In the hill town of Volterra, tucked down a narrow lane a few steps from the main drag, Roberto delicately chips away at an alabaster statue. Everything in the cluttered workshop is covered in a thin layer of white dust — including Roberto. You can practically taste the gritty powder in the air. But Roberto doesn’t seem to notice, or to care. With intense concentration, he chisels and carves and tap-tap-taps — like Michelangelo 500 years before him, slowly revealing the form that already exists within the stones.
What’s striking about Roberto’s shop is that, while it welcomes curious travelers, it doesn’t exist for the sake of tourism. It’s real.
Tuscany’s rich aesthetic heritage means that contemporary Tuscans still find great meaning and beauty in their work, whatever it may be. Sculptors, leatherworkers, carpenters, mosaicists, potters, coppersmiths, jewelers, weavers, painters, vintners, chefs — everyone does their work with deep pride and conviction, as if tourism didn’t exist. Meeting a few of these artisans is both educational and inspiring.
In the little hill town of Montepulciano alone, I’m struck by the high concentration of uncompromising artists. On the street below the main square, in the course of just a few blocks, you can get to know four different masters of their crafts.
At Cantina Contucci, Adamo has been making wine for decades. Every time I visit, he tours me through the caverns of giant wooden casks that burrow deep into the stony hill upon which Montepulciano sits — and, as if for the first time, evangelizes about his wine with the passion of someone who has truly found his life’s work. (On a recent visit, he announced to me, “Last year, I finally retired…but they still let me come to work every day!”)
Just down the street from Adamo is the copper shop of Cesare, who — clad in a heavy leather apron — hammers out delicate copper artwork. Cesare has a big Roadrunner-style anvil and a set of heirloom stencils dating back to the 1850s. He still crafts his copper vessels the way he was taught as a young boy. And he still brings the same care and attention to detail to his work as he has his entire life.
A few more doors down is a different type of craftsman: Giulio, who runs Osteria dell’Acquacheta — the best steak house I’ve ever experienced. While his diners dig into big, steaming plates of pasta (a primo — supposedly a “starter” — is more than enough for an entire meal), Giulio walks up the stairs in the back of his restaurant and carves off giant hunks of steak from a slab of the local, prized Chianina beef.
After verifying the steak with his customer, Giulio throws it onto his wood-fired grill, cooks it until it’s barely browned, sprinkles it with coarse sea salt, and delivers it to your table — an edible work of art.
As of my latest visit, this unofficial fraternity of precise Montepulciano craftspeople has been joined by a new member: Nicola, who makes artisanal gelato along the main street into town. (Read more about Nicola here.)
Nicola, who is obsessed with making gelato fresh every day, and only from locally sourced ingredients, is just the latest in a long string of the Tuscans I’ve met who have impressed me with their careful, precise attention to their craft. If you want something done just right, with precision, artistry, and care…find yourself a Tuscan.
Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.
Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including the chance to meet an alabaster artisan.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.