I’m not much of a shopper. I’m interested in few things, of high enough quality to work properly and last a long time. Sturdy shoes. A good cap. The right walking stick. Years ago Rebecca and I had our honeymoon in the small hill town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. One of the excursions we took was to Pienza — the re-named home-town (it was once called Corsignano) of Aeneas Silvius Bartholomeus Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II. The historic town center of Pienza is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though it hadn’t yet earned that designation when we visited.
As we wandered the streets before lunch, we stopped in at a one-room shop off the main street where a leatherworker named Valerio Truffelli plied his craft: belts, wallets, satchels, purses. I purchased a heavily-stitched bi-fold billfold, and he customized the handle of a walking stick we had cut in the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo with leather strips. I haven’t used any other wallet since, but as it had been showing its age, we decided to see if the craftsman was still there as we drove to Siena this past weekend.
Pienza had changed significantly. No longer a sleepy little town on the edge of the tourist trail, it had graduated to a destination. English, German, Dutch, French and Italian echoed off the bright streets, small art workshop-galleries beckoned the eye everywhere and in the midst of it all, outside the very same one-room shop at Corso Rossellino, 58, was the wrought-iron dragon that stamps all of Valerio’s leatherwork. Inside, he was trimming a belt to size for a customer. His bench was still strewn with a rainbow of leather scraps, dull-metal knives, scissors, clamps, and pliers, scattered through with shiny snaps, buckles and awls, and thread of various gauges. Finished products hung on the walls, amongst violins that elegantly hummed: HANDMADE.
I stepped forward to tell him our story — that his wallet was returning home after eighteen years wandering across four continents, and that I was looking for a new one. “Well, leather can’t last forever,” he said. As I stumbled through Italian, he took over in English. He said he remembered the model, and asked if I’d brought the design to him. No, I said, it was his work; and then he recalled that he hadn’t made any others of that type. So he brought out a pad of paper and began to sketch it with quick sharp strokes, noting essential measurements. “The only question is the time,” he mumbled, but when I told him we were living in Perugia, all he needed was my mobile number. When the wallet is ready, the Craftsman will call.
My friend Peter, hearing the story later that night in Siena over a medieval dinner, was right. He said, “You should have ordered two.”
POSTSCRIPT (2 Feb. 2014):
Valerio called. It was ready. He was so busy all fall with all the tourist orders that he did not have time to turn his hands to un portafoglio until winter.
After Simon’s soccer game today, we drove to Pienza through heavy rain, mist, and fog as we shifted from one elevation to the next through the Tuscan hills. We were racing the clock, hoping to arrive before his shop closed at 1:30. We made it with ten minutes to spare, and he was ready, asking me to choose from the two versions he had made from the original design.
For lunch, he directed us down the street to his friend Roberto’s place, Trattoria Latte di Luna (“Moon’s Milk Cafe”). Simon ordered thin-sliced beef with mushrooms, while I tucked into some homemade tagliatelle with cinghiale (wild boar). It was excellent, and absolutely packed with locals — always the sign of the best food in town.
If we ever return to Pienza, we now know where to eat. But just in case we don’t come back, I bought both wallets, hoping they last as long as I do (or that I last as long as they do). Or perhaps the second wallet will come to Simon, continuing the tradition of the Craftsman.