One aimless afternoon, shortly after graduating from university, I came across an old magazine article about Daniel Day-Lewis and the ten months the famed actor spent in Florence apprenticing as a shoemaker. The pages included enchanting pictures of leather, cork, and flame-melted wax, accompanied by handsome men using antique tools to turn suede and cordovan into masterpiece footwear for the likes of Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere — even Madonna. The more I read about the shoemaker to the stars, the more my imagination filled with sepia-coloured daydreams: labouring in a warmly lit bottega, richly perfumed from the turpentine of polish, to the symphony of scissors cutting hide and hammers thudding heels.
It all happened very fast: I put the article away and compiled a list of twenty Italian ateliers. On my first call, to Mannina Firenze, I reached a young shoemaker named Giovanni. I disclosed that although I had experience in the manual trades and was an attentive student, I was no Grimmian elf — I needed training. Too easily, he said yes, but on the condition that I secure my own visa through a local language school. Also, I had to agree to long hours without pay. But common sense would not sabotage my fantasy!
When I arrived in the Tuscan capital, wearing some torn‑up Nikes, Giovanni feigned ignorance of our agreement and refused to even look at the emails I held up as evidence. My Italian was not yet good enough for argument, which I doubt would have helped, but the language barrier intensified my frustration. Imagining how Caravaggio once resolved conflict, I considered clobbering the cobbler. But I wanted to see the museums, at the very least, and restrained myself. For two months, on a shoestring budget, I walked miles and miles, wandering the cobblestone streets and entreating dozens of calzolai to take me on. They all turned me away, until I met the most famous of them all: Roberto Ugolini
Roberto has been Florence’s top calzolaio ever since Stefano Bemer, Day-Lewis’s mentor, passed away in 2012. (Admittedly, any superlative praise should be taken lightly: every maestro has his partisans.) I had put off coming here, because I assumed I’d have little chance of working for the master craftsman. But by special providence, it turned out this maestro despised Giovanni, and, to put a pea in his arch-enemy’s shoe, he told me I could sit and watch for an afternoon. That unlikely day turned into an unlikely two weeks, and after many hours quietly observing the cordwainer at work, I was at last handed a precious last with a leather sole. Remove the clinching nails, Roberto told me, without saying anything else. “Words are good, but they are not the best,” Goethe wrote of the apprentice’s life. “The spirit in which we act is the highest matter.”
Three other apprentices watched as I removed that first nail: two young men from Puglia, the southern stiletto heel that steps away from Albania, and a teenager from Japan. We all worked Monday to Saturday, from eight to eight, our day punctuated by a mid-morning espresso and a two-hour pasta lunch. On Fridays, Roberto would bring us a bottle of red wine, his favourite being the San Felice Chianti Classico, which costs much less than the shoes we crafted. Those ranged from €1,900 to €10,000, with each pair taking up to ninety hours to make.
The general process was divided into three steps. First, a client would arrange an appointment to have his feet measured (once while seated, once while standing) and to select a model (the most common and conservative choices were black oxfords, while the least conservative I witnessed were blue spectators made with legal elephant skin that had been tattooed). Then, about a week later, a wooden last would be fashioned. Some were displayed at the front of the shop, usually those belonging to famous clients and repeat customers (it was not uncommon for some to order three pairs annually). We kept the rest in the back — hundreds of them, some so old that they were the ghostly tokens of men long presumed dead. These were tied to the ceiling in clusters that naturally fell into shapes similar to banana bunches.
Working with the last, we would begin the second step of constructing a prova — a trial shoe made of low-quality leather and a plastic heel. Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches, they say, and if the prova was too loose, part of the last would be shaved down. If too tight (the most common problem region would be above the metatarsals or behind the heel), then a layer of leather would be added. But typically the model fit perfectly. Cinderella would be happy, and we would begin the final step: the long, unforgiving manual construction.
Traditional shoemaking happens not on a table or even a cobbler’s anvil but in one’s lap — using both thighs as a vise and bringing oneself autofellatially to the work. Most days, I’d leave the shop with polished palms, sore from bending, and with skin shavings under my nails.
After only six months, my money was running out. While my Italian had improved, my truancy at the language school and my unpaid apprenticeship meant that I had violated the conditions of my student visa. And my back was in chronic pain. As much as I wanted to continue learning from Roberto, it was time to leave. With nothing to show for my experience, except one cherished photograph and some peculiar tools, I even wore the same old sneakers on my way home.