I have to admit, after living in Florence for 19 years, I don’t think I’ve ever stepped foot in a jewelry shop on the Ponte Vecchio; I’ve just never been interested in flashy gold jewelry. In fact, I usually try to avoid crossing over the Ponte Vecchio because of the streams of tourist crowds. Although, walking by the old locked-up shop doors and display windows late at night when the visitors have gone is a pleasant experience. And to think, that from 1442 to 1593, the bridge housed smelly butcher shops that would toss waste into the river. To clean up the area, they were ordered to vacate, and the shops were subsequently occupied by goldsmiths. Want to read more interesting info about the Ponte Vecchio?
For a change of pace on a recent field trip, I decided to bring my SACI Jewelry Design students to visit Fratelli Piccini, located in the middle of the bridge, almost right across from the monument to Benvenuto Cellini, a sculptor and goldsmith with an interesting past. Fratelli Piccini is still a family-run shop after four generations, founded by goldsmith artisan, Pirro Piccini, in 1903.
Fratelli Piccini has excelled and endured much throughout its history. Armando Piccini and the family business was awarded first prize at the Biennale di Venezia of 1936; survived the World War II bombs that spared only the Ponte Vecchio; won the International Diamond Award of 1958 in New York and 1959 in Buenos Aires; combated the flood of 1966 when the Arno river rose right into the shop; exhibited a retrospective in 1993 with the donation of 14 hand-carved stones to the city of Florence, today housed into the Tesoro dei Granduchi silver museum at the Pitti Palace; restored the famous painting La Carità by Antonio del Pollaiolo in 2003; and exhibited collectors’ watches in the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio in 2013.
With my group of 12 beginning to advanced jewelry students, we were kindly received by a gracious staff as we were buzzed through the security door. Our visit included a viewing of pieces from the vault in the ground-floor showroom. Up a small staircase, our tour continued to the second level where prized pieces from the family collection are displayed. But the gem of the visit was on the third floor, up an even more narrow stairway to a room with original design drawings on the walls, a private balcony over the Arno River, and the last active goldsmith workshop left on the Ponte Vecchio.
This is where we met Carlotta Gambineri, the jewelry designer and goldsmith working at the bench, creating new concepts and unique designs for Fratelli Piccini. Yes, there actually are real people making the creations by hand, although due to space constraints and fire codes, most of the Piccini collections are produced off-site. However, here sits Carlotta, and sometimes an apprentice, with a view looking out over the Arno and it’s waters constantly flowing right beneath. And, right above the low not-to-code ceiling, the famous yet secretive Vasari Corridor suspends, filled with artists’ portraits on the walls. So, you can imagine how much of a potential fire threat could be considered while soldering metals with the portable gas tank torch, with a mouth-powered air tube. Stocked full of tools, antique machinery, and molds from Piccini’s archive, some yellowed from cigarette smoke, the small workshop would never be accepted as a viable work space today, having been literally “grandfathered in,” but it sure is a unique place to visit, just watch your head! To read about Fratelli Piccini’s recent shop restoration with architectural sections and details, see pages 94-99 of AND Magazine (no. 30, 2016).
Continuing the family’s goldsmith tradition of craftsmanship and creativity is Pirro’s great-granddaughter and G.I.A. gemologist, Elisa Tozzi Piccini, now the CEO of Fratelli Piccini. Keeping contemporary and active in the community, as well as being very welcoming, Elisa leads the company collaborating with different foundations and associations on an regular basis. Just last year, the first edition of a young jewelers’ competition, the Armando Piccini – Heritage for the Future scholarship award was launched, named after Elisa’s uncle, supporting up-and-coming jewelry designers. And lastly, you can even arrange a private dining experience at the atelier and balcony over-looking the river.
With this field trip, my interest in Ponte Vecchio gold shines brighter, and hopes for the continuation of Florentine artisan tradition flow like the river beneath it.