I come to Florence every year in search of magic. There is so much of it in every direction I look - the centuries of art, the creations of the Medici, the architecture, the sounds of the bell towers, the smell of coffee, truffles and the taste of finochiona, the excited “Buongiorno” echoing from all sides in the morning… But the real magic for me is the one you run into behind the green shutters and wood carved doors, in shops, homes and studios where you find people full of stories and lives as rich as the frescoes outside. One such door for me was Santo Spirito #18, which leads you though an unassuming residential corridor, to a hidden green courtyard and into the magical workshop of Giuliano Ricchi and Gianni Bricci, artisans of metal.
The two entered the industry as teenagers, at age 14 and 15. Gianni couldn’t go to school after World War II so he started as an apprentice at a jewelry maker’s shop. Giuliano instead was always in the metal works. They share two floors which serve as their work area, design space, product warehouse, sales floor and customer service department. The two have worked together for over 50 years making pins, bracelets, hearts, boxes, jewelry, key chains, ornaments and more for Christian Dior, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomingdales, Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, and boutique shops in Paris, Rome, Milano and New York.
Every visitor gets a personal tour of the space and Giuliano’s demonstration of how the molding, melting and polishing works. The first floor room belongs to Gianni where using a fire torch, rough stones and an old sink, he slices stripes of metal and with surgical precision turns them into beautiful picture frames, candle holders, bottle holders or mirror boxes. The basement is where the heavy press machines, aged over 100 years are kept. Gianni still remembers the destructive flood of 1966 which flooded the basement to the top and it took eight of them three days to pump the water out, borrowing an electric cable from the now Gucci headquarters building. Out of these giant aged blocks of metal come out beautifully designed delicate flowers, engravings, etchings, fish, stars, dragon flies, shells, leaves, lady bugs, sunflowers, the Duomo, David, Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio. To the question “What happens when the machines break?”, Gianni just shrugged his shoulders and said “Well they get fixed”. Giuliano’s wife Maria, is the one who greets you when you enter and who sends you off with a beautifully wrapped package. Being their customer is more of being their special guest at home, they welcome each person in as a unique story and if you have the time you find yourself sitting for hours talking about life, love, politics and anything else.
I asked Giuliano and Gianni if they considered their work art or just a job. Giuliano humbly responded that it is a job, art is something else, while Gianni said it is more of a skill, but not art. (I disagree with both). My euphoria of being in this magical world subsided once the subject of continuity came up. Just like many other artisan shops in Florence, this studio is on a timer. There are no apprentices interested in learning this living art, and continue the tradition. Instead of getting their hands burned and cut, the young generation prefer to type neatly on a key board and work in sterile offices for a fixed paycheck. Sometimes I wish I was a man, and that day I wished it more than ever. I could see myself leaving behind the excel spreadsheets and spending my days learning and creating with these two.
I showed up with a long list of questions the day I went to shoot and interview Giuliano and Gianni. At the end I didn’t ask a single question from the list. It was enough to just sit and watch their art and lifetime unfold in front of me, as a surreal and even therapeutic experience. Spending a morning in their company, witnessing their craftsmanship in action, listening to their humbleness and dedication to their “job”/(art) was a slice of magic for me. I think about all the days I spent walking through the New York department stores where Giuliano and Gianni’s bracelets, boxes and candle holders waited to be bought by lunch breakers seeking retail relief from the stressful work day, or glitzy couples coming out of shiny cars and onto the red carpet, or old ladies who lunch at Bergdorf, or maybe the privileged tourists excited to put their credit cards to use. I can’t help but think that all the money in the world doesn’t buy the fulfillment of creating beauty for 50 years without a sense of superiority or a drop of vanity. Giuliano and Gianni have never been to New York nor to any of the other places their creations have made it. Their door is open to whoever walks through, same as their dedication to making something beautiful for whoever their client is. And it will remain like this, until the shop stays open.