I love my country. I am certainly a fortunate person. Even in the short distance that separates my home from my workplace, I can turn to see the old Venetian villas and a most enchanting tenth century church dressing the street that leads me toward my destination. Years ago, during a trip to the United States, I was struck by the pride that Americans have in their “ancient stones”. Stones that this immense country transformed into national treasures symbolizing American values. At that moment, it occurred to me that we, as Italians, are not cognizant of how our motherland is a “museum nation” that is unparalleled in the whole world – a museum that houses not only unique masterpiece paintings, sculptures, and wonders of architecture, but also a museum of ideas, both old and new, in beauty and traditions that we must keep from slipping into the forgetful malaise that is oblivion.
If we combine this with the magical landscapes that appear as paintings along the countryside that spans our “boot” reaching from the highest peaks which saw the passage of Hannibal up to the smallest islands surrounded by the most turquoise seas that tells of discoveries, battles, and adventures. We can only thank our good star every day for having given birth to us among all these wonders.
We know that life depends on a great variety of elements. Although many of these elements can sometimes be difficult, we, as humans, should always keep in mind a phrase that Shakespeare speaks through Julius Caesar’s lips: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…On such a full sea are we now afloat.”
In this context, I interpret the tide as the ability to engage in a project beyond difficulties and impediments while fortune signifies the realization of a dream that leads to the open sea of life that requires flexibility and adaptability.
Born in the rolling hills between Florence and Pisa in 1994, the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium perfectly illustrates this Shakespearean quotation.
It all started from the dream of an initially restricted group of people who, pervaded by the spirit of nature of that very same territory, have become the voice of a local tradition whose ancestral origin was deeply embedded and lost in the mists of time.
Those who believed in this dream created a prestigious and noble reality that today should be considered as a flower to be cherished and protected by love. Yes, an honest love of a person’s adoration for that which he has produced, intends to pass on to future generations, and that which he wants to make known to others.
Speaking with Simone Remi, the current president of the Consortium, one can plainly see this very same profound love that comes from one’s connection with his land and emanates directly from one’s heart. Such a passion drives their willingness to teach others in distances as far as Japan and Korea to learn these principles of tradition that define both their passion and their individuality as a culture of craft. Through listening to his words, I imagined them as “territorial artists on the move” – that is, artists from whose modern “shops”, or as I define as a “renaissance” to honor their Tuscan heritage, take decisive and profound steps, not only to inform to people about their traditions in the vegetable tanned leather, but most importantly, to educate consumers about their choices regarding quality.
I personally thank them for this effort that goes beyond a mass-market economy where everything is unified and equal. We live in the age of entertainment – where leisure is the meaning of life that often feeds on superficial images that, because of ignorance, we believe to be true, even though we know that there are realities that nourish human knowledge. For example, as we once did through the stories of the gods and heroes. It is truly heartening.
People always must have the opportunity to know. For example, how many times have we had a gossip magazine in front of us, or a masterpiece written by a famous writer? Even though we know that they are fiction and fancy, we still read them. As we continue to read them and educate ourselves of the intricacies of their intentions, we learn that they are really not relevant to our lives and carry no significance. Instead, the ideas, reasoning, intuitions, creativity, questions, sensibilities, and the presentations illuminate a path that the founding fathers of the Consortium consciously undertook years ago – choosing a path of “wisdom” with the profound sentiment of the philosophy of choice, while recognizing that philosophy means “love for knowledge”.
It is not my intention to get involved in technical discourse regarding vegetable tanning, but a phrase on their website captured my attention. It proudly states: “Vegetable tanning is a work that is born from nature, and it returns to nature in full harmony”. To me, this concept evokes images of the trees, whose roots are in the earth, whose branches are stretched out into the light of the sun, and whose bark and trunk are its strength.
In the ancient tradition of the five elements, wood is a symbol of growth. In the cycle of creation, “wood burns to produce fire, whose ashes decompose into the earth, where metals are born and from where they are extracted, which once dissolved, become water that nourishes the plants and the trees”. One always turns back to the tree, whose breath is a source of life, whose wood is the child of water and the mother of fire. The tree whose trunk and bark brings forth tannins by extraction that I like to call magical powders that are appropriately used in vegetable tanning.
This process of extraction is one that respects the forests and woods that give life to our blue planet. The chestnut, mimosa, tara, and quebracho are just some of these tannins that give the skins different shades of natural colors and a scent that reminds us of the passage of time. These skins respect our journey on this land that is suspended between the stars of the universe and grow older, evolve, change, and transform while reflecting the path and flow of life.
If we observe people’s faces, and we look at their wrinkles, we can understand how they have been in the course of their lives. That is, we can tell if they have been thoughtful, grumpy, iridescent, or smiling and luminous. The skin is like a photograph of becoming and of constant change, similar to the circle of nature where nothing dies and everything changes.
The Associate Tanneries of the Consortium realize that a hide can communicate these very same intricacies in its cracks, variations in color, small imperfections. The hides can tell of how in life it is indispensable to be real and to be oneself – accepting the changes and necessary transformations. Vegetable-tanning teaches us about nature through the importance of balance and harmony that today are often overlooked and forgotten in the seemingly fruitless and continuous search for a non-existent perfection that is reflected in the cold and lifeless materials that surround us in our everyday lives.
Beyond this, we can understand that the skin is a living organism that transforms while the mission of the Consortium is to “pamper” it just how our soul should be pampered – always remembering that happiness is rooted within simplicity.
To preserve the ancient Tuscan tanning tradition as a precious stone and being in love with the entire process, much like other projects that are widespread throughout our country, means building, as Marguerite Yourcenar wrote: “a granary against the possible winter of the spirit”.
Reality, such as that which the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium teaches us, is a similar reality to that which plants teach us: growth is only upward if the roots delve strongly into the soil. Only in the memory of our past, and well-rooted in the present can we open ourselves to the always unpredictable future.
In conclusion, I would like to dedicate some simple words that, if there was a need, can illuminate the beauty of an ancestral tradition, continuously handed down because of the hard work and dedication of some people, without whom, the tradition would most likely be extinct.