How to Find Italy’s Authentic Handmade Treasures: Interview with Art Historian Laura Morelli

Forcola at Rialto (c) Paolifema CC via Flickr

Forcola at Rialto (c) Paolifema CC via Flickr

Art historian Laura Morelli is on a mission to help travelers to Italy in search of genuine handicrafts discern treasure from trash. Her “Authentic Arts” travel book series was devised with the idea of guiding visitors to the discovery of local traditions and artists for a real immersion into the Italian longstanding culture of craftsmanship. 
 
The inspiration for the books came from an episode in Laura’s life that may sound trifle, but which, in truth, is quite significant. In 1999, she moved with her family to a small village near Monza in northern Italy. There, she – unwillingly - waited for weeks for a family of artisan carpenters she had hired to show up at her new home to build storage cabinets, as piles of books and clothes lay scattered around the house.  

Art historian Laura Morelli

“When they finally arrived, my frustration turned to wonder,” Laura recalls. “This grandfather, father, and son team transformed the courtyard outside my house into an artisan workshop.  From a van full of raw lumber, they crafted a masterpiece. But if that wasn’t impressive enough, the thing that intrigued me was how this three-man team worked together. The son, in his twenties, was the workhorse.  The father acted as a foreman, directing the workflow.  The grandfather, whom at first I perceived was doing nothing, was actually quality control. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was witnessing what has transpired for many centuries among Italian craftspeople—the combination of oral history and practical, hands-on skill building.  I was, literally, watching the torch of tradition be passed from generation to generation.”
 
It must have been worth the wait. What happened then?
After my experience with the artisan carpenters, I wanted to know everything. It was the beginning of a journey that would become an obsession for the next three years. I traveled all over Italy, from the Alps to the islands, talking with contemporary artisans who still practice centuries-old traditions like Murano glass, Florentine leather, Sicilian ceramics, Roman goldsmithing, and of course, Venetian gondolas. 

Squero San Trovaso (c) zacke82 CC via Flickr

Speaking of gondolas, you are also the author of the award-winning historical fiction “The Gondola Maker”. Why did you pick a gondola maker as the subject of your novel? 
Perhaps no other artisanal tradition of Italy is so synonymous with its place of origin as the Venetian gondola. The history and making of the boat comes from the very specific contest of Venice itself. The story developed while I was working on “Made in Italy”. The living artisans I interviewed, whether makers of gondolas, carnival masks, or Murano glass, told me how important it was to them to pass on the torch of tradition to the next generation. I began to wonder what would happen if the successor were not able… or willing. The characters of the gondola maker and his son began to take shape, and I felt compelled to bring that story to life.
 
What tips and recommendations would you give to travelers looking to buy authentic, Made in Italy souvenirs, such as the popular Venetian carnival masks and Florentine leather?  
Venetian carnival masks and Florentine leather are some of the most iconic made-in-Italy souvenirs, and also some of the most tricky to buy. Buy your Venetian mask directly from the maker; many of those you see hanging in the street stalls of Venice have been imported from overseas and passed off as authentic. The added bonus of getting to know the maker of a carnival mask, for example, and perhaps even watch it being made, is invaluable. You’ll go home not only with an authentic souvenir, but a meaningful experience that lasts a lifetime. 
For Florentine leather, things are rarely what they seem on the surface. You can find a reasonably priced bag on the street whose quality equals an item in a high-end boutique. Other times, the same merchant may sell the same bag in a pelletteria and also in a market stall, at two very different prices. Some pieces are made on an industrial scale, others on an artisanal one, and sometimes the same merchant may sell both. When it comes to judging leather quality, try to forget whether you’re in a bustling street market or a high-end boutique. Instead, let the buying environment fade out of focus, and judge quality based only on your senses: aroma, suppleness, color, stitching, and other details. 
Buy directly from the maker whenever possible. It’s your best guarantee that you will go home with a high-quality, handmade item at the best possible price. 

Pharmacy jars from Caltagirone (c) Laura Morelli

Have you found that all Italian regions have thriving artisanal traditions? 
Every region has strong artisanal traditions. Some are just more famous than others! Some of the least well known are also the most fun, like the accordions of Le Marche or the fischietti (ceramic whistles) of Tuscany. 
 
In a world where everything is mass-produced, what challenges do you foresee for the survival of Italian craftsmanship?  
I think that the fact that there is so much mass production makes handmade, traditional items even more valuable and special. In my experience, the market for these handmade works is stronger than ever. Tourism can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can cheapen quality and of course imported knockoffs are a big problem. On the other hand, the tourism economy continues to keep many makers in business. Ultimately, tourism may be responsible for the survival of certain traditions that might otherwise have died. 
 
What are your favorite things to bring home from Italy and why?  
Like many people, some of the artisanal traditions I love the best are those that you can consume—Parmigiano Reggiano, traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, grappa… I also own several presepi (nativity figures) from Naples and a beautiful pair of antique ceramic pharmacy jars from Caltagirone in Sicily that I treasure. I am not a big shopper by nature, but it is an occupational hazard!
 
For more information, visit Laura Morelli's website, www.lauramorelli.com.

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