Discover the design secrets of Italian craftsmen
From Michelangelo to Armani Italian design is renowned, a mix of aesthetics and cutting-edge style that has made the country's products — from cars to clothes and furniture — so desirable. But while Britain is enjoying a design renaissance, it is a depressingly different story for Italian craftsmen.
"Italy has fewer and fewer artisans," says Lucio Duchi, a master carpenter whose commissions include the coronation chair for Pope Benedict. "Skills handed down from generation to generation are dying out as people choose other careers," he adds. "When I studied in Tuscany in 1986 there were 76 students with me. Today the same school has only five."
With the absence of apprenticeships and state funding for craft colleges, patrons — the traditional way of funding painters and artisans in Italy — have never been more needed.
The Bianconi brothers, who own the Palazzo Seneca Hotel in Norcia, Umbria, are a rarity. They are visionary patrons keen to showcase the work of Italian craftsmen, including to British home buyers in love with Italy.
They are no more expensive than a local furniture shop but offer an unrivalled way to buy interiors products, to become part of a country, embrace its culture and make friends with the community in which you live.
When Federico and Vincenzo Bianconi were looking for furniture and artwork for their exquisite five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel (palazzoseneca.com; +39 0743 817434), they called on craftsmen such as Duchi.
"It is thrilling to work with talented people who take such pride in their skills," says Federico, whose family have been in Norcia, home of the finest salamis and cured meats in Italy, for generations."More than 90 per cent of Palazzo Seneca's furnishings are made by artisans from central Italy. The hotel acts as a showcase for their work."
So Federico sourced mattresses from Veneto, soft red leather-topped desks from the Marche region and enveloping sofas from Tuscany. But it is the Umbrian craftsmen he is most proud of, promoting them to guests at every chance and organising trips to their workrooms.
A master carpenter
Lucio Duchi's company - Mobili Duchi - in Città di Castello produces exquisite cabinetry for churches, homes and hotels. For Palazzo Seneca it has made beds, inlaid wooden tables and an entire panelled library from antique chestnut wood. The staff of 10 source antiques and create new furniture from old wood in traditional Italian style. Prices start at £400 for a dining table.
Past commissions include work on a reproduction in San Francisco of St Francis Church in Assisi, while they are currently creating libraries for private clients in St Petersburg and Rome. And it looks like they have God on their side. "Luckily we have the Church as a client which seems unaffected by the financial crisis," says Lucio.
* Mobili Duchi (mobiliduchi.it).
One of the most striking paintings at Palazzo Seneca is Bronzino's portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi, a striking study of an aristocrat in a rich red dress. The original 1545 painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The studio Bottega Artigiana Tifernate in Città di Castello made the copy.
The studio reproduces paintings and frescoes using a patented "pictography" method mixing materials used by old masters such as Raphael and Giotto with modern techniques, and using the finest oils, gold leaf and lapis lazuli.
"Almost all our work is done by hand," says owner Stefano Lazzari. "A big painting can take two months from preparing the canvas to applying three or four layers of paint."
Works cost from £40 for small icons and customers include the National Gallery, the Vatican and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Lazzari is working on the Pompeii exhibition opening this spring at the British Museum.
* Bottega Artigiana Tifernate (pictografia.it).
For wrought iron
Traditional techniques are also on display at L'Officina, the little factory making many mirrors, lanterns and iron four-posters for Palazzo Seneca. Luca Peppoloni is the third-generation owner of the firm based in Spello with a workforce of two who skilfully hammer and twist metal in front of furnaces into charming lamps, chairs, screens, beds and tables painted in dancing glossy colours, or contemporary black.
"We mix modern design and traditional craftsmanship, just like my grandfather did," says Luca. "I grew up watching men hammering metal and that is still how we do it today, without any welding."
Luca has seen demand fall since the recession and has had to focus increasingly on top-end customers. "It is the only way," he adds. "Fewer people do this artisan work today because it is difficult and often replaced by mass-produced goods from China."
L'Officina charges £1,200 for a double bed, £120 for a dining chair and £245 for a 4ft by 1ft console table, perfect for a narrow London townhouse.
* L'Officina (lofficina.net).
Buying in Norcia
Property prices in Umbria peak in the north-west on the Tuscan border, but Norcia, in the south-east, is not on the radar for most international buyers. The delightful town in the beautiful Nera Valley was hard to reach, until a tunnel linking it to Spoleto was opened, and it is now just two hours from Rome.
Small wood-fronted shops devoted to sausages, salami and ham line the streets. The town has suffered three big earthquakes — in 1763, 1859 and 1979 — but the 14th-century walls are intact. Unrestored property starts at £27,000 outside the city walls and at £225,000 for a two-bedroom restored flat inside, through Amici Immobiliare.
Cluttons Italy has 12 one- and two-bedroom restored apartments in a villa in the Mount Sibillini National Park, half a mile from Norcia, from £90,000 with annual maintenance of £165.
* Travel firm Mr & Mrs Smith (0845 034 0700; mrandmrssmith.com) offers stays at Palazzo Seneca (palazzoseneca.com) from £120 per room per night B&B.
* BA (ba.com) has return flights to Rome from £100.
* Cluttons Italy: cluttonsitaly.com
* Amici Immobiliare: amiciimobiliare.it