Men were tanners much earlier than farmers. The first written documentation on the art of tanning dates back to 1250 BC and is then found repeatedly along the entire history of civilization, from ancient Greece to Rome, from Egypt to Asia and especially Japan. The documentation of the use of smoke-tanned skins and hides in Japan dates back to Neolitihic times. The famous “Japan leather“, a flexible and pale leather, was then used to create Samurai armour, kimono sandals and many other objects.
The first attempts to prevent skins from rotting using smoke, fat, alum and other substances were soon improved by the invention of a proper tanning process: vegetable tanning. This is a process which, still today, is renouned as the most traditional, natural, durable method of transforming animal skins into leather with unmistakable properties, whilst marrying fashion and tradition, versatility of use and uniqueness. Nature attracts nature and the proteins in the derma of the animal skin eagerly react to the stimulation of the tannin present in numerous plant and trees. And vegetable tanned leather has unique features: ages because it is natural, changing colour and becoming scratched and wrinkled just like our skin.
Tuscany and the vegetable tanning process
Until the end of 19Th Century, vegetable tanning was the only method known by mankind to tan leather. This tanning procedure was used also in Florence and during medieval times it gained great importance. In that period in Florence a guild of leather tanners and manufacturer was created called “Arte dei Cuoiai e Galigai” (founded in 1282) and this guild became one of the 14 Arti Minori, secular corporations that controlled arts and trade in Florence from the 12th to the 16th century. The production of leather and leather goods was concentrated in a precise area of the city, in the small streets connecting Piazza Santa Croce to Piazza Signoria, near the river Arno. In that part of Florence, still today there are streets called Via dei Conciatori (Tanners’ street) and Via della Concia (Tannage street) that remind the traditional activities once made there. Later on the tanning activities were moved out of Florence towards its surroundings.
In 1800 the tanning activity developed in the area of the current Tuscan Leather District because both S.Croce sull’Arno and Ponte a Egola are located along the river Arno, on the right and left side of the river. This ensured a constant water supply for the tanning process (a lot of water is needed to tan leather) and an easy way to trade the products by moving leather by boat towards Florence or Pisa and Livorno.
Many Tuscan tanneries continued to carry on their ancient tradition and culture of vegetable tanning, despite the revolutionary invention of chrome tanning, introduced in the early Twentieth century. Today Tuscany is the main Italian producer of vegetable tanned leather and sole leather. At the same time, many chrome tanneries have also developed and produce leather for the fashion industry.