Monday, December 22, 2014

Apprenticeships in Tuscany

Masters, Journeymen and Apprentices in the 21st century

Tuscany in general and Florence in particular still today preserve precious pockets of working artisans, master craftsmen in various branches of the Arti e Mestieri (arts and trades) of old, who are the heirs and embodiment of traditions dating back to the Middle Ages.

The major guilds of medieval Florence: judges, lawyers and notaries; merchants, finishers and dyers of imported cloth; bankers and money-changers; wool manufacturers and merchants; silk weavers and merchants; physicians and apothecaries; furriers and skinners

The middle guilds: butchers and graziers; shoemakers; blacksmiths; master stonemasons and woodcarvers; linen manufacturers, cloth dealers and tailors; the minor guilds: vintners; innkeepers; oil merchants and grocers; curriers and tanners; armourers and swordsmiths; saddlers and harness-makers; carpenters; locksmiths, toolmakers and braziers; bakers and millers

If you walk around the area of Santo Spirito, and many other parts of the historic centre of Florence, you will come across dark workshops where elderly artisans are carving, cutting, etching, planing, turning, joining, moulding, plastering, painting, stitching, hammering, weaving, sculpting, restoring, as well as displaying and selling.

As already covered time and again in this blog, the range of crafts for which Tuscany was, and still is, famous, is rich and varied: from those based on local resources such as clay (see here and here for terracotta artisans), to the  processing of largely imported goods such as wool (see here a discussion of the rise and decline of the wool industry in Florence) and everything in between.

Fortunately these crafts are greatly appreciated by foreigners and Italians alike. Florence's leather, paper, clothing and perfumery products are still much in demand while an International Handicrafts Trade Fair is held every year in the city. Apart from its traditional crafts, Florence has worldclass workshops specializing in fine silverwork, glass engraving, mosaics, enamelling and etching, to name a few.
Sadly, 'elderly' (see above) is the operative word. Few young men and women seem interested in carrying out an apprenticeship in the Arti e Mestieri as in the past. Perhaps the only popular trade these days is the food industry which seems to attract trainees; the title and role of chef holds a certain cachet, doubtless encouraged by the success of television 'celebrity chefs'. 
And there appear to be quite a few students and young practitioners of restauro, restoration, a much-needed skill, considering the entity and conditions of Italy's patrimony. Yet on the whole young people are not attracted by the crafts; they prefer media, marketing and 'communications' - or IT.

Several different factors contributed in past decades to young people's lack of interest in the old artisan trades. Learning a trade took years of hard work with little pay and there was no guarantee that once trained, a craftsman would necessarily earn a decent wage. In a country where, since the 1950s, white-collar jobs had the most appeal because they were clean, secure, steady and there was a chance of making a career by climbing the ladder of promotions,  working with one's hands was generally not considered an enviable (dare I say 'glamorous'?) occupation. 
Yet the tide may be turning, as it already has in other Western European cultures where the art, ability, knowledge and creativity of the craftsman has been rediscovered and promoted over recent decades. In these cases, magazines, documentaries, specialist markets and exhibitions extoll the work of the artisan, from barrel-making to pottery, from weaving to wicker basketry, and young craftspeople are riding a wave of creative professionalism and artistic recognition.
In a country with such high youth unemployment (generally the rate in Italy is around 13.2%, as of this post, but for the under-25s it is currently a shocking 43.3%), the job market is crying out for such innovation and renewal to generate work. Hence a recent initiative of the Tuscan Region seems particularly timely.

Young people under 30 will be given the opportunity to become apprentices thanks to a monthly stipend of 500 euros to be paid by the Region of Tuscany. It is unclear whether this will be integrated with additional funds paid by the businesses where they are training. In any case it is a good start. In the Middle Ages apprentices typically received bed and board but no stipend until they graduated to journeymen. It was the price they paid for learning the secrets of the trade or the Knowledge. 
A propos of The Knowledge in an analogous context, a recent article in the NYT describes the extraordinary apprenticeship still undertaken today by London 'cabbies': this is a fascinating example of the dedication, hard work and investment required to reach a certain goal.
Will today's young Italians be up for it? At least they will be partially sponsored this time around. 

Effetti del Buon Governo, Effects of Good Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Palazzo Pubblico Siena, 1337-40

Below is a translation of an article in La Stampa December 13, 2014 outlining the project:

"Giving value to the ancient crafts and arts and opportunities to the young. The formula originates in the Region of Tuscany which is trying to revitalize local craftsmanship, one of the wealthiest sectors in the world for its centuries-old traditions but which is gradually disappearing at the same time.

"From now on young engravers, high-class tailors, masters of glass and producers of local foods, to give a few examples, will receive grants for a new start. The Regional commission has in fact established a 500 euro monthly contribution for young people who intend to carry out apprenticeships in craft workshops. The grant will be paid by the Region of Tuscany. 

"The businesses wishing to activate the grants will have to belong to the order of craftsmen...and have 15 workers employed full-time. The apprentices must be between 18 and 30 years of age.

"This measure will be launched at the beginning of 2015 thanks to an agreement signed by the Region and craft associations....It should help to create incentives for the work of artisans which risks disappearing: many of those working in this sector today are getting on in years and techniques often require years of apprenticeship; it is difficult to pass on the know-how.

"The average age of today's craftsmen is rather old because of the difficult passage of knowledge from generation to generation, and thus it is imperative to train young and creative people to hand over this important sector to them ..."


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