The Roman Leatherman
by Pavia Rosati
ROME – It was a lazy June weekday in Rome. A day that fell in the shadow of some national holiday that saw every man in uniform idling in phalanx. Like a parade that seemed to go nowhere. Military buses and police paddywagons were clustered outside the Forum. Jet planes flew overhead in bursts of red, white, and green smoke and a brass section honked in the distance, but no actual Italians seemed to care, so we walked past in search of snacks.
By the time we crossed via Arenula, it was pretty clear that Rome wasn't coming to Rome today. Every other shop was closed, and the shops that weren't closed were mighty sleepy. Typical traveler luck, I thought. I carefully arrange our Amalfi Coast holiday to end with a few days in Rome — just enough time to give my English boyfriend Ben a quick and efficient tour of the city. Of course I forget to check on the general availability of the city itself.
But scarcity has a way of limiting excess down to the essentials and that's what happened. We made our way to Roscioli, which earned a spot on my Top 20 Favorite Places to Eat on Earth two bites into a plate of Cinta Senese prosciutto. The narrow store is located on via dei Giubbonari, a tight, mostly pedestrian lane. The front is the market, with shelves brimming with capers, olive oils, and foodstuffs from around Italy and an I-want-t0-smuggle-everything-home spread of meats and cheeses in the refrigerator case. The restaurant is in the back. The tables are crammed tight; the walls are lined with booze. We made a mental note to return for dinner.
We turned onto via dei Chiarivari and ended up at the atelier of Dario Alfonsi, a leather artisan who specializes in handmade chairs. Lots of them, lined up like, well, idle soldiers in the front of his shop. Directors' chairs, camp chairs, folding chairs, Wassily chairs, woven loungers, conical tripods. The store itself was at once unassuming and impressive, casually cluttered with rolled leather hides, tall work tables, hanging spotlights, sewing machines, and neat filing drawers tucked into a brick bookshelf whose arch echoed the vault in the brick ceiling.
We got to talking with Alfonsi. He's of middle age and mild temperament, someone who's nice without trying to be. He's the quietly impressive Italian type. They get considerably less PR than the noisy, arrogant ones. Which is understandable but a damn shame.
I rifle through the stack of leather belts on display — scrap material made good, I suspect — and notice that Alfonsi's business cards are made of embossed pale brown leather. So charming. Ben asks Alfonsi about his trade (Ben loves an artisan) and the two gravitate toward a Tripolina campaign chair in the window. Ben thinks it would be an awfully nice perch for reading in the sunshine in his London courtyard. Yes, I do custom work, Alfonsi says. No, it would be no problem to send it to you in London. It will only take a few weeks. Would you like to choose a leather? Ben selects a rich oxblood hide, and topstitching thread color is debated. He notices letter embossing tools (my boyfriend also loves movable type) and asks, Can I have my initials embossed at the top of the chair? Are you sure, Alfonsi asks. It means you'll never be able to part with the chair. Yes, he's sure. The fee is a few hundred euros. Done.
The chair arrives in London in a long tube a few weeks later. The craftsmanship is superb; the leather is beautiful. Ben spends many a sunny afternoon lounging in his courtyard, exactly as he had imagined.
The chair will only get better with age. I think of all the handbags I've collected over the years in Bologna and Paris, and I suddenly wish my New York apartment had a lovely backyard. I'd like a few chairs of my own.