The handbag has been a much-used accessory ever since ancient times. The oldest and most thriving Italian cities bear witness to that. In fact every Italian city where trade and commerce flourished had its own quarter or street of bag-makers (Via dei Borsai), outstanding artisans who specialized in making beautiful purses and bags. The most famous Italian handbag craftsmen were to be found in cities such as Venice, Pistoia, Siena, Pisa and were much in demand by high society. The Parisian court bought its bags and purses exclusively from these skilful Italian artisans. Documents have been preserved which mention extremely luxurious and costly purses, embellished with gold, precious stones, enamels, silver, and all coming from Italy. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the growth of the bourgeoisie, more and more women began to use ever more elaborate and beautiful purses and from then on to the present day the demand for handbags of all shapes and sizes has been constantly growing.
The first bags were intended to hold money and were presumably made of leather (the Italian word for handbag, borsa, derives from the Greek byrsa which means leather). The oldest documented mention of bag-making in Italy comes from the twelfth century. In Tuscany some of the best Italian tanneries for working skins were already in production by then. The names of the guilds of crafts and professions in existence at that time are proof of that: among the Arti Minori (the lesser crafts) were listed the guilds of the Cuoiai e Galigai (leatherworkers), the Correggiai (military leatherworkers), the Sellai (saddlers) e the Calzolai (shoemakers). The skins used in those days were principally cow and buffalo hide, and more refined skins such as chamois and calf skin. Italian bags at this time were called scarselle and were worn around the neck or at the waist, or else were the bisacce which corresponded to our travelling bags.
Many scarselle were made in richly decorated versions and it is these that made the Florentine craftsmen famous: these Italian purses were much appreciated abroad.
Another city that was prominent in creating Italian bags was Venice, with its bolzieri (the craftsmen who made these bags) and its Arte dei Lavoratori del Cuoio (Leatherworkers’ Guild). Venice was a typically commercial city and its expert artisans made bags of all shapes and sizes, intended for various uses, made in classic skins or in rich cloth (for example velvet, damask and silk), with jewels, pearls, embroidery, lace etc. Soon knitted bags were introduced and in the medieval period bags began to be made with the family crest or the professional guild’s coat of arms emblazoned on them.
In the sixteenth century trade in bags grew and they began to take on the name of their place of origin (Florence, Paris, Venice, Ferrara etc.) and became subject to the whims of fashion. Now bags were adorned with more and more ribbons, fringes, lace, bows and in some cases even precious stones. Their materials became ever more luxurious (bear in mind that this was a very wealthy era, as we are in the Renaissance now): leather was still used a lot, but now also velvet, brocade and satin were used. The most popular types of bag were: the cartella (an improvement on the medieval scarsella, it was more spacious and had a knife pocket); the brachetta (a bag worn by men, as a codpiece over their pants, where there was room to keep money and a handerkchief); and the borsa da matrimonio was born, a bag which would be filled with money as a wedding gift to the bride and groom.
Another Italian accessory that was an ancestor of our handbags, and was very fashionable in fifteenth century Venice (and again in seventeenth century France), was the manicotti, the muff. Usually of a cylindrical shape, in fabric lined with fur, it was used to keep hands and arms warm and had internal pockets where you could keep small objects and money.
In the following period, up until the second half of the eighteenth century, bags were no longer used much, but after the French Revolution came the first examples of bags to be worn on the arm called barilotti, looking a bit like the Italian manicotti of fifteenth century Venice, but bigger, though they weren’t very widespread.
From the end of the nineteenth century the handbag’s attraction was re-discovered and since then it has been in constant use up until today. This was the colonial era and bags in some cases became actual baggage, in other cases they were comfortable and capacious promenade handbags, in leather or fabric, richly decorated and very elegant.
Everything reached a new turning point after the First World War. Pochettes were born as well as the new Italian fashion houses. Thanks to names like Gucci and Gherardini the Italian bag industry continued to expand, finding new forms and materials. Bags started to be matched with other accessories, designed for particular occasions and times of day, and the muff even came back into fashion in velvet or pony-skin. The Italian artisans continued to hand down the secret of making Italian handbags from father to son.
And it was in Italy in the face of the shortages of materials after the Second World War that the fashion evolved for bags made of imitation alternatives to precious materials: imitation leather, dentice (a type of sea bream) was used instead of crocodile, rospo (toad) instead of ostrich. Hemp, linen and silk were also much used.
Despite the fact that it was Paris that became the center of the fashion world after the Second World War, the Italian artisan traditions, handed down and improved over the centuries, continued to flourish and prosper: in Italy and the rest of the world, Italian handbags were in great demand and the more technology and transport evolved the more people had access to Italian bags and fell in love with them. Belts, buckles and pockets came into fashion and reptile skins gained ground, alongside calfskin, in which the Italian master leatherworkers were already more than specialized, and Italian bags became among the most renowned in high fashion.
By now the industrial era had given handbags metallic hardware and decorations, snap fasteners and zips.
Today as ever the Italian artisan traditions in the leather bag sector are alive and well and still loyal to the age old traditions that this craft demands. The secrets that make Italian handbags unique and unbeatable have been handed down (and continue to be handed down) from father to son, one generation to the next and so we can still enjoy their wonderful skills today. Fashions and tastes change but the refined workmanship and techniques that go into the making of Italian handbags remain unchanged, except for some improvements brought in through the many years of experience. Today, as then, there will always be a man who personally cuts out the leather, one who colors it, another to stitch it, all working skillfully and with passion for their work until it is completed: a splendid Made in Italy handbag that is a real work of art in itself.