An artisan is a person who produces something by hand in limited quantities using traditional methods. What is produced can be purely functional, decorative, or both. High quality and mastery is the hallmark of artisanal work.
Historically, artisans were no more than labourers/servants producing products for the rulers. It was during the middle ages (medieval period) that artisans began to flourish and become renowned for their high quality goods. At this time, artisans had 2 main patrons of their goods/art: royalty and the church.
Increasing trade in places like Florence and Venice gave rise to a middle class populated by bankers and merchants. This middle class now had a buying power previously reserved for royals and priests, and a desire to exhibit not only their wealth, but their discernment and learning. They became hungry for the products of the artisan class, which subsequently burgeoned as well. Venice became renowned for producing fine glass and mirror products and Florence for scholars, books, artists and architecture.
The formation of guilds by masters and apprentices of a particular trade further enhanced the position of artisans. Guilds guaranteed quality to the buyer whilst at the same time guaranteeing the selling price for the artisans’ products. Italian guild members were then ‘exported’ to Austria, France and throughout Europe.
France likewise developed a rich artisan culture – pretty much owned, managed and brokered by King Louis XIV. The palace of Versaille, regarded by some to be vulgar with its over the top guilding, acted much like a trade display of the skills of the artisans to foreign buyers who the king entertained.
The Industrial Revolution saw skilled artisans replaced with machinery to meet higher levels of production. The mass produced products became popular despite the poor quality due to the lower overall price. Poor people now had access to a wide range of low quality, but functional products. (Hello, synthetic perfumes for the masses!)
However, the Industrial Revolution would not spell the death of the artisan tradition. On the contrary, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800’s arose as a form of resistance to industrialisation and continues today in ever more colourful ways. The overwhelming volume of cheap trash being produced, seems to have made consumers as hungry as Florentine bankers for high quality products, that reflect their discernment and learning. Technology such as the internet has augmented the artisan. The artisan can now reach an audience throughout the world as well as hone their skills via the internet. For me to go to the mecca of perfumery, Grasse, and spend years learning perfumery skills is out of the question, not only because of the cost, but time away from my children. The internet allows people like myself to research, purchase books and materials, undertake online courses and hone our skills at our own pace in our own homes and then bring this skill to the consumer, who is likewise using the internet to find what they are after. Amazing!
Like me you have probably grown weary of people parading as artisans while, to quote the TV show Portlandia, all they have done is “put a bird on” something mass produced by machines. They’re a distraction from the true artisan tradition, which is as alive today as during the Renaissance. A few years ago I stayed in Florence and thoroughly enjoyed the artisan quarter. In little alley ways people were busy producing amazing high quality products from furniture, paper, artists paints, wax seals, picture frames, glass beads, leather goods and of course that city’s famous gelato!
Arriving here in Tasmania has revealed a flourishing, genuine artisan culture of people proudly producing quality hand made goods from scratch: furniture makers, violin makers, jewellery makers, glass blowers, micro brewers and distillers, cheese and wine makers, bakers, honey farmers, wood turners, small scale truffle farmers, artisan paper makers, and of course the farmers and distillers of essential oils such as lavender, boronia absolute, black currant bud absolute, peppermint and fennel.
Here are some links to some fantastic artisans here in Tasmania:
Manu Boulangerie Patisserie: http://www.manubread.com.au/
Leaning Church Vineyard: http://leaningchurch.com.au/
Moo Brew: http://moobrew.com.au/
Merino clothing: http://www.smittenmerino.com/
Glass blower: http://www.tasglassblowers.com.au/jdmg.html