Italy’s weird and wonderful artisans

  • Themes: Italy

When it comes to the visual, Italy never does things by halves. Even its builders seek perfection.

Restorer working inside a building along the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy.
Restorer working inside a building along the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy. Credit: Greg Wright / Alamy Stock Photo

Once you’ve lived in the same foreign country, on and off, for 25 years, you begin going inadvertently native: you know the shops are closed between half-12 and half-three, that roundabouts move anti-clockwise and that all communication needs to be wrapped up in linguistic frills.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of Italy that still reminds me how foreign I am. My wife and I decided a buy a flat 18 months ago and a whole new world of wonder and weirdness opened up. The first surprise was that Italian estate agents represent both sides of the negotiation: both the buyer and seller. In some ways, it seemed very Italian: instead of the adversarial negotiation of the Anglo-Saxon world, with absolute clarity about who represents whom, there was smoothness and – how to put this tactfully? – double-gaming going on.

To have your purchase entered into the annals of bureaucracy you need to pay eye-watering costs to a professional that doesn’t exist in Britain: a notary. You quickly realise why, statistically, Italians move house less than almost all other Europeans: the costs are immense, amounting to around 10 per cent of the property value (agents take around three per cent off both ends and stamp duty is between two to nine per cent).

In most countries, if you don’t extend the outside of the property, you can do whatever you feel like inside. In Italy, though, you can’t knock down, or build, an internal wall without registering the change. So you learn new words like ‘catasto‘ (even the English, ‘cadastre’, is new to me, meaning effectively the land registry). Often people don’t register their alterations, so inevitably you’ll discover that the flat you’ve bought is different to how it appears on paper and one has to rectify that discrepancy by paying more professionals.

There were frustrations, as in any house purchase or renovation. But once work actually began, any stress strangely disappeared. We discovered (and perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised) that Italian artisans are perfectionists. We might just have been lucky in choosing a Calabrian crew, but the precision and thoughtfulness were extraordinary. For weeks there were red lasers traversing the rooms as F, the head of the team, marked up positions. All over the flat were his technical drawings, including one in light pencil on a wall outside our bathroom.

Each time I visited the building site at the weekend to do odd jobs – to steam-off the wallpaper or remove the old flooring – I found the place so tidy I fretted about making a mess. I noticed that the men had hand-moisturiser on the mantelpiece, which seemed, to me, an unexpected sign of delicacy.

Whenever we had done minor building work in the UK, I remember a bunch of bodgers coming in and out as fast as possible. Here, nothing was done willy-nilly. There were repeated meetings about niche decisions, like the colour of grout, the lay-out of tiles, the placing of plugs or the aesthetically-correct height of a skirting board. When it comes to the visual, Italy never does things by halves: the kitchen of a German firm we liked had only 12 options for door-colours; the Italian companies had thousands and staff with the eye and vocabulary to describe the differences. I was obviously out of my aesthetic depth and delegated such decisions: after all that, my wife chose a black kitchen.

I was intrigued by how this artisanal attentiveness changes the face of Italian retail. Interior design stores – for bathrooms, kitchens or light fittings – are as stunning and snooty as modern art galleries. In Parma, you’re asked, as soon as you enter, if you have an appointment and, if not, you’re made to feel an interloper by staff so haughty they make Parisian waiters look like the epitome of good grace.

Since I’m an amateur carpenter, I decided to make some of the furniture myself. The ‘mobiletto‘ (the bathroom cabinet) became known as the ‘Tobiletto’. But here too was a surprise. In the UK, a major weekend activity is DIY. People enjoy pottering around their house, improving and modernising. In Italy, as I tried to tinker around the edges of the renovation, I was amazed to find ironmongers shut on Saturday afternoons. I went back on weekdays to discover, everywhere, an openly declared scorn for the notion that an amateur could ever build door-frames or decorate a room. That, perhaps, is the flip-side of artisanal excellence: a disdain for the idea that anyone else might be up to the job.

Perhaps that’s more a reflection of Parma, the northern city where I live, than of Italy as a whole. The minute you go across the border to Reggio-Emilia, to the east, the welcome is far more ‘alla mano’ (informal): they don’t use the formal ‘lei’ or look down their nose and their prices are far lower. To help me keep costs down, the Calabrian builders were – like most southerners – enchantingly generous, lending me pneumatic drills and trestle scaffolding.

As the flat came together, their attention to microscopic detail became apparent. There had been multiple moving thresholds – new walls, door-frames or floors – but when everything started being fitted, it all lined up perfectly. To commemorate Calabrian artistry, we won’t paint over that pencil drawing outside the bathroom.


Tobias Jones