Italy’s Last Maker of Traditional Wooden Hat Blocks
Gian Piero Bellucci is the last Italian artisan who still makes the traditional, handcarved wooden forms that serve as hat blocks.
Story and Film by LUISA GROSSO
Our story takes place in Signa, a small town in the Tuscan region of central Italy, inside the workshop of Gian Piero Bellucci. For three generations, the Bellucci family has been making wooden shapes for hats, a time-honored craft that is now on the brink of extinction. At 89, even though he moves and thinks with the speed of someone 20 years younger, Gian Piero says, “I am at the end of my run.”
Gian Piero’s hometown of Signa is also the birthplace of a once-popular kind of hat, known as “the straw hat of Florence.” The small, flat version was so popular among Venetian gondoliers that it became known as a “boater.” Other styles, typically worn by women, were made with sumptuous, wide brims shaped with an elegant, sexy swoop.
The Florence straw hat became an icon, appearing in paintings and songs, and inspiring many works of art bearing the same title: “The Italian Straw Hat.” These included the 1851 play by Eugène Labiche, a 1928 silent film by René Clair, and later, an opera by Nino Rota. Hats by the region’s milliners, who eventually formed The Hat of Florence Consortium, have framed the faces of Hollywood stars such as Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind;” Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman;” Cher in “Tea with Mussolini;” and Kim Cattrall, as Samantha Jones, in HBO’s original “Sex and the City” TV series.
Gian Piero’s eponymously named company (Gian Piero Bellucci: Wooden Shapes for Hats) was founded by his grandfather, Cesare Bellucci, at the end of the 19th century and carried on by his father, Bruno. Gian Piero himself started working here in 1944, at the age of 12, before he’d even finished elementary school. He says he would have liked to have stayed in school, but the Second World War was still going on at that time; no one went to school anymore.
“My learning was watching my father and my uncles,” he says. “They left me a shape to finish, and I finished it. It’s not like you learn how to make a shape in a month, not even in a year. Think about how many varieties of hats there are! It takes a long time to learn.”
Like so many old crafts, the straw hat industry originated in Signa due to the area’s natural resources—in this case, the soil, which was rich enough to cultivate plaiting straw.
There are paintings that date as far back as 1300 depicting the peasants of Signa wearing straw hats, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that the processing of straw for these hats became a real industry. This was largely thanks to the efforts of one man, Domenico Michelacci, to whom Signa’s Museum of Straw and Straw Weaving is dedicated. In 1718, Michelacci planted a genus of wheat called marzuolo. Marzuolo straw was prized for its thinness, flexibility, and brightness—all characteristics ideal for weaving. Soon, the rich soil of Signa was growing a lot of wheat—not for food, but for hats.
Hats remained the primary industry around Signa throughout the 19th century, supporting thousands of people in various specialties of hat production: growing and harvesting the straw, weaving the straw into plaits, building hat blocks, and of course, shaping, refining, and finishing the hats. The craft was handed down from generation to generation and was increasingly profitable, with Italian hat exports peaking, in 1870, at 8 million pieces. Florentine hats, known for their elegance and lightness, were sold throughout Europe, the United States, Australia, and Japan.
Over the decades that followed, Tuscan millinery experienced many ups and downs. Most of the region’s hat companies finally closed for good in the 1950s, when the custom of wearing fine hats was killed off, strangely enough, by the automobile industry.
Automobile sales exploded after World War II, and hats suddenly became impractical. The interior of most cars was too low for a hat with a substantial crown to be worn, and there was no convenient place to store a fine hat that would protect it from damage. Furthermore, with people’s heads inside the car, protected from the elements, hats served little practical purpose.
Other cultural changes of the 1950s and ’60s didn’t help: For the younger generations, the hat represented the past. It symbolized an older, more conservative ideology that they rejected. Hat manufacturers soon realized that the golden era of fine fedoras, cylinders, and straw hats was ending.
Throughout his many decades in the trade, Gian Piero’s exacting work and patient expertise has been in demand with hatters from all over the world. “It can take me half a day or a whole day to build a shape,” he says. Today, his hat blocks typically cost 350 euros apiece—a fixed price, so he can avoid negotiating a quote with each customer.
As passionate as Gian Piero is about his work, he becomes melancholic when he talks about the future. “My children have other jobs,” he says. “One is an accountant, the other works in the telephone industry, and they never come here, in the workshop. After me, this job will no longer exist.”
He is not exaggerating. In Italy, Gian Piero is the last artisan who still makes wooden hat blocks in the traditional manner. As a result, his work is highly sought after by discerning milliners like Dana Jauker, the owner of an artisan hat factory in Bologna and creator of the Yesey hat brand.
“After me, this job will no longer exist…” – Gian Piero Bellucci
Jauker, who is also in this film, visits Gian Piero’s shop at least once a month so that he can restore some of her old hat blocks. She owns more than 2,000 of these blocks and many need repair, while others just need resizing. Since people’s heads are larger today than they used to be, many of the beautiful hat shapes from the 1800s and first half of the 1900s would have to be thrown out, if not for Gian Piero’s interventions.
Gian Piero’s voice breaks a little, remembering the glory days when he had several people working with him. When I shift the conversation back to the present, he regains his enthusiasm.
“Now I do a lot of work with the drawings or videos that the hatters send to my cell phone,” he says. These drawings come with detailed directions on shapes, sizes, the works. “I am making a cylinder [the shape used for a top hat] for a Spaniard,” he says. “I have never done so many cylinders as for this Spaniard. Maybe he needs them for a movie or a play.”
Gian Piero has a long history of making commissions for theater and film productions, most recently for the Netflix series, “Medici,” which is set in 16th-century Florence and stars Dustin Hoffman.
While Gian Piero and I converse, he continually returns to his work, flipping wood back and forth from his bandsaw to his hand tools with the energy and dexterity of a much younger man. “Doing a job you like,” he says with a smile, “doesn’t make you old.”
© 2023 Luisa Grosso. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.