Imagine a giant fortress with walls as imposing and thick as those surrounding Lucca. Imagine that within these walls you are not going to meet an army or be surrounded by cannons. Imagine instead that you are entering one of the largest craft and food fairs in the world with every type of item from furniture to clothes, from paintings to jewellery, from marquetry to metalwork, from carpets to eco-cycles..
That is Florence’s international craft fair which has been going strong since 1931 and is now bigger and better than it ever has been – a very hopeful sign for Italy!
We’d first visited the fair some years ago and it actually wasn’t on our list of things to do on our present visit to Florence. In the end, we spent practically the whole day yesterday at the fair. There was so much to see and do.
Crafts seem to conjure up a world of cottage industries mainly consisting of pottery, woodworkers and embroidery.
There was a lot more than that of course. Among my favourite items were:
- Trompe-d’oeil paintings that could convert your home into a little love boudoir or hunting lodge.
- The Iranian section which for the first time revealed a country I’d last visited too many years ago to remember but which really made me want to revisit it with its fabulous wall hangings and artistry.
- The Tibetan section and a great Tibetan restaurant where I was able to dig into long-missed momo dumplings and other delicacies.
- Other countries were well represented, especially India and China (of course), but there were also spaces for South America (including Haiti and Bolivia), Africa (including Mozambique and the Sudan) and even Vietnam. It was odd that there was nothing represented from the UK
- The recycling centre where incredible home items were produced using everything from discarded garden rakes to colanders.
- The amazing food section with all regions of Italy represented from Sud-Tirol to Sicily (a particularly powerful 70 per cent proof liqueur called Fuoco d’Etna took my fancy – and breath away – here) including all the comuni of Garfagnana displaying woollen ware in particular, (but not Mediavalle…) and lots more – French charcuterie, German beer, Spanish Paella (and flamenco), Croatia, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Russia, Hungary and Turley and Austria were there too. Again there was nothing represented from the UK, which was a pity, as I could have done with a piece of blue stilton or, at least some crumpets. But the cakes on show surpassed all description (and taste if we could have eaten them!). In the ancient gunpowder vaults the COOP had set up a fantastic branch with a varied wine cellar.
- Great technology including pantographs and 3-d printing
There were also extra features for the 2014 exhibition including the opening of new exhibition areas.
- There was area dedicated to beauty and well-being in which I tried out various types of massage including radio-wave ones and which pleased my wife with innovative proposals for cosmetics, wellness, hairdressing and natural medicine. Several of Italy’s health spas were well-represented here – Chianciano, for example, but nothing from Bagni di Lucca, which was a missed chance.
- There was a new garden art section with some very original outdoor living solutions incuding some very elegant furniture.
- Products, services and innovative solutions for the home abounded until my head really began “swimming”. There seemed so many new ways to make one’s life more interesting, more colourful and just more pleasant and so many of these were at, what for us, quite affordable prices.
- There was also a section devoted to masterpieces from Florence’s museums.
As someone not naturally attracted to fashion and design I was mesmerized by what I saw and suddenly realised I’d spent over six hours in this marvellous exhibition space. For it is a unique exhibition space placed in a historical setting of the Fortezza da Basso which is an ancient fortress dating back to the sixteenth century and with defensive details designed by Michelangelo himself.
Originally called Alexandria Castle the fortress was built by Pier Francesco da Viterbo and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger between 1534 and 1537 by order of Alessandro de ‘ Medici governor of Florence who didn’t want a repetition of the 1527 Siege of Florence by Emperor Charles V forces.
The giant fortress is pentagonal in shape and stands isolated in its own green space, again a bit like Lucca’s walls. Clearly, both were built around the same time with the idea of defence against the military revolution of firepower which had changed defensive tactics completely and required lower walls with bulwarks and sloping sides.
Until 1967 the Fortezza was used as a military barracks but since then it has developed into a centre for the best of Florentine trade fairs and exhibitions. It also contains two of Florence’s finest examples of modern architecture within its walls: the Spadolini and Cavaniglia pavilions which sit very comfortably among the old courtyards and palazzine surviving in remarkably good condition.
So I was blessed yesterday, not just with a great exhibition, but with a great insight into what must have been one of Florence’s best kept secrets – the largest Medici fortress in the whole grand duchy – so long excluded from the public’s prying eyes but now one of this city’s (and country’s) leading showcases for its products and ideas.
I leave you with a further selection of pics from another unmissable event in Tuscany which continues until May 1st:
One caveat: the list of events handed out to visitors only has a remote connection to reality. Do check up on the times and places of events you really want to see…..
PS Do also visit Debra Kolkka’s fascinating take on the fair at http://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/artisan-expo-in-florence/ . I’m sorry that I hadn’t realised before doing my account that Debra had already done a brilliant post on this trade fair!