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Tanning History

Tanning is an ancient art that has its origins in distant Prehistory; it has evolved over time, becoming trades in the Middle Ages up to the present day when industrialization and technology have led to the development of machinery suitable for leather processing and the search for new, less polluting products.

PREHISTORIC ORIGINS

Man has always used the skin of animals coming from hunting and breeding to make clothes and shelter from the elements. The first major obstacle to tanning was the conservation of materials; leather is an organic material consisting mainly of proteins that degrade easily and quickly when exposed to atmospheric agents. So the temperature was a very important variable, the heat led to rapid decomposition while the cold made the materials so rigid that they could no longer be used. How to slow down the deterioration process? Man discovered the properties of tannins and aldehydes; subjecting the skin to the fumes of the fire (loads of tannins contained in the wood) or dipping it in the water with the leaves and branches of the trees (rich in aldehydes) the process of putrefaction suffered a strong braking. This is how the various tanning techniques took shape: vegetable tannins, aldehydes and lime, working processes still in use.

The first historical testimonies of the use of leather in everyday life (clothes, water containers, boats) date back to the Sumerian era but tanning art was present in several ancient populations all over the world: Babylonians, Hittites, Persians, Egyptians , Jews, Shiites, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Japanese and Chinese; already in the Hellenistic period the first associations of artisans were grouped constituting true archetypes of today’s district consortia.

ITALIAN ROOTS

In Italy the tanning took place at the Roman people thanks to the Etruscan and Greek skills, it was at this time that tanning was elevated to trade, founding a new professional category validated by law. With the decadence of Rome, the leather goods business suffered a sharp decline and resumed vigor after 1000 thanks to the commerce of the maritime republics; in this period the tanning systems differed according to the different applications, production and geographical areas. The processes became more refined, from the rudimentary processes of smoking and drying, to the alum and fattening processes with mineral and natural oils, to vegetable tanning. An important expansion of the sector was recorded in 1200 when the use of lime depilating lime was introduced, this process made it easier to remove the animal’s fur from its skin, obtaining a material suitable for more uses.

The first tanning areas were born in Pisa, Genoa and Venice, facilitated by the proximity to the ports, following Bologna, Florence, Milan, Turin, Naples, Parma, Ferrara, Vercelli and Ivrea, exactly in these cities until the first half of the thirteenth century , the beccarii (butchers) and the caligarii (workers of the skins) formed the most substantial productive divisions.

FROM DRUM TO THE CHROME TANNING

The lime innovation brought about such an important improvement that no substantial changes were applied until 1700, when we witnessed the change from craft to pre-industrial activity.

A remarkable step forward towards industrialization can be attributed to the drum, a machine that sped up the processing by reducing the essential steps for the transformation of the leather in tanning. The drum is a rotating machine in which the skin immersed in the water joined with the chemicals, this movement facilitated the penetration of the substances.

Another fundamental step in the history of leather is the invention of chrome tanning at the beginning of the twentieth century; processing makes the skin unalterable. Today chrome tanning is the most widespread because it adapts to different types of product, it is simple, fast and economical.

New technological advances are inserted in the sector, optimizing the materials, the resources, the timing and the costs but we want to underline that it is always the man to play the most important role, they are the skill, the ingenuity and the manual skills of the artisans tanning to make the leather a unique and precious material.