After a long day in the Tuscan sun, I retreated to the shade and comparative calm of the Oltrarno, the south side of the River Arno. An immediate right after leaving the glittering windows and geranium bedecked balconies of the Ponte Vecchio is the narrow Borgo San Jacopo. As the noise of traffic and intense conversations abated, I found myself in front of the small church of San Jacopo spor’Arno. Built in the 10th and 11th Centuries, the tiny church once housed a small chapel designed by Brunelleschi, he of dome fame on the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore.
A slight breeze encouraged me further toward a small fountain at the corner of Borgo San Jacopo and Via Maggio. As in most Italian cities, the name of the street changed as I crossed to Via Santo Spirito. This narrow lane was named for yet another Brunelleschi designed masterpiece, the Church of Santo Spirito. In the shadow of the church’s northern wall, the entrance to one of the few artisan workshops in this historic part of the city, Ippogrifo, invited me to enter.
Gianni Raffaelli, the owner, warmly greeted me. Mutual friends, Janet Shapiro and Stefano Magazzini, who live in nearby Impruneta, had encouraged our meeting. He founded the workshop in 1976 along with another artist. Soon after his business partner left, he met Francesca Bellesi. She became his wife and has worked alongside him for over thirty years. Their three grown sons live in, or near, Florence.
He explained how engravings were made, from blank copper sheets to etched plate. He further demonstrated the use of wax, nitric acid (l’aqua forte) and the skills that experience had honed before he placed the engraved metal on an old press. Artisan hand made paper, created specifically for their work, took the ink perfectly.
Francesca’s skills as water-colorist made the etching come to life. She worked on a small table at the front of the gallery. A bright architect’s lamp created a circle of light above an engraving of pens. Each color and every stroke made the work live. She explained that, while there were traditional engravings available in the gallery, the ones most people were drawn to were those that shimmered with color.
What saddened Gianni, Francesca and many other artisans in Florence, they said, was that many galleries and workshops were closed. Astronomical rents, intensified cultural desire for immediate gratification and the waning interest of a new generation had affected the declining number of artists who dared take the risk.
Florence became the center of Renaissance art for good reason, not all related to the Medici family. Numerous patrons cultivated men, and women in the unique case of Artemisia Genetileschi, whose talents refined and redefined the ‘new’ western culture.
Please add an afternoon walk in the Oltrarno to your itinerary. Stop in at Stampe d’Arte L’Ippogrifo, and other workshops, to appreciate the dedication of artists whose labors continue to enrich the soul of the world’s most beloved city, Florence.
IF YOU GO:
Stampe d’Arte L’Ippogrifo
Via Santo Spirito, 5r – 50125
Tel: +39 055 213 255