FLORENCE, Italy -- Inside the Santa Croce in Florence, three women silently stare into the distance. One woman with a veil over her head, sees no one. She is in another world. The other two, heads slight tilted, avoid the onlookers who now stand frozen before them. Their cold hard stone torsos guard the body that lies beneath them. The tomb of Michelangelo captivates everyone.
"Santa Croce e una chiesa di arte," says a priest, lifting his arms upward, motioning his eyes for us to look. Truly it is. The white marbeled floor houses tombs dating back to the early 1200's Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo all laid to rest here.
But the faint smell of resins and leather fill my senses as I walk through the sacristy past a wooden cabinet top that once held Michelangelo's body. It is here inside the monastery where I discover the Santa Croce Leather School.
One artisan cuts a strip of red tanned leather and delicately places it to the side of the worktable. Another artisan uses a fine knife, burnishing a thin strip of gold leaf.
"The leather we have here is the finest in the world," says Laura Gori of the Leather School. Fluorescent bulbs inside long glass encasement counters light up the glistening leatherware. Red purses, brown belts and black jackets are displayed like a neat deck of cards. Near the entrance to the corridor are framed photographs of Princess Diana, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. They all were customers.
So how did a leather school that boasts of making the finest Italian leatherware with a long list of famous customers ever get inside a monastery?
Laura Gori explains. "At the end of the 15th cenury, a great Medici, Cosimo I, who was popular for his extravagent generousity donated a wing to the Franciscan monastery. The Friars graciously accepted. Except," she says with a smile, "they were already anxiously building one. So, this wing stood abandoned for years."
Until the Franciscan order of Santa Croce together with its neighoring order of Pisa agreed to use the wing to help solve a growing problem. Homeless boys were growing up without any skills.
To make them feel apart of the community, the friars took these boys and taught them the leather trade," says Gori.
The students at the leather school use only the finest leathers from around Tuscany. This certainly shows pricewise. Handbags start at 250.00 USD. But, if you want your initials stamped on your purchase, the artisans are happy to stamp them in 22 kt gold leaf, free of charge.
The Santa Croce Leather School still practices traditional leather making dating back to the early Franciscan order. Although the students are no longer orphaned boys, the school continues to assist social agencies.
"We have 12 students," says Gori, adding today students must have a minimal background to enroll.
In the far end of the wing, mirrors suspended from the ceiling shows the apprentices and masters practicing the medieval art form. I watch closely as an old man uses a worn knife cut into the smooth leather skin. "This I make for you," he smiles.