Even in Italy the people of Venice are regarded as slightly different, tricky, tough. The Italians have a word for it – they call the Venetians ‘furbo’. It means cunning, smart, clever. In my opinion it is a compliment. The people of Venice needed to be tough to create a city in the middle of a lagoon and to deal with life surrounded by water.
The Venetians took what they had, water, fish, the sea and they made it work for them. They were ship-builders, traders, money-lenders. Their city prospered and people from all over the Mediterranean flooded into Venice in search of work, opportunities, a better life. The wealthy merchants of Venice were great supporters of the arts. In the 15th and 16th centuries the finest artists, architects, sculptors and designers lived and worked in Venice.
The palaces of the Grand Canal were created, the churches of the city were decorated. The aristocrats wore the finest clothes made of magnificent silks, brocades and laces. To this day Venice is a centre for luxury goods, fine materials, beautiful glass, hand-made leather goods, exquisite clothing.
I’ve been coming to Venice since 1980 – I am a tour guide and have run my own travel business for almost thirty years. I’m on the cusp of retirement and I have decided that my gift to myself will be the purchase of a hand-made, unique pair of shoes from Venice. I’ve selected the shoe-maker. In fact here she comes now scurrying through the back streets of the city.
Giovanna Zanella is an artist and a designer. She bustles into her small shop in the Castello district of Venice, about twenty minutes late for our appointment. She is wearing a grey smock dress, aubergine-coloured suede shoes, brightly coloured over-sized beads and an unusual little hat with a feather. I am standing in Giovanna’s work room, studio and shop. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if she sleeps here occasionally too. There is a minute store room, separated from the shop by a linen curtain. I look around slowly, carefully – I am surrounded by original hand-made shoes. There are shoes in every colour; purple, blue, green, red, yellow, pink and with every kind of decoration. Each shoe has a character, a personality. There are Cinderella shoes, shiny and beautiful. Mary Poppins shoes, practical, and sturdy. There’s even a stunning pair of high-heeled black shoes with a red fringe sticking out of the back like a tail – to me they look like punk shoes from the eighties.
The shop has a beautiful mosaic floor of multi-coloured, irregular shaped tiles. Giovanna explains to me that the floor represents her colour palate. The floor can be used to inspire the customer to make brave and bold colour choices. She started her business twenty years ago making unique items of clothing for clients. Exceptional dresses, coats, millinery (hats). An Italian actress, working in the nearby Goldoni Theatre, commissioned her to make a pair of shoes that looked great, fitted perfectly and were unique. That was it – at that moment her future was decided.
I’m like a child in a sweet shop – I love all the designs, I love the feathers, I love the huge silver buckles. But I do need a practical and comfortable pair of shoes. Shoes that I can wear every day. I’ve already decided my shoes will be green – my favourite colour. The Italians say that green represents ‘speranza’ which means hope in Italian. That suits me perfectly. Giovanna produces tracing paper, pencil, wooden ruler, tape measure. She sits me down, places my foot firmly on a piece of tracing paper and draws the outline of my foot. She then measures carefully, the length of my foot, width of my foot, height of the instep. She draws a separate picture of my heel, my toes. She even draws a side view of my foot, all by hand, by eye. We discuss the look of the shoe. I decide on a lace-up shoe, with a rounded toe and a medium height heel. She helps with contrasting colour advice. We go for mostly emerald green, black toe and heel, lighter green on the central part of the shoe. Laces will be in emerald green too. She sketches how the shoe will look. I have to pay a 50% deposit now and the balance when the shoes are delivered. It is currently early December, the shoes will be ready in February. I pay her the deposit of Euros 250—, I’m given a hand-written receipt and her business card with the usual contact details. After a couple of glasses of Prosecco in a nearby bar I head back to the hotel. Life takes over, I’m back home in England. Christmas and New Year come and go.
One day in mid-February I’m working in my office at home – there is a knock at the door and a delivery man is standing there with a beautifully wrapped, brown paper parcel. I know immediately these are my shoes. I carefully open the parcel, my name and address have been written, in an elegant hand, in black ink. I open the box and there inside are the most wonderful green lace-up shoes. The shoes are beautifully made, the suede is soft and luxurious, the colours are vibrant. Even the laces match the colours in the shoes perfectly. I carefully put the shoes on and dance around the room. The shoes fit like a glove.
Inside the box is a small note requesting the balance payment for the shoes. I make the payment the very next day. I can’t think of a business in England that would ship goods overseas and only then request final payment. Once again I’m impressed and humbled by the incredible work ethic I encounter in Italy again and again. Still so many independent craftsmen and women making and delivering exceptional goods every day of the week.
- To discuss this blog or make any observations feel free to comment or to email me at: Janet at Educated Traveller
- July 2016 – Update – two years later and the shoes still look great!
- Grazie mille Giovanna Zanella.
- Why not join me in Venice and the Veneto for a special, relaxed and fascinating tour.
- Dates are either: 10-20 October, 2016 or 02-12 April, 2017
- For more details: Venice and the Veneto