The Amazing Shoemaker: Fairy Tales and Legends

Museo Salvatore Ferragamo

Explore Florence history of arts and trades, a world of beauty, imagination, technology and invention, through one of its great men, Salvatore Ferragamo.

Fairy tales, myths and legends from around the world have often told the story of shoes and shoemakers. This could be because shoes have always symbolised wealth, power and basic creativity. In all societies, shoemaking was considered a humble trade, although the cobbler has always fascinated. His workshop was a place for people to meet and ponder the meaning of life and creation, as we learn from the essay, Socrates and the Shoemaker, by Sergio Givone, included in the exhibition catalogue.  There are many tales about shoes and shoemakers, in countless languages, but only three or four are very well known, Cinderella and The Red Shoes, in particular. This is a theme that merits further exploration, especially by a museum founded on the history of shoes and shoemakers. 

Fairy tales are true

This is how the story begins, a true story, told in the first person, because, as Italo Calvino wrote, “Fairy tales are true.”

Salvatore Ferragamo’s story has all the essential ingredients of a fairy tale. Each chapter of his story and even its happy ending, hold the appeal of an imaginary tale: young Salvatore’s ocean voyage to the United States in search of the secret behind a shoe with the perfect fit; the juxtaposition of Italy with the new, immense and yet familiar country; the opening of a small shop for shoe repairs and custom-made shoes in California, which soon becomes famous; Salvatore’s success in Hollywood; and film, the seventh art, with the power to turn back time and obliterate space, making anything possible, even for a young Italian shoemaker, who finds himself, before he knows it, fitting the most beautiful women in the world – the princesses and sorceresses of the twentieth century – for his custom-made shoes.

Just over twenty years of age, having already found his success and become the brave young hero of our story, Salvatore returns home. Fascinated by the beauty of a city that is new to him, he chooses Florence, with its rich tradition in all the arts, a city that has seen disappointment and ruin, but also rebirth. This magic is infused in a grand Medieval palace every day, where he hosts his famous clients.

A mine of contemporary art and creativity

Museo Salvatore Ferragamo has therefore transformed itself into a mine of contemporary art and creativity, in collaboration with the newly established Fondazione Ferragamo, created specifically to share Ferragamo’s story and instil in young people the principles in which he believed. This is one of the first times that contemporary institutions in Florence explore in such a comprehensive manner the history of this city of arts and trades, a world of beauty, imagination, technology and invention, through one of its great men, Salvatore Ferragamo.

“Once upon a time there was a boy named Salvatore. The eleventh of fourteen children, he was born in 1898 in Bonito, a small village near Naples, with a handful of houses, one main road and lots of countryside. His parents were farmers and their life consisted of waiting and praying for a good harvest…”

The exhibition

The exhibition draws significantly on the participation of many artists. Messenger by Annette Lemieux has been compared to the myth of Mercury, while Carol Rama’s work is a modern version of Cinderella and Daniel Spoerri’s little shoe filled with bread has been compared to Hop-o’-My-Thumb. Some artists, as art critic Demetrio Paparoni writes in his essay, preferred to create new pieces, taking inspiration from different fairy tales, like Liliana Moro with Donkey Skin, Ann Craven with Cinderella and Puss in Boots, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Timothy Greenfield–Sanders with The Wizard of Oz, and Liu Jianhua with Cinderella, while Jan Švankmajer, renowned for the surreal in animation, has looked to The Red Shoes for inspiration.

An entire section is devoted to the sculptures and drawings of Mimmo Paladino, magical visions that use the world of shoes to tell the story of our amazing shoemaker. For the occasion, Paladino, from Italy’s Campania region, has collaborated on an original animated story with writer and comedian Alessandro Bergonzoni, author of a visionary tale. The exhibition also includes a sculpture by Paladino of a goddess in the world of shoes, created specifically for this exhibition.

We could not, of course, leave out a modern form of storytelling: the comic. Frank Espinosa, the creator of famous comic books, has written a new series based on the life story of Salvatore Ferragamo. Son of a Cuban shoemaker himself, Espinosa could not help but show enthusiasm for this initiative.

Ferragamo's creativity

As Cristina Campo so poetically writes, “The narrator of a fairy tale is mysterious, but everyone knows that the perfect tale is the story of one man alone, and that only precious experience, chance bestowed on one single individual, can reflect, like an enchantment, the dreams of many.”

Salvatore’s creativity, his experimentation with materials and his thaumaturgical ability to restore health to feet through shoes fall within a continuous creative flow from the mind to the hands passing through the heart, overcoming danger, difficulty and war. Ferragamo’s creative verve springs directly from an ancient awareness, the memory of the past and the invaluable teachings of other cobblers whose fascinating appeal has inspired myriad legends in all the cultures of the world, some of which are well known, while others less so, but in which shoes always have mysterious powers, are makers of a metamorphosis, and embody good or evil spells.

A Ferragamo Fairy Tale: White Shoe

Finally, two short films will complete the project. One, directed by the Italian director Francesco Fei, gives the shoe a truly psychopompal role. The other is an animated short inspired by an episode in the life of young Salvatore Ferragamo. It was written by Mauro Borrelli, the storyboard artist for movies like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gillman, but mainly known for his collaboration with Tim Burton. The art director for this short film is Rick Heinrichs, Oscar-winner for his work on Sleepy Hollow

As early as 1998, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo focused on fairy tales with an entire exhibition on Cinderella, the world’s favourite story of the perfect shoe, a metaphor for beauty and virginal purity. But we believed this theme could be developed further. A great number of people enthusiastically participated in the project, and not only fairy tale experts like Antonio Faeti and Michele Rak, but film historians like Alessandro Bernardi and writers and poets as well, including Hamid Ziarati, Michele Mari and Elisa Biagini, who penned new stories and poems illustrated by Michela Petoletti and Francesca Ghermandi. World renowned composer Luis Bacalov wrote original music for the exhibition ouverture, and young photographers Simona Ghizzoni and Lorenzo Cicconi Massi, along with expert photographer Arrigo Coppitz, photographed Salvatore Ferragamo shoes as if they were in a fairy tale. 
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