Meet the Donnini Family, artisans of the old knife grinding tradition
A riddle: what does Florence, a knife, an antique shop and the movie “Hannibal” have in common?
Well it’s Donnini, Florence’s historical arrotino, of course! A bit of movie bu trivia – it is Coltelleria Donnini that provided the actual knife used in the world famous movie “Hannibal.”
But what exactly is an arrotino, anyway?
Simply put, it’s a traditional knife grinder. But if you go and take a peek behind the scenes of this seemingly simple word, an entire world of craftsmanship, tradition and history suddenly opens up.
A knife grinder is responsible for repairing and sharpening everything from a granny’s pair of embroidery scissors to a top chef’s santoku to a leather-maker’s cutting tool to a fashion designer’s scissors to a cobbler’s nippers to instruments for gardeners, beauticians, hunters, seamstresses, plumbers and even surgeons! Being a fashion capital, Florence sure does not lack designers, or any of the above, as a fact!
However, in today’s world – ever- more oriented towards globalization and less and less on tradition – old artisan heritage like that of the arrotino seems to be disappearing before our very eyes. In fact, as of 2013, there were merely 200 knife grinders in the entire country of Italy, with only about 40 of these practicing the art professionally. With his Coltelleria Donnini right here in Florence, Leonardo Donnini is one of these. And more so, he is one of the 10 “Mastro Arrotini” or Master Knife Grinders in the whole country, and the only one in our beautiful region of Tuscany.
For the reference, a Master Knife Grinder is one that has passed diverse strenuous tests and has been certified master of the trade for cutting tools of all types (knives, scissors and beauticians’ instruments) by the AAeC, short for As- sociazione Arrotini e Coltellerie, Italy’s o cial non-profit Knife Grinding Association.
So, how did it all happen, espe- cially in today’s world, so keen on wishing “addio” to age-old traditions and replacing them with the new?
It is actually thanks to the handing down of the craft from parent to child that has miraculously man- aged to keep the trade alive, though not without some re-interpretation by the younger generation. Leonardo Donnini, for example, with his renovated workshop and bottega, has gone a long way from 1930, when the shop had first opened.
The shop was originally founded by Vittorio Galli nearly a century ago in Florence’s bustling commercial area of Via Gilbert.
Galli had first encountered the world of knives as an apprentice of Bianda, a family famous for their knife shop in the very central Piazza del Duomo in the early 1900s. He went on working at his bottega until, in 1957, it was his turn to take on an apprentice.
After trying out many a pupil, he chose Mario Donnini, 17 years of age at the time, as his official apprentice. Mario worked hard and managed to climb his way up from a simple jack of all trades to an actual knife grinder.
To the point where Galli proud- ly handed over the trade and the bottega to Mario for good. Mario continued his art and when his son, Leonardo, turned 18, hewelcomed the opportunity to pass down his craft to him, especially the secrets of the trade he’d learned along the way.
It was now Mario’s turn to be the teacher, and thus Leonardo commenced his apprenticeship.
“I began as an apprentice in 1958; later on I acquired the license for the job, and then I taught the profession to my children,” arms Mario, proudly.
A new generation of knife grinding had begun…though the work- bench, dated back to 1930, remained – and remains to this day – the very same one.
Thus in 1997, Leonardo and his sister Silvia, took over the shop, continuing with the artisan craft of knife grinding while also expanding by o ering specialty knives and cutting utensils for the joy of professionals and enthusiasts alike. It is with the same passion, hard work and pride as that of their predecessors that the brother and sister team run the shop.
With clients ranging from Florence’s top chefs to leather manufacturers, from beauticians to seamstresses and hairdressers, from knife collectors to hunters and Florentine residents, the shop needed room to grow. That is why, in September 2016, Leonardo and Silvia decided to move the shop to a bigger location in Via Giovanni Lanza, 70, just a ten minute walk from city center, where it all had started. With the same purpose as that of their predecessors: to one day pass down their beloved bottega to someone who, like them, promises to learn the tradition and transform the past in order to make the future. The rest is history.