We The Italians | Italian handcrafts: Tuscan tanning

Italian handcrafts: Tuscan tanning

Italian handcrafts: Tuscan tanning

  • WTI Magazine #156 Oct 22, 2022
  • 305

Tanning was one of the earliest human activities. The first evidence of leather being used for clothes, sandals or the creation of objects such as water containers and boats comes from the writings of the Sumerians. The art of tanning was present in antiquity amongst cultures such as the Babylonians, Hittites, Persians, Egyptians, Jews, Shiites, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Japanese and Chinese.In Europe, it was during the Hellenistic period that the first artisanal guilds were organised, becoming the “prototypes” of the current district-based associations.

Specialised production activities were developed, as in the case of Pergamon, where parchment was made with fine leather veils. In Italy, the Etruscan and Greek practices went on to provide the basis for the development of the art of tanning by the Romans, a period during which the sector was organised, like other trades, into genuine corporations, their existence being sanctioned by the Lex Julia in the seventh century B.C.

When Rome declined, leather goods activities only picked up strength again after 1000 A.D., thanks to the trade of the maritime republics. The tanning systems were also applied in various manners according to the type of production and the work places. The primitive smoking and drying procedures, and the use of systems with alum and lubrication with natural and mineral oils, progressed into vegetable tanning and the use of tannins. In Italy, the most profound development within the sector can be dated to around 1200 A.D., when an important innovation was introduced, namely the use of quicklime with a depilatory effect.

The first tanning locations were established in cities such as Pisa, Genoa e Venice, which had the advantage of having ports, and subsequently Bologna, Florence, Milan, Turin, Naples, Parma, Ferrara, Vercelli and Ivrea. Up until the first half of the thirteenth century, in these latter cities, the beccarii (butchers) and caligarii (leather workers) constituted the largest industrial categories. Since then, alternating periods passed until 1700, when the transition from craft to preindustrial activity took place.

It was the replacement of the traditional tanks with rotating drums in the second half of the nineteenth century, the result of technological innovations, that considerably reduced the time needed to create the final product. This, together with chrome tanning, is still by far the most widespread method, thanks to its characteristic simplicity, rapidity and economy, and it provided the basis for the development of industrial activities at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Tanning production also began in Tuscany in 1200, and it only spread to other centres of the Arno basin towards the seventeenth century. ‘Navicelli’, special sailboats, travelled up from the mouth of the Arno by being pulled by ropes in order to go against the current. Men and carts with oxen pulled the ropes along the streets of the towpaths created in the shelter of the embankments. The river could thus be sailed up to the centre of Florence, whereas towns such as Santa Croce were reached by canals, which were filled in during the nineteenth century.

Until that time, Santa Croce was an important market for the trade of tanned leather goods, but it was not yet a centre of production. Tanning activities only began here in 1852. The start of production in the Tuscan district can be connected to the movement of the Napoleonic armies, which travelled through and passed on the practices already being carried out in France, such as soaking the local leather in wooden half-barrels under tree bark.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, tanning became a seasonal activity for the inhabitants of the area, who alternated between agricultural and forest farming (which provided materials for tanning through the bark collectors) and the river and wheel-based trading of the so-called carters. Between 1850 and 1870 the creation and continuation of the tanning industry in this area can be attributed to the development of commercial traffic, the effects of the Third War of Independence, the demand for leather material, the availability cheap labour and the delocalisation of the biggest centres of Pisa and Florence towards the outskirts.

In the early twentieth century, the further development of the tanning industry, achieved thanks to the introduction of the internal combustion engine and the transition from bark to liquid tanning led to a substantial increase in the tanning companies situated in Tuscany. After the beginning of the First World War, the tanneries began to multiply rapidly, with 47 units formed in 1916.

The self-sufficiency policies of the fascist period that followed produced the opposite effects on the local socio-economic context. It proved difficult to supply the raw materials and tannin extracts, so there was a return to the rapid tanning of the old system using bark. The increase in production of the “typical” cowhide and sole leather, which avoided clashes with the strong foreign competition, allowed the tanning industry to survive.

A new harsh blow was struck in the post-war period in the form of the Wall Street crash, which led to the significant depreciation in cowhides and sole leather around 1932, though the industry was already in crisis because of the competition of rubber soles. The greatest damage was caused during the Second World War, when many tanneries were dismantled and subjected to thefts by the Germans.

In the period following the reconstruction until the early 1950s, the foundations were laid for a development model for an economic system centred on the tanning industry that would last for twenty years, among recessions and favourable circumstances. This became the starting point for the post-war economic boom.

The local area

The tannery district, also known as the leather area, is located between the provinces of Florence and Pisa, and includes the municipalities of Santa Croce sull’Arno, San Miniato, Santa Maria a Monte, Fucecchio, Castelfranco di Sotto and Montopoli. Almost one hundred thousand people live in the area, of which around ten thousand are employed in the tannery sector, which is subdivided into 900 small-medium enterprises. The land largely consists of a flat valley floor, with the exception of San Miniato.The main production involves leather, shoes and leather items.

The downstream activities are mostly formed of chemicals for tanning, workshops for machinery for tanneries and transport companies. Many companies are specialised in just one phase of tanning (outsourcers) or the manufacture of a single part of shoes (parts that are then assembled in the shoe factories). 98% of the national production of sole leather comes from here, as does 35% of the national production of leather and 30% of the national production of tannery machines.

By Camera di Commercio di Pisa with Unioncamere