Hands-On Italian Handicrafts

Personalized, interactive experiences create one-of-a-kind souvenirs for your clients

By: By Susan Van Allen


Bella Italia Tours
Cultural Italy
Malatesta Viaggi

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I remember three treasures from my Italian grandparents’ New Jersey dining room: a ruby red glass bowl from Murano, an ivory lace tablecloth from Molise and a pale blue and gold painted vase from Vietri sul Mare. These objects convinced me — at the age of five — that the most beautiful things in the world were made in Italy.

Venice is famous for its carnival masks. // (c) Italian Government Tourist Board
Venice is famous for its carnival masks.

Like many other frequent visitors to Italy, I’ve been thrilled to find that the tradition of Italian handicrafts — prized around the world — lives on. For centuries, every region of Italy has developed and held on to its craft legacy and, just as Italian food differs from region to region, each area brings a distinct style to its creations. Put a plate from Deruta next to a plate from Sicily and the contrasts become obvious: The plate from Deruta is painted in delicate, pastel tones with Renaissance-influenced designs, while the one from Sicily uses primary colors to depict a bold pastoral scene.

Shopping doubles as a cultural history lesson. A visit to a glass showroom in Murano comes along with an awe-inspiring demonstration of the ancient art of glassblowing. Poking around a lace store in Rapallo, I saw women sitting in a circle, their hands moving with lightning speed as they tatted doilies, just as their grandmothers had taught them. In Amalfi, I stopped by Eva Caruso’s papermaking shop, where she enthusiastically follows traditions that began in the 10th century, when the town was a hot spot for Arab traders who brought the secrets of papermaking to Italy.

Many travelers, however, want to go beyond just shopping for Italian crafts and learn to make these treasures themselves. Just as cooking classes have gained popularity in recent years, there’s now a rising trend in requests for craft workshops. These immersion experiences, taught in English by Italian master craftsmen, appeal to travelers, from novices to professional artists.

Cultural Italy (CI), a San Diego-based tour operator founded by Italian native Elena Bernardi, provides expert connections with master artisans all over Italy who are eager to teach visitors at all levels.

"Mask-making in Venice is one of our most popular requests," said Valentina Losavio, a CI travel consultant. The three-hour class takes place at an 18th-century atelier, beginning with a lecture about the history of mask-making and continuing with participants decorating blank mask molds that they can take home as souvenirs.

"The classes are great for families with school-aged children who want to take a break from touring and do something creative and playful together," Losavio said.

CI can also arrange Venetian lace-making classes, ceramics classes in Deruta, mosaics courses in Ravenna, as well as jewelry design and furniture restoration classes in Tuscany and a fresco-making class at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

Another good resource for finding craft workshops is Bella Italia Tours, a Denver-based operator that works with Rimini, Italy-based Malatesta Viaggi (MV) to arrange group tours with good rates for classes in professional art institutions.

One of MV’s most popular programs is a leather-making workshop at the prestigious Scuola del Cuoio in Florence. Here, in a converted Franciscan monastery, participants spend a day getting an introduction to the craft and make either a leather book cover, purse or picture frame to take home.

"Our weaving, embroidery and lace-making classes in Perugia even attract native Italians," MV’s Marina Innocenzi said.

These workshops, held in Perugia’s 13th-century San Francesco delle Donne, guide students through the process of weaving on 200-year-old looms or embroidering designs that reproduce patterns from the Middle Ages.

"In these modern, busy times, people feel valuable traditions slipping away. They want to slow down and have an experience that’s like stepping back in time to another era.
It’s lovely, really," Innocenzi said.