Look Back - Exiled in Florence

April 10, 2014

Leather, leather and more leather. That's what you will find on display in all forms in Florence.


I am stuck in Florence, Italy. Some would say I have arrived, but to me I feel like I have been exiled here. It's not that this place devoid of historical and cultural significance. It is. It was the seat of the Medici clan. It’s home to the Uffizi museum. Michelangelo's most famous sculpture of a naked boy, David is here. And the marble-encrusted cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, completed in 1436 after 140 years of construction, still stands. But now Florence is also a place lousy with tourists and chain department stores offering what amounts to expensive crap you could buy in any other European city. This makes me feel like a grumpy cat. I contemplate why anyone would want to spend their money to be in this den of commercialism dressed up as historical and cultured. “Aha!” I exclaim to myself. “It's like Boston: people like the idea of it, but in actuality it just sort of blows.” It’s one of those cities with a rich history, but lacking in true, modern-day character when compared to New York, Rome or London. Florence just doesn't impose a feeling that people really live there. Rather, I get the impression, they’re moving through it.


I am roused from this contemplation by the fact that I am wandering across the ever-popular and crowded Ponte Vecchio bridge. This is the famous span where shops sell all manner of jewelry and other forms of bling. This is the bridge so striking and iconic that the master of Evil and tragic facial hair, Adolf Hitler, decided not to bomb it.



I am trying to find a cobbler. I am excited to be shooting someone instead of something. I have been in Italy for a week and have only been snapping pictures of places, rather than telling stories of people. It's what my client wants, pictures of notable places, culture and food. "Make sure people are not identifiable," myself and my fellow photographers have been told. Womp, womp, I say.


I manage to extricate myself from the throngs pouring off the Ponte Vecchio and make my way down a less-traveled side street. I find my target, a small shop with large glass windows and a work bench facing the street. "Mannina" is emblazoned on the door in gold lettering in a classical sort of font that harkens back to the 1940's. I exhale deeply and wonder if these people are in fact expecting me, or, if I am walking into another "appointment" arranged by my client where no one has any idea who I am or what I am talking about. This wouldn’t concern me if I spoke Italian, but I am terrible at learning languages, and now find myself trying to recall the Italian word for “shit.” I can't think of it and conjure up the only profanity I do know, "stronzo." Yes, Italian for “asshole.” This seems fitting for what I feel like at the moment.


I open the door and find a few people hard at work on making shoes. There is a middle-aged Asian woman and a classically Italian old man. This is Francisco Mannina, the fabled cobbler who has been making shoes here for almost 50 years. I introduce myself and explain that I am here on behalf of my client and that I was hoping to make some photographs. He listens, giving me an understanding look, smiles and nods thoughtfully, and then replies in Italian. I stammer that I know very little Italian, in Italian, an exercise in futility itself. He disappears and comes back with the Asian woman I had seen moments before. I explain myself and she informs me that Mr. Mannina doesn't speak English, but his young assistant does, and will act as translator as soon as he returns. A small victory for me, and therefore America, I think to myself.


A man in his twenties bustles in through the front door. He moves quickly to a workstation to grab his apron and is informed by Mr. Mannina why there is a strange and somber looking man-child in the corner armed with a camera. I smile like an idiot while this exchange goes down, trying to look friendly, but not too friendly. The assistant does in fact speak English! I go through the same song and dance once more about who and am and why I am here. He relays this back to Mr. Mannina, who agrees to let me shoot while he works.


Shooting craftsmen and artists is especially fun because it's very easy to show up and immediately fall into picture-making. They have things to do, you have things to photograph, and for me it's always a lot of fun to observe people as they ply their own trade.


Cobblers that will make one a a kind shoes from scratch can be found in tiny shops across Florence, crafting a pair of shoes just for you.

Mannina was indeed deserving of his mythical status as a man who can make a fine shoes for both men and the ladies. Each pair is built from the sole up, so no two pairs are truly alike. These shoes are made mostly with hand tools. The only electric-powered tool I saw Mannina use was a shoe buffer. I spent just a few hours watching Mannina and his assistant create shoes from raw materials, and I became transfixed. Just a short hundred years ago shoes were made by craftsmen just like this, but on a much larger scale. Our shoes were made with more elemental and tangible materials, crafted by skilled hands. The process seems so basic. Take this cow, tan its hide, use that skin to make these shoes.


As the day nears its end, the assistant tells me: "Mr. Mannina wants to know if you would like to get caffè with him before they begin work tomorrow morning." I was surprised and flattered that this man would want me to come have coffee with him, so I accepted and go on my merry way.



I enter a perfumery and am confronted by opulence and an oppressive smell of hundreds of different soaps and perfumes. It stings the nostrils and makes my eyes water. I am grateful that people are no longer allowed to smoke indoors and in restaurants in Italy, because I am fearful a loose spark or open flame will cause the place to explode like a car crash in a Michael Bay film.


I find the manager, Andre, and during the course of our odoriferous chit-chat, notice one unsettling detail: He smells very strongly of B.O. Either that or he has just crushed some amazing Mexican food. I decide my initial assessment of body odor is more plausible.


After a formal tour by my smelly companion, he says I am welcome to shoot my heart out. I begin to work an old room with patterned marble floors, walls with amazing stucco work and a high ceiling adorned with old frescoes illuminated by a crystal chandelier. Around the room are various stations, behind which tall Amazonian women loom, ready to show off fancy scented oils or soap. One woman is manning an impressive circular podium lined with large bottles of colorful, back-lit perfumes. As a photographer, I am naturally drawn to shiny things, so I don't really have a choice. I move closer and begin shooting this strange shrine to perfume with its solemn caretaker.


After working with a few customers, the lady of the many scents beckoned to me from behind her perfume-laden fortification. I assume she will ask me to stop photographing, thinking that I was a creepy and lonely man who roams perfumeries. Instead she asks me who I am working for. I explain that I am working for a travel guide and she seems hopeful. She is curious: do I know anyone in fashion in New York City? Could I make sure she was put into the publication? She seems to think she has discovered some well-connected photographer that will help her break into the modeling career she has always dreamed of. I consider knocking a bottle of perfume to the ground in order to create a distraction and make my escape.



Apparently my chat with Andre went well, for when I make to leave, he gives me a bar of soap made right there at ye olde perfumery. This is a thoughtful gift, but I find myself thinking, "does he think I smell worse than him?" I take my bar of soap and bid Andre and the perfume lady farewell.


That evening after some wining and dining with my associates we return to our rented apartment. We must prepare for the much-dreaded night shoot. It’s not that I don’t like shooting at night, but when you have been shooting all day and running around the city like your hair is on fire the last thing you want to do was carry around a tripod. The upside is that in Italy it’s totally kosher to drink in public areas. This means you can walk into any corner pizzeria, buy a beer the size of your head, and then carry it around and imbibe as you prowl the streets with a tripod slung over your shoulder.


Florence at night is a much quieter and more lonely place. The rush of people and din of their talk is replaced by a dark and ominous calm that can make one feel uneasy after being up to your armpits in rolling waves of humanity.


We make our way across town, shooting the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, lit up and reflecting its visage across the river below. We travel down the main promenade, via dei Calzaiuoli, where shops are closed and caged up. Mannequins imprisoned behind their protective gates watch our procession with lifeless gazes as we march towards the Duomo Cathedral, our final destination of the evening.


The cathedral is the epicenter of Florence, and many of its main arteries flow towards this massive structure. It is a mammoth site to behold, and at night appears on a much more personal scale. The space around the cathedral is no longer crowded with passersby and tour groups, crashing against its exterior in an ebb and flow. There are only a few people who pass under its shadow while couples linger in its proximity. We work to set up shots that incorporate the whole building in a manner that conveys its massive size.



As we work, I notice an impending change in the weather. Like storm clouds signifying the deluge, umbrella merchants began to materialize. These men are migrant workers, living a world away from their own home countries. They come to Europe with aspirations of better wages and steady work. Many of them end up on the streets selling toys, knock-off purses and utilitarian objects like umbrellas and mini fans in highly touristed areas. I like to imagine that these umbrella merchants have some sort of union. Their leader, who has an old knee injury, feels a storm brewing when his joint begins to ache. He notifies his men, who fan out across the city and provide cover for those in need of this most useful of devices.


As predicted by the presence of these umbrella merchants the rain begins to fall, and people begin to approach, barter and buy. I decide I am in need of an umbrella and approach one man. He is running dangerously low on product. I ask “how much” and he tells me something that seems a little steep, I offer him a much lower number and he refuses. He offers a higher one and I refuse. It appears we are at an impasse. The main issue is I don’t have many euros on me. I express this by pulling out the euro coins I have, showing him my small sum. He seems to understand and decides that my seven euros will suffice. He takes my coins, I thank him and deploy my defense against the rain.


As we pack up to leave I notice my umbrella salesman has managed to sell all of his umbrellas and is now umbrella-less. He walks into the dark downfall of the rain and, as he fades away, takes off his stylish leather jacket and props it above his head for cover. Here is a man in the shadows of opulence using his leather jacket to shield himself from the storm, not saving an umbrella for himself when there is money to be made. “It’s a living.” I think to myself.

Florence: where fashion and opulence are always at the forefront. A Mercedes Benz touring race makes a pit stop in front of the Pitti Pallace where onlookers ogle super cars and rare vintage cars cruising by on a tour through Europe.

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