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Wood art in Florence: a 7 centuries long history (part 2)

A dip in the micro-universe of an ancient corporation. Thousand figures, a single passion: to consecrate the wood as a work of art.

The earliest records of the guild of carpenters registered at the State Archives of Florence date back to 1290. This was the historical period in which decorative art was more or less spread all over the country; wooden artifacts were embellished with polishing, painted ornaments, inlays of metal and semiprecious stones and with precious applications in gold, bronze and silver.

The Florentine guild of carpenters included various personalities and functions: there were manufacturers and traders of chests, crates and trunks, people who were responsible for the production and and marketing of barrels, tubs and other containers for wine, and finally the timber transporters. In 1358, the Masters of Stone and Wood who worked in the construction industry joined this already articulated group. But the list of wood artisans is not finished yet: there were in fact the turners who were responsible for the most optimal drying of the wood.

Thanks to the expansion and the strengthening of the corporations, new professional specialists emerged alongside the traditional figure of the carpenter: furniture makers, carvers, inlay workers, cabinetmakers, chair menders, and violin makers asserted themselves in the Tuscan art scene, working on commission for the noble families and for the powerful ecclesiastical institutions.

Marquetry was the most used technique in manufacturing wooden statues, doors, sacristy cabinets, lecterns, and ceilings which were to be allocated in churches and monasteries, but also in country estates of wealthy families. The technique consists in putting together polychrome wooden tiles in order to reproduce, like in a mosaic, a predetermined design.

With the spreading of the Gothic style in Italy a deeper sensitivity was established in interior architecture and in furniture. So it happened that, during Renaissance, carving acquired strong artistic and architectural connotations and Florence became the reference point in whole Europe regarding woodworking.

Also the framers and the restorers played an equally important role that remained unchanged over time and they are still ranked among the best and most creative designers of artistic frames in the world. The medieval framers were characterized by a certain bent for adorning altarpieces and triptychs with stucco and gilding. But thanks to the innate inclination of Florence to simple and elegant things these craftsmen, from 1400 on, took possession of a classic, sober and never excessive style, which even the Baroque style could not affect.

Let’s pay special attention to those who lived in close contact with carvers: cabinet makers and marquetry masters.

The cabinetmakers were extraordinary artisans, specialized in working with hardwood like ebony and walnut or olive root. They got the primacy for the production of luxury furniture, very expensive and only available for the happy few.

What are the distinctive features of Florentine carpenters? The fact that they are or were real artists. Just to mention a few names: Filippo Brunelleschi, the sculptor of the magnificent crucifix of Santa Maria Novella, Donatello, Ammannati and Benedetto da Maiano, the architect of Palazzo Strozzi. Famous people, immortalized due to other sensational work, but who were just as great in the field of wood working.

Le botteghe dei legnaiuoli erano distribuite in varie zone della città: via dei Servi, via Tornabuoni, e i dintorni della chiesa di Santa Trinita.  Ma non mancavano nella zona del mercato vecchio, in via de’ Medici, in via delle Brache e a Santa Maria Novella. Un cittadino del ‘400 che si fosse incamminato verso il Duomo, si sarebbe imbattuto nei laboratori dei cofanai.

The workshops of the carpenters were spread through various areas of the city: Via dei Servi, Via Tornabuoni, and in the neighborhood of the church of Santa Trinita. But there were also in the old market area, in Via de ‘Medici, Via delle Brache and in the district of Santa Maria Novella. A citizen from the 15th century would have come across workshops of chest makers when he would be walking towards the cathedral.

There were a lot of notions to be acquired in order to become an artist in woodwork: a detailed knowledge of various types of timber, its behavior over time and its reactions to atmospheric changes, the choice of the right species, how to saw the wood and under which lunar phase and also the seasoning. The artisans were very precise and paid attention to all of the details in every stage of the work, including the phases prior to the carving itself: the exposure of the plant to sunlight, the proximity to water courses and the gradient of the slope on which the plant had grown were factors with the same importance as the used tools and techniques for sculpting.

All this knowledge and tradition did not disappear from the Florentine territory. From San Casciano Val di Pesa to Signa, from Certaldo to the hills of Pontassieve until the historic center of the Tuscan capital, there is a whole swarm of workshops and small family firms who maintain certain values, passions and memories and link them to new ideas and creative expressions. And so the art of carving lives on in restoration, in the frames and the gilded mirrors of  Omero Soffici  and modernizes itself in modern wooden furnishings of Kosedekor. The refined forms of string instruments of the violin makers of the 16th century harmonize with the hand made guitars and basses of  Marco Faggioli.

So here we have the art of wood as the connecting element of experience and influences to track down to objects maintaining the same quality and beauty, to be detected by an attentive look, year after year, in the concentric circles of the oldest tree: tradition.