Few people know it, but for almost 70 years, there has been a touch of Florence in the Oval Office: the gilded leather desk set on which nearly every American president has signed documents of historical importance since 1953.
This is a story that blends altruism, moral redemption, and the love between an American colonel and an Italian woman. It might be called a beautiful unintended consequence of the Second World War. And it is all thanks to Dwight David Eisenhower.
Before he was America’s 34th president, Eisenhower was the commander of American forces in Europe. In Sicily on Sept. 3, 1943, he signed, on behalf of the Allies, the Armistice of Cassibile, which decreed Italy’s surrender.
After the war, General Eisenhower oversaw the demobilization of the American armed forces in Europe. He felt at home in Italy, especially in Florence, which he visited often.
In 1950, Marcello Gori, a Florentine craftsman and leather worker who had a small workshop in the Via del Corso, founded, together with his brother-in-law Silvano Casini, La Scuola del Cuoio, known to Americans as “the Leather School.” The war had orphaned countless children in Italy. Gori and Casini wanted to teach them the leather trade in order to give them work in the future.
Thanks to the Franciscan friars of the monastery of Santa Croce in Florence, Gori found his school’s home: the old stables and dormitory of the friars, built by the Renaissance architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi and adorned with frescoes by the school of Domenico Ghirlandaio. When he was ruler of Florence during the Renaissance, Cosimo de’ Medici had donated the property to the Franciscans.
The Leather School’s location at 5 Via San Giuseppe in the Santa Croce district is rich with leather-making history. Already during the Middle Ages, the neighborhood was where skins were tanned for handicrafts and clothing. Over the centuries, the friars bought goat skins from local farmers to use in binding the monastery’s sacred texts.
After World War II, war orphans, all of them boys from nearby Pisa, known then as la Città dei Ragazzi, or the city of boys, came in great numbers. They were taught to recognize quality hides and to distinguish among different leathers, and to cut the hides by hand and work them into various small objects, such as wallets and coin purses. Those who proved to be particularly gifted and willing were also taught how to gild leather with 22 carat gold, and they eventually were entrusted with making larger — and more valuable — objects, such as handbags and jackets.
Unfortunately, the orphans’ work was unpaid, and that didn’t sit well with Gori, who wanted them to be able to earn a living from their labors.
This is where love comes in. Tina Gori, Marcello’s sister, met William “Bill” Davis, then a colonel in the US army, at an officers’ club at the Palazzo Borghese in Florence. It was love at first sight. The couple would go on to marry and have a family.
Davis became aware of Gori’s good works at the Leather School and had an idea for helping him.
As Beatrice Parri Gori, Marcello’s granddaughter, told us, “Bill started talking about this school, introducing my grandfather to the US Sixth Fleet and the Fifth Army stationed in Naples and Livorno, and so we started selling to the Americans. They were our first customers.”
Davis knew Eisenhower and guided him around Florence whenever he visited. He introduced him to the Leather School.
“When he became president of the USA,” says Filippo Parri Gori, Marcello’s grandson and the school’s leather cutter, “Eisenhower came up with an idea to try to help the school: commission a customized desk set for the presidency. From there it became a tradition with American presidents to receive a desk set with their initials in gold. We became official suppliers to the White House, and the school was able to live and help more and more people.”
The opulent desk set is made of goatskin, which is less elastic than lambskin and more supple, making it better able to absorb the gold. A reproduction is on display at the school.
La Scuola del Cuoio remains a family-run business with 20 employees performing nearly every aspect of leather processing, from cutting skins to sewing, decorating, and assembling products by hand. For the school’s bags, wallets, jackets, and other items, skins from all over the world are tanned in nearby Santa Croce sull’Arno, a town that bears the same name as the Florentine district where the skins were tanned in past centuries.
“We send our work all over the world,” Beatrice Parri Gori says, “and 80 percent of our customers are from the United States.”
As we walk through the garden surrounding the apse of the Santa Croce monastery and visit the old friars’ dormitories one floor up from the school, we find a small horde of American tourists intent on buying the school’s handmade products and having them initialed on site. Among the craftsmen doing the gilding, or doratura, is Giuseppe Faienza. “We still do it the old-fashioned way, using a mixture of milk, egg white, and olive oil as a natural adhesive, or by hot stamping,” he says. “In the latter case, we use a gold foil on which we place the well-heated tool over the flame with the desired initials. It has been done this way for centuries.”
Faienza’s work has landed in the hands of popes, politicians, foreign dignitaries, and celebrities. “We have done work for many important people,” he says. “I remember fondly gilding a white leather binder for Pope Francis.”
The school continues to hold classes in the old stables and has become an international center that attracts students from all over the world. And while the orphans are gone, the Leather School’s founding mission to help the less fortunate endures. September saw the opening of the Marcello Gori Foundation, which will aim to “birth new artists in leather and leather working, discovering new talents hidden in those who just need a little help,” as the school’s website states. Each year, the foundation will award six scholarships. This continues the work of Gori who, in addition to helping orphans, began in the late 1950s to run courses for inmates of Le Murate prison in Florence in the hope of giving them a trade once they were released.
“It’s the least we can do,” Filippo Parri Gori says. “My grandfather had a saying: ‘Whoever is rich in knowledge and does not pass it on will be poor forever.’ And we try to carry it on. Always.”
Francesco Bertolucci is a journalist based in Viareggio, Italy. His work has appeared on Rai 5 and in Domani, La Nazione, and Junge Welt. Follow him on Instagram @francesco.bertolucci. Stefano Morelli is an Italian photographer and visual anthropologist. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and publications in Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, and Qatar. Follow him on Instagram @stefanomorelliphoto.