Skip the shops of novelty souvenirs and poorly made replicas of gondolas and find true Venetian wares with Culture Trips’s roundup of the best artisan shops and studios in the city. Their creations will make the perfect gift whatever the occasion, and will – more importantly – help support Venice’s local communities long after you’ve left.
It’s a sad but known truth that Venice’s residents are dwindling. A local community that once thrived is now being slowly pushed away to the mainland of Mestre as rents increase and hotels and tourists take over formerly residential neighbourhoods. While business is booming in hospitality in the city, the traditional craftspeople of Venice have found it increasingly difficult to keep their traditions alive. Here’s how to support local businesses while you shop, by picking up a truly unique piece – or two.
For a truly unique gift, why not commission a handmade mosaic in Murano glass – or even better, why not enrol in a course and make it yourself? You’ll be taught by master mosaicists Alessandra di Gennaro and Romuald Mesdagh, who both graduated from the acclaimed Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli – the only mosaicist school in the world of its kind. You’ll learn to use the traditional “martelina” hammer, shaped like a half-moon, to cut your own tesserae with which to create your mosaic. For a memento with a difference, pass on a quick holiday photo and immortalise your visit in a different medium; the masters will help you work from your own pictures to create a beautiful, bespoke artwork.
Once there were over 300 goldbeaters in Venice, but today master craftsman Marino Menegazzo is the last of his kind. In Cannaregio, he runs the small atelier Mario Berta Battiloro, named after his wife’s father. The clue is in the name with this artisan: Battiloro literally means beater of gold, and it’s this once-revered craft that Marino continues to practise to this day, transforming an ingot of gold into a wafer-thin sheet by hand. These precious leaves of gold can be used for everything from art and cosmetics to decorations for food and furniture. They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but we say that hand-beaten gold leaf can’t be far off.
Just past the grand façade of Venice’s hospital, over a small bridge, you’ll find a leather workshop tucked away in the long band of vendors that line the Calle Larga Giacinto Gallina. Unlike many artisans who have inherited their craft through a family business, Marina de Grandis took a leap of faith after taking a course in book binding and leather work, where she learnt how to create everything from ruby-red leather-bound diaries to crocodile-effect, long-strapped leather bags. “I knew when I started a course that this was what I wanted to do,” she says, and she’s been doing just that for over 25 years now. In this shop, you’ll find a premium assortment of leather notebooks, wallets and bags that are all designed, cut and sewn by Marina herself. She’s also a deep believer in commissioned work; if she hasn’t made it yet, she wants to. Ask her for what you want, and she’ll make it happen.
Alberto Valese has always loved colour. A born-and-bred Venetian, his first workmates nicknamed him “penèo” (dialect for paintbrush). After working in printing and graphic design, he first began experimenting with the Venetian craft of marbleised paper in 1973. It was a chance encounter that would lead to a lifetime dedicated to the art form. Now, his small store in Campo Santo Stefano in the sestiere of San Marco, named “Ebru” after his favourite marbling technique, sits filled to the brim with hand-crafted marbled papers, elegant block prints and cards. If you’re thinking of sending a traditional postcard home, why not pick up a little bundle of handmade paper cards wrapped with red ribbon instead? His intricate marbleised paper, a craft which has been practised in the city since at least the 18th century, makes for a memento that’s much more Venetian than a postcard of the Rialto Bridge.
Banco Lotto is the kind of shop that will draw you in from the street. A hop, skip and a jump from St Mark’s Square, in the shaded streets of the Castello area heading down Salizada Sant’Antonin, this quirky fashion atelier is well worth a visit. The original handmade clothes are made from quality, fair-trade fabrics that would make couture connoisseurs weep – think velvets, silks and satins galore – and are all created by female inmates at Venice’s prison. Splash out on a full outfit, or or opt for one of their beautifully embroidered drawstring bags to support the community and take home something truly special.
When Alessandro Merlin left his day job to open up his own shop down a small side alley in Castello, he found that by working out of his own studio, he was able to establish creative freedom: “I was able to keep my own ideas, [and] have faith in my own style,” he says. Merlin has now been working for more than 25 years in the city, selling his traditional ceramics decorated in his non-traditional style. He uses a range of colours and techniques, some such as sgraffito dating all the way back to Roman times – which seems fitting, given the Bacchanalian themes of many of his erotic designs. Trust us – you’ll never look at a cup and saucer in the same way again.
When shopping for gifts or souvenirs to bring back from La Serenissima, a traditional mask is the first thing that comes to mind. There are plenty of plastic imitations around, so make sure you’re buying one that’s actually been made in Venice to support local artisans in the city. The city is filled with carnival classics such as Ca’Macana – the workshop chosen by Stanley Kubrick to create masks for his film Eyes Wide Shut – but our pick is this smaller family-run business. Situated near Venice’s hospital to the north of the city, the shop is outside the normal tourist trails but is well worth a visit. Run by Stefano Gottardo and his wife, Papier-Mâché – as the name suggests – is one of the few remaining mask shops left in Venice where you can watch masks be handcrafted before your eyes, using the original papier mâché strips to form the mask before being finished with hand-painted detailing. With masks inspired by the art of Picasso, Kandinsky and Modigliani, these artisan creations enliven Venice’s ancient craft with a vibrant modern twist.