mediocre version costs in an American city.
Are there any other Florence locations that you would especially recommend readers visit?
“An American tourist once told him that he and his wife would spend their mornings at the Bargello and Palazzo Strozzi, and that in the afternoons his wife would continue to visit the other museums of Florentine art: Ferragamo, Gucci, Cavalli, Patrizia Pepe. The man had it right. Art is the thread. It’s the center of that artisan’s star at the entrance to his shop.” (Loc. 4230)
Museo Marino Marini
Alinari Museum of Photography (April 2015 – closed for renovations. Check the website for updates.)
Palazzo Strozzi – especially on Thursday nights when entrance is free.
The Bargello, an often-overlooked museum that houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna and Della Robbia
Villa Bardini and its surrounding gardens
The Four Seasons Firenze and the Giardino della Gherardesca
The Antico Setificio Fiorentino – Florence’s oldest silk mill where you can see the loom, created by Leonardo da Vinci, and still used today
La Scuola del Cuoio, Florence’s oldest leather school
A leather artisan at La Scuola del Cuoio – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
And what about a nice, quiet location for people to sit and read your novel?
“He rides past Santa Croce, across the Ponte all Grazie and pedals hard up hills until he arrives at Via de Bardi and the perfumery studio of Lorenzo Villoresi.” (Loc. 4142)
Piazza Torquato Tasso in San Frediano. There’s a lovely garden, a playground, and local trattorias and cafés. I can read or write there undisturbed, and take pleasure in seeing children of different ethnic origins playing soccer, expatriates on their bicycles, and families stroll arm in arm.
The stunning Bardini Gardens are quieter and less frequented than the Boboli. This part of Florence, across from the Ponte di San Niccolo’ and close to Villoresi’s studio, is an off-the-beaten track gem. The streets narrow and wind around interesting palazzi, leather and printmaking shops, tiny local bars, and you feel you are all alone in the city.
Like many cities in Italy, Florence is a mecca for tourists, but what would you most like people to take away from their own trip to Florence?
“Art is the thread. It’s the center of that artisan’s star at the entrance to his shop…Art is front and center in the heritage and daily life practices of every Florentine, from the way he buttons his blazer to the way she parks her motorino.
‘Even the way we set a table, Michele, is a work of art.’” (Loc. 4233)
I once heard the manager of Palazzo Strozzi say that one should never walk away from a work of art unchanged. Art, in all its forms, lifts us to a level of understanding more so than anything else. When we read newspapers or internet news feeds we get information. But we don’t acquire knowledge or develop compassion and understanding. That’s the space art fills. So it’s not surprising that Tuscany is considered by some to be the most open-minded and progressive province in Italy. Why would it not be? Its mind-set is grounded in a rich Renaissance tradition, in the arts and the humanities. So I hope the traveler takes back three things – the importance of art in shaping public policy, the urgency of visiting those artisan workshops before they disappear forever, and the humanizing relevance of living day-to-day life the way the Florentines do, as an art form unto itself. Pay attention to what’s around you. See, smell, taste, listen. No matter how busy you are pause to take in those sensory moments, the way Elio does in the novel. Listen more closely to the human stories unraveling around you.
I wrote The Artisan’s Star to celebrate my Italian heritage and to highlight the way art enriches and transforms our lives on so many levels, and always for the better. The Florentines, purveyors of the Renaissance, which extinguished the Dark Ages and changed the Western world, have always known this.
So, as you can see, Gabriella is more than passionate about Florence and she has provided an amazing list to take with you on your next visit.
That same passion exudes from the novel, and reading it forces you to run to your bucket list and put Florence right to the top (if it’s not there already!). I enjoyed the characters, as well as the idea that there is a need to grab hold of the present while valuing the past. If you are the kind of person who likes to find out about ancient arts and crafts through the novels you read, then you will love this book. Unfortunately, I have read a number of such novels lately (Italy particularly attracts them!) and I am a little jaded. I also felt that at times the novel became too preachy in its desire to instil in the reader the importance of supporting artisans and the traditional way of doing things. It was more than was needed.
But this is a novel which truly bring Florence, both physically and spiritually, alive. I would highly recommend it as something to read before you go or while you are there. And armed with this fantastic curated itinerary from Gabriella, you cannot possibly go wrong. I cannot wait to make sure my next trip to Florence is guided by the experiences of Elio, Sofia and Gabriella – and even though I’m someone who is not really into perfume, this novel has made the Museum of Scent a very tempting proposition.
P.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Artisan’s Star from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel. There you will also find a giveaway which could see you win a copy of the book, an Amazon voucher AND a perfume sample!
If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here! Look over to the right hand side to find those set in Florence.