Today, the streetside trinket shops of Sorrento overflow with quickly and cheaply turned out wooden souvenirs that bear little resemblance to the masterpieces of intarsia that have brought Sorrentine craftspeople fame over centuries of tradition. Year after year, it seems that the quality of these kitschy souvenirs gets worse. Unfortunately, many visitors fly in and out of town, accept these uninspired works as traditional intarsia, and never take the time to understand or appreciate the breathtaking beauty and intricacy of traditional intarsia. Selecting a higher-quality piece takes a bit more work, but if you can buy directly from one of Sorrento’s tried-and-true intarsia masters, it’s the best guarantee of buying a work of exceptional quality that you will treasure for life.

JUDGING QUALITY

The lower-quality works of intarsia produced today tend to be small. Items like jewelry boxes, frames, and other trinkets take less time to produce and are more portable, making them attractive to travelers. Unfortunately many objects churned out for the Sorrentine souvenir market bear little resemblance to the more finely wrought pieces—larger-scale furniture, for example—that adhere to the grand intarsia tradition.

You can find high-quality, small-scale intarsia objects, but use your most discerning eyeand compare many objects before you hand over your cash or credit card. Be sure to buy directly from the workshop where the piece was made instead of one of the tourist-oriented resellers, and you’ll ensure you make a purchase you’ll still be happy about long after you return home.

Avoid the shops selling cheap trinkets around the port, the Piazza Tasso, and along the via San Cesareo, Sorrento’s main shopping street. Instead, seek out the intarsia studios along the via degliAranci and elsewhere in town. Check out the companion book, Artisans of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, for specific recommendations.

Some of the most masterful works of intarsia are decorative panels so intricate that, from a distance, they are hard to distinguish from painting. The individual pieces of wood have been so painstakingly arranged as to resemble brushstrokes. Many of the landscapes produced today portray the coastline, with its rocky cliffs and hanging trees, along with a jumble of buildings. If you buy something small, make sure you carefully examine the quality. Well-made small intarsia objects make durable souvenirs and gifts that are either easy to transport in your suitcase or relatively simple to ship.

As a general rule, fine intarsia is not cheap, but often represents a good value considering the quality. Sorrento boasts unparalleled opportunities to not only go home with a beautiful work of intarsia but also to make a connection with the person whose labor and passion went into crafting it. The Naples region is full of traditional woodworkers and restorers, and offers a wonderful chance to watch them work. Beautiful furniture and wooden embellishments not only play an important role in the region’s artisanal history but remain a vibrant part of the culture today. Even when it incorporates more modern woodworking tools and technology, the simple, understated beauty of Sorrentine intarsia furniture and woodcrafting has stood the test of time.

Read more about Italian traditions in my guide, Made in Italy. 

Have you discovered something wonderful during your travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!

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