The sweet smell of fresh wood carving welcomes me to Gabriele Maselli’s burnished treasure trove of gilded frames in a small workshop not far from the Duomo in the center of Florence. Maselli has been designing, carving and gilding frames for 38 years, having learned at the knee of his father, who started the business in 1955. His vast experience is evident everywhere I look, with all sizes of frames --ornate and simple, traditional and modern, plain wood, intricate wood, gilded in gold and silver -- hanging and overhanging on every inch of wall. Together they create a beautiful mosaic of a traditional Florentine craft.
“No one understands made by hand now,” Maselli laments as he walks with me into the inner sanctum of his workroom, lined with immaculately cared for tools, gold and silver leaf, and all types of wood for his carving. “I grew up watching my father, and I know what it takes to become an artist. For many years I had to practice drawing lines, working with the materials, learning about the woods, before I was ever allowed to pick up the carving tools. You do not learn this craft in a few months. It takes dedication and passion, patience and time.”
“Sadly Italy’s traditional artisans are dying out because there is not enough support and interest in craftsmanship. I am fighting this trend by engaging with the Association of Historic, Traditional and Typical Shops in Florence, whose goal is to promote, protect and enhance their heritage. I take this very personally, and I have been working with a project in local schools for the past 9 years, tutoring junior high and high school students in my craft, providing scholarships, internships and partnering with suppliers for material, all in order to engage young people in this timeless art form and keep up an historic tradition. We are transforming kids and showing them what it means to be Made in Italy, Made in Florence.”
“The best wood for large frames is cibolo pine from the north of Italy. It is sweetly perfumed and changes color over time, making it more attractive with age. Tilia, or linden, is a good wood for smaller frames and jelutong from Malaysia and Thailand is a wonderful fine, straight grained wood that is excellent for carving fine detail, but very expensive.”
“There are different weights of gold leaf, various types of gold and all the colors can add to the patina of a frame and how it will play out in modern lighting versus the candle light of the Renaissance period. The best gold leaf in the world comes from Giusto Manetti Battiloro, opened in 1600, just outside of Florence. The process of the carving, then brushing on the adhesive size and layering the gold leaf all create the value of handmade craftsmanship, the time and care devoted to each unique piece adds to all the different finished looks.”
“Well, I’ve worked on famous pieces and churches, restoration in museums and even a special private client who commissioned me to hand make a perfect frame for a tiny Titian masterpiece in his personal collection. But I get new ideas all the time.” Maselli reaches for a new design, a rectangular frame covered in small circular carvings of all sizes. “I got this idea at the beach one morning,” he tells me, “as I watched the bubbles of water on the sand each time the waves swept in and out.” I see it immediately in the frame and I’m reminded that this man is truly an artist, seeing the beauty in everyday things, keeping his traditions, but applying them in modern ways as well.
Chatting with Maselli in the beautiful, intimate surroundings of his private workshop, I realise that this extraordinary artisan’s passion and profound knowledge of his art are at the very core of everything he does. The connection between the old and the new makes Maselli’s work fascinating. His skills transcend his workshop and he yearns to pass on his traditions and his expertise. His belief in the importance of craftsmanship and promoting fine art in the modern day is what makes it so appealing to accept his invitation to be a guest into his workshop and learn to gild frames under his watchful eye.