I like detail. As a child I was always impressed by the infinitesimal care with which Canaletto finished his paintings. Such was the detail that you could see the eyelashes of each gondolier… I exaggerate only slightly. But often it is not detail that we notice but the overall effect – something that became clear to me on a recent visit to the Marche.
Fly to Bologna, then get someone to drive you at speed for two and a half hours to the east, and you will reach the Marche: one of those charming, relatively unvisited regions in which Italy abounds. It is possessed of the sort of attractive littoral that should make it a prime tourist destination – or, at least, it would in a country that did not already have the irresistible charms of the Amalfi coast. However, I was not there for the umbrella pines and the delicious grilled fish; I was there for the shoes. The Marche is the heart of Italian shoe country, and it is where you will find the Santoni shoe factory.
Santoni is the sort of endeavour that manages the perfect admixture of tradition and innovation to create a few thousand pairs of shoes a year, ranging from decidedly upmarket driving bootees to crocodile lace-ups of phenomenal sophistication – and it was the crocodile shoes that offered a masterclass in detail. I have been to see all sorts of factories in my time, and I remember being told about the patination of leather and leaving shoes out in the moonlight to enhance their lustre by Olga Berluti before her business was bought by Bernard Arnault – so I was fully expecting a similar answer to the question I put to Giuseppe Santoni about how he achieved the striking definition of the scales on his crocodile shoes.
By way of an answer, he took me through the factory until we reached a section where upwards of a dozen young women were at work with tiny paintbrushes. Their job was to paint along the lines in between each scale and to paint in the shadows on each minute panel of croc to give a sense of chiaroscuro, depth and dimension. Indeed, when you compare this nuanced treatment of reptile skin with the flat uniformity of the standard issue stuff, precious leather can really be said to have entered a new dimension.
It is the sort of detailed touch of which Canaletto would have been proud. The next time I am up close with one of the Venetian master’s canalscapes, I will be paying particular attention to the way he paints the shoes of the Lilliputian figures that populate his canvases, to see whether they come up to Santoni standards.