The Florentine Art of Bookbinding

Interview with Maria Giannini, representing the sixth generation of artisans from the famous Florentine family of bookbinders.

​by Valia Barriello

What happens when the history of a family is intertwined with the evolution of an artistic and antique craft? This is the story of the Giannini artisans from Florence, bookbinders since 1856, who have passed down from generation to generation the secrets of bookbinding. The Giannini family has created the new Florentine style of artistic bookbinding and marbled papers through a process of continuous innovation.

Your work has helped define a unique style that dates back to the nineteenth century. What is your artistic contribution and what kind of innovations were introduced?

We are credited mostly for the creation of the "Florentine style”, reproduced not only on binds but also of various objects. This was the real innovation - printing of the decorative elements on wrapping paper which was also used to line objects. Until 1940 this process was done using mainly leather or parchment.

This is a craft handed down from generation to generation. But how does one keep up with the times?

Each generation has had to deal with different historical periods, which affected production and realization of bindings and objects. In the nineteenth century the main clients were the English and Russian aristocracy. After World War II the Americans arrived. High-quality materials such as leather and parchment had become very expensive, thus the need to change, and increase production of hand decorated paper (marbled paper).After the ‘70s there was the boom. Keeping up with the times means to be original and quick to change course, but these two elements are not synonymous with traditional craftsmanship.The fact of having a small production facilitates the renewal.

Have you ever feared that your business could disappear?

Yes, it happens more or less at each turn of generation! This is well documented in the diary written by my great-grandfather Guido entitled “Uscio e Bottega. Ricordi di un artigiano fiorentino” (Uscio and the shop. Memories of a Florentine craftsman). A book that we published to mark our 150th anniversary.

Are there people who still want to learn this craft? Do you take apprentices or organize workshops?

Over the years we have had many apprentices, but recently it was not possible due to lack of interest but also because of our financial situation. Instead we organize workshops where you can observe and even make both marbled paper and small books in paper and leather.

Who are your customers?

They are mostly American and British tourists with a strong cultural background, also Japanese and Asians looking for high quality, handmade items. As for our work of artistic binding, the buyers are usually Italian collectors, but there are only few left today.

Does a city like Florence contribute to the success of your business?

MG: We are an integral part of Florence. The city is important for all the artisans, and it’s a mutual relationship. Our shop is also part of Florence's cutural heritage. For this reason we received the Fiorino d'Oro, the highest award of the city of Florence.

Future projects?

To keep collaborating with artists. This allows us to take on new challenges and put our know-how to the test. It allows us to grow and it gives us great pleasure. An then, more than a project there is a dream: to create a small museum with active workshop dedicated to paper and books for the city of Florence.

That’s one thing that’s missing in this city and it would be great to preserve the history and culture of this craftsmanship, which is so important for the tradition of this city.

​About the author Valia Barriello is an architect and design professor working in Milan. Barriello is also involved in production and editorials.

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