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The Ubiquitous Window gilding of Florence, Italy

Giolelleria - gold leaf window in Florence

In the fall of 2010 my wife & I spent 3 weeks in Italy. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip was the week we spent in the heart of Florence. We had a cozy room in the historic Hotel Hermitage which is located on the Arno River right beside the Ponte Vecchio. Ancient history oozed from the architecture and art as well as every brick & cobblestone; yet one thing that caught my camera's eye was the ubiquitous gilding on the storefront windows. Almost everything was executed in a particular style – a version of what I've always known as "Chicago-style" – applying the gold leaf to the glass both as a matte finish (with varnish size) and a mirror finish (with water size). This can be executed fairly rapidly and increases visibility by combining the constancy of the matte gold with the flashy burnished gold which changes as one moves in front of the glass. 

Giotto (click)

Two-toned effect (click to enlarge)Matte centers & burnished outlines (click to enlarge)

Two-tone gilded script (click to enlarge)


It was a pleasure to see not only the classic designs but the craftsmanship that went into gilding the windows. Hand-executed fine outlines (1/16”) with subtle color choices – though not really visible in these photos – was common fare. 

The front door for Papini Leather became my favorite window sign in Florence. The store was located just a few doors from our hotel on the Arno river. I went inside & spent some time speaking with Mr. Papini. His grandfather started the business in 1896, and currently his daughter & granddaughter work at the store - 5 generations. He took me to the back to show me a case filled with well used leather-working tools and also showed me an old photograph of the front of the store where the sidewalk was littered with bombs left behind by the Nazi army after World War 2. If my memory serves me well, the image on the door is probably about 12" - 14" wide, so you can see how nicely the fine lines were executed. I love the logo. Simple yet stately; delicate with sinewed strength; a unified aesthetic with a strong base & contained within an arched tree leading your eye back to the head of the gazelle, who in-turn brings you back into the design. I believe he said the window sign was done in 1929. If that's the case, it is in marvelous condition. 

My wife grew accustomed to me trailing behind with my camera permanently stuck to my face. She eventually conferred on me the title “Pope Arrazzi”. Unfortunately, my camera was stolen during my return home but thankfully I had about 500 (out of about 1500) pictures saved to a memory card. Thus you're able to enjoy these treasures with me. Sometime in the future I'll post some more of the images I captured. In the meantime, take a look at a sampling of my own window gilding in the Decorative Glass Gallery.



Reader Comments (3)

With all the attention to depth INSIDE the letters - imitation vee-cut (Gioelleria) the asymmetric effect that Dave Smith calls "box cut" (Giotto, Gold&Silver) and the lovely rounding on the deer - doesn't it seem strange that there is no shading? The English just go to town with the OUTSIDE of a letter, and its shadow on the background. Is this "flatness" typical of Italian signs - painted and gilded? For sure it is not for lack of ability...

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeeLittlewood

Hi Lee. It's good to hear from you!

You make a good point and something I've never thought about.

Quite correct about there being no lack of ability - Florence, after all, is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance and the artistic influence emmanating from that area is monumental. It's interesting how everyplace has it's own vernacular with Italy, England and the US each being quite different in their approaches.

Some of the English glass decoration you refer to reminds me of the manuscript illumination so prominent in Italian texts, but taken to an ultimate level in the English glass work. In my limited 3-week visit to Italy, no where did I see anything like the intricate glass ornamentation found in England.

Anyway, I'm no expert and can only surmise. Could it have something to do with the fact that Italian art & architecture was brought to such a high level that this window gilding is, in a sense, taken for granted? A shop owner needs a storefront window done and the sign-writer assumes that the way to do that is with gold leaf. A quick and elegant method is developed to give visibility and longevity.

With the advent of computer-aided signs I did see some vinyl window lettering but that was a rarity. That is likely due to the types of areas I visited and I have no doubt that just as English pubs are dying on a daily basis, many of these Florentine gold leaf windows will gradually disappear devoid of equal replacement.

It's a unique privilege we have - to enjoy, preserve and continue this craft.

October 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

Nick Garret, is a traditional sign writer who lives in Italy and works in London ( http://londonsignwriter.wordpress.com/ ). He recently commented on my Facebook Page in appreciation of your observation about the difference between British and Italian gilding. Sublime simplicity seems to be their style. You could go to my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Seese-Studios/283771165055808 and track down his comment but more simply, I'll quote what he wrote here:

"Nice observations about the lack of exterior ornamentation in these iconic Florentine pieces.
I live in Italy and work in London so this contrast I also experience in virtually all areas of life be it fashion (Prada), furniture design (B&B), food or architecture (Piano - the Shard London) and communication.
The Italians believe in finding the simplest sublime form - my spin on this is that they see extra layers or shades and shadows us surplus to visual (emotional) need. It doesn't need it... the Italian cut is all about economy and beauty of bella figura - less is more if the less has true quality.
They also just plain don't want that level of spend.
But perhaps above all else it is tradition. This is the way it's done - it is the Florentine way, style and revealed unfussed moda.
Italian culture adores the sense of assertive pride it extends in the products it produces. Above all it is a combination of confidence and all good Italian things that have survived the knock on effect of the fascist period - it's futurist form and hard graphic typography can be see also in these pieces.
They love the English way and admire it. They see the English style as fanciful, beautiful and strange - but by definition of cultural difference and the desire to retain its pure Italian 'form' they do it their sharp distinctive way."

November 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

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