In preparation for the next Creative Aperitivo on April 3rd (r.s.v.p. here), I sat down with Creative People member Jenna Basmagy and her husband Marco Arduino to talk about Mayday Club and the work behind cultivating its offbeat atmosphere and distinctive cocktails. Read on to hear about the Florentine guild system, old telegraph machines, and an apothecary—and what all that has to do with Mayday!
Fill us in on the background. What and why is Mayday?
When we opened in September 2001 it was with the goal of creating a place worthy of Florence, a city known for invention, craft and creativity. On the surface, Mayday is a Cocktail lounge in Florence’s historic center but in reality, it is much more than that.
At its heart, Mayday is a cultural association devoted to preserving arti e mestieri, the arts and crafts guild system. Developed by craftsmen during medieval times, the guild system was comprised of independent associations organized by trade. Each guild controlled the secrets of their traditionally imparted knowledge and technology, the arts and mysteries of their crafts that were passed down from master to apprentice for hundreds of years.
Today Mayday promotes and continues that venerable tradition by offering a free space for artists and artisans to exhibit and/or demonstrate their work to the public by creating an atmosphere of creativity, free-expression, exchange and community; and by doing what we can to educate and inform those curious about Florence’s rich history of art and craftsmanship.
How do your creative interests and training fit into the Mayday project?
Mayday was born from a lifelong passion for the arts. In the 1990’s, Marco graduated from the Istituto d’Arte di Firenze as a maestro d’arte and then completed a specialization in Interior Design, something that is immediately evident the moment you enter the bar! His boundless creativity shows up in everything from the furniture selection, to the music, to the mixology. He’s even designed a line of silver jewelry.
Jenna, who came on board in 2008, worked for 10 years as a professional typesetter and graphic artist in New York before receiving a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Art Education and a NYS art teaching certification. At Mayday she’s committed to promoting the arts and getting the message out, directing social media, graphics and working with exhibiting artists, curating and organizing events.
Thanks to the participation of so many talented and passionate people, in the last 13 years we’ve hosted events with poets, art historians, dancers, sculptors, painters, artisans, jewelry designers, photographers, fashion designers, djs and more…even a master Sushi chef!
It’s immediately apparent when you walk in to the space that it’s unique. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve cultivated the Mayday feel—from the objects and decor of the bar, to the cocktail menu, to the music, to the cycle of art shows?
The one-of-a-kind atmosphere comes from the eclectic furniture and art collection, the custom lighting and the myriad objects of curiosity and antique radio equipment which have come to Mayday from the Scuola Alessandro Volta located via Santa Reparata from the early 1900’s until 1971. This historical link inspired the name Mayday Club, as it was one of the first schools for training telegraphists and radio technicians for the Italian military. (To read more about this fascinating little sliver of Florentine history, click here.)
The walls are covered in works of art, including works by artists who have had exhibitions at the bar, Italian publicity posters from the 30’s and 40’s and even photographic prints enlarged from original turn-of-the-century glass plate negatives.
Mayday has always been more of a concept or mindset rather than just a bar. Marco always imagined it as a cultural access point for any and all who want to know more about Florence and her traditions. It’s a long-term, dynamic project that has evolved into an exploration of mixology, music and art but always above all, community. It’s so much about what the people who love and support Mayday have brought to it. The art shows are driven by the artists. When someone is interested in exhibiting, they will generally come to us with either a finished work or an idea for something they’d like to try…and things just grow from there!
Let’s talk more about the cocktails. I hear there’s a new menu featuring a series of infused vermouth that Marco developed with Bizzarri. Can you tell us a bit about that collaboration and the new cocktails? Do you have a favorite from the new menu?
The cocktail list changes seasonally and offers, we hope, something for everyone. We craft excellent-quality, creative cocktails mixed with 100% certified-organic fruit juices grown in Tuscany, while also working with herbalists, apothecaries, farmers and other historic Florentine shops to bring the most exciting experience we can.
The latest collaboration is with Bizzarri, a fascinating Florentine apothecary established in 1849, located in via della Condotta. It started a few years ago when Marco stopped in to inquire about techniques for infusing alcohols. In response, they pulled out an ancient tome called Il Liquoristà from an old wooden cabinet, dusted it off and offered him a chair and notepad…
So began a year-long study where Marco consulted both the book and their extensive experience as well as their vast inventory of spices to create the infusions and vermouths we sell today. These historic liqueurs have been expertly mixed, with attention to taste and balance, to create our line of original cocktails. The crowd favorites from this season are L’Erborista, a vodka and vermouth cocktail with hints of absinthe and vanilla, and Toast of New York, a sweet rum cocktail with a delicious mix of raspberry juice and hazelnut liqueur.
We love offering something new and delicious to the cocktail scene so if you stop in and you’re curious, please ask about anything that interests you! We’re happy to talk about these experiments and ingredients. We’ve even started a newsletter to highlight interesting herbs, liqueurs and artists people may want to know more about!
Can you tell us about the event coming up on April 3rd for Creative People?
We’ve very excited about this event, it’s completely inspired for and by Creative People in Florence! The evening begins at 7:30 pm with an aperitivo and a tasting of Mayday’s new line of vermouths, inspired by Bizzarri. Marco will be there to mix us up some great drinks and talk about his process and work creating infusions, vermouths and cocktails. We’ve also invited some local artisan friends to come and show us some of their traditional Florentine arti e mestieri! Exhibitors will include:
Giuliano and Mari of M.G. di Mari Yoshida Foglia, an artisanal jewelry studio in Borgo Ognissanti specializing in repoussé and chasing. They will be showing some of their work, tools and demonstrating techniques in an art that, in their opinion, is “the joy of life”
The staff of Bizzarri – “Lo Speziale di una volta” promises an intriguing introduction to perfumery, the art of perfume making. The presentation will include bottles of extracts and unexpected raw materials to see, smell and explore.
Simone Taddei, maestro of Taddei, a workshop for handcrafted leather articles in via Santa Margherita will be bringing along molds, blocks, leather and works in progress, to demonstrate the stages and processes involved in making his world famous, exquisite leather boxes.