Colour, spontaneity, and fireworks
Italian calligrapher Betty Soldi talks about her work and studio in a once-derelict Tuscan greenhouse.

Photography by Maria Riazanova

Betty Soldi lives in a world that’s bursting with colour – which isn’t surprising when you discover she’s part of an Italian family who have been making fireworks since 1869. Whilst her ancestors chose gunpowder and string as their creative medium, Betty has always preferred to use paper and ink. Convinced that her pyrotechnic lineage was at the root of her decision to become a calligrapher, she moved to the UK to study design at Ravensbourne University and returned to her hometown of Florence a decade ago, after many years working for distinguished clients in Paris, London and New York.

Settling back into Tuscany’s capital, Betty was determined to find a studio large enough to accommodate her vast collection of books and objects. She was lucky to discover a derelict greenhouse with its own garden, just a short walk from the famous Pitti Palace and Ponte Vecchio. Betty explained, “I’m an urban bunny at heart. I love the energy you feel when you live in a sprawling metropolis; there’s that inimitable mix of old and new. But the other part of me adores nature, so I’ve been very lucky to find both of those things together in one place.

It was all boarded up when I stumbled across it so at the time it was difficult to understand quite how spectacular it was. With so many windows, it is always flooded with natural light even on the cloudiest days, which for me, is absolutely ideal. It was built for lemon trees in 1801, as part of the first ever ‘English garden’ in Florence, which probably doesn’t sound hugely significant, but back in those days the strict, geometric Italianate style was much more prevalent, and landscaping was all about trying to control nature. This presented a shift in attitude – there was a romantic rebellion to it, because if a leaf or wilted rose wanted to drop on the floor then it could do so, and nobody felt the need to pick it up.”

Betty occasionally holds calligraphy masterclasses and cites the unpredictability of nature as something that heavily influences the way she teaches students who come to her hoping to improve their decorative handwriting skills. Pausing for a moment, she reflected on her reasons for encouraging spontaneity as part of the creative process, “Here in Florence, everyone always talks about how great the renaissance was. When we study the philosophy of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo, we know they were all taught to nurture themselves first before expressing anything to the world. They understood history and this is what gave them all such strong bases to work from – but for me, as a modern calligrapher, I prefer to take note of the old rules of typography, but then make my own way. This is Florentine humanist thinking. Nature inspires us and we have a duty to do something with it.

When I’m teaching, I’m not interested in the perfect ‘A’. Instead, I show the students examples of ‘perfect As’ and tell them that this is just the starting point for design. You learn age-old rules and then find a way to express your own interpretation of them – you take what you know from history and make it authentically yours. I like to try and guide people into feeling (with their writing at least) like they can safely allow themselves to ‘let go’. I love scribbles, I love scrawls and graffiti. There is beauty in everything.”

This sentiment is clearly demonstrated in Betty’s rainbow of colour-coded artbooks and trinkets, which are housed on the 606 Universal Shelving System installed along the only wall which runs across the back of the studio. Renovating such a beautiful but awkward space presented Betty with the challenge of storing and displaying the materials that inspire her work every day. Smiling, she recalled, “I knew Vitsœ would be my saviour. I’m the type of person who likes to have lots of things around them to help fire up the imagination. I needed a solution that would help me keep them, display them and curate them – but most importantly, to allow me to mix them up whenever I feel like it. When people visit, their first comment is always, ‘Wow, you have so much stuff,’ but because it’s organised and contained within the system, people soon get past that initial shock and start to linger in front of the shelves looking at everything. It’s an attraction, it’s not a deterrent. It draws you in.

I remember the day before we were putting the shelves up, onto the freshly painted walls and I had this urge to write something. I grabbed a pen and wrote, ‘Thank you, universe’, because this incredible space happened to come to me. I know people are afraid of writing on walls, but I disagree. But then I’m a calligrapher, so I like to write on anything and everything! It’s still up there, hidden behind a book somewhere…”

As a chorus of church bells chimed close by, it was time to finish by asking if Betty had ever regretted not joining her relatives in the manufacturing side of the family fireworks business. With a grin she said, “It’s hard to believe that something that began as ammunition has been transformed into joy, awe and pure emotion. My cousins spend hours laboriously making everything by hand and then the fruits of their labour go up in smoke in seconds! They have always told me the hard work is worth it when you look at the pure wonder on people’s faces. I’ve always thought the explosions looked like writing in the sky; perhaps that’s why I ended up taking this path in life. So really, I do make fireworks for a living – but this time, with ink.”