It was an early summer evening in Florence, and swallows were dipping into the courtyard of the Convent of San Marco. Gone were the tourists who pour through the entrance on the Via Cavour to see the Fra Angelicos. In their place were the best families in town. They had come to gaze at film director Franco Zeffirelli, the guest of honor at the season's swankest soiree.

But Zeffirelli wanted to share the spotlight. As cameras clicked away in the heat, he singled out a dignified Florentine matron from the crowd. "This is a very special lady," said Zeffirelli. "Her name is known around the world." With a faint blush rising in her cheeks, Wanda Ferragamo, the widow of master shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo, addressed the crowd. "I don't know how to make shoes," she said, "and I don't deserve all this attention."

It is true that there may never be another cobbler like Salvatore Ferragamo, who was to shoes what Stradivarius was to violins. But Signora Ferragamo's modesty masks her real accomplishments. Driven to keep the company going after her husband's death in 1960, Wanda, who had never worked a day in her life, threw herself into the family business. "In those early days I felt an energy like a lion," the 61-year-old matriarch of the Ferragamo clan says. "Everyone was surprised, but I realized it was no use to be alone crying about my destiny. I wanted to keep alive all the efforts my husband made." Now, 23 years later, with all of her children grown and fitted into important positions throughout the firm, Wanda has turned Salvatore Ferragamo into one of the most successful family-run businesses in Italy. In 1961 the Ferragamo workshops produced 3,000 shoes a month. Today their 12 factories turn out 60,000, and the company's 1983 revenues are expected to exceed $50 million.

As the company's president, Wanda keeps a close eye on her empire—and her children's work. She holds forth in her elegant offices in the Feroni-Spini Palazzo, the 13th-century palace overlooking the Arno River, bought by Salvatore after he recovered from his bankruptcy during the Depression. Eldest daughter Fiamma, 42, is responsible for designing the women's shoes the firm ships to 26 countries. Fiamma won the Neiman-Marcus fashion award in 1967, 20 years after the same honor was bestowed on her father. Giovanna, 39, heads the women's ready-to-wear division. Ferruccio, 37, the eldest son, is the general manager. Fulvia, 33, heads up the accessories division, while Leonardo, 30, is in charge of the nine-year-old menswear line. Massimo, 25, has been studying the U.S. operation in New York. Together the seven Ferragamos have fulfilled Salvatore's dream that one day a customer could leave his store dressed from head to toe in his products.

The Missonis of Milan and the Fendis of Rome may have trendier images, but the Ferragamos of Florence set great store by their conservative reputation, elegantly up-to-date but never extreme. Yet in their own classy way, the Ferragamos are branching out. Next year they plan to open their first men's shop in New York and step up their ad campaign in the States, where 75 percent of their products are sold. When Rudi Crespi, their U.S. public relations man, suggested to the children that they drop Salvatore from the firm's name, they turned him down. "I thought that Salvatore Ferragamo, although evoking a very noble family, was also suggesting the name of a person who was dead. But they wouldn't hear of a change," says Crespi. "They think they owe everything to their father."

Salvatore Ferragamo was born in Bonito, a village 80 miles east of Naples, in 1898. His parents were farmers, and they disapproved when their son told them he wanted to be a shoemaker. Years later Ferragamo wrote in his autobiography, "To be a shoemaker was a disgrace. It would bring the family into disrepute." Nonetheless, when he was 9, he stayed up a whole night to make a pair of white shoes for his sister Giuseppa's first communion. After a two-year apprenticeship with the village cobbler, Salvatore moved to Naples. At 16, he left for America and there perfected his trade. By the time he returned to his native land in 1927 to start his own business in Florence, he was well on his way to becoming a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.

During his career, Ferragamo invented the wedgie, a pump with a cork heel, as well as the invisible shoe, shaped out of clear plastic with a needle-thin heel. He worked with an amazing range of materials—everything from raffia, snail shells and silk to kangaroo, seaweed and sugar paper used in bonbon boxes. Over the years some of the world's most glamorous women tripped into the palazzo to be fitted by the master. His clients included Lillian Gish, Mae West, Eva Perón, Greta Garbo and Queen Elizabeth. Ferragamo's most important contribution was in the basic structure of footwear, incorporating principles of last design and arch support that are still an intrinsic part of every Ferragamo shoe. The children are fond of quoting their father's credo: "If you have a headache, your shoes don't fit properly."

Wanda Ferragamo, née Miletti, also grew up in Bonito, the daughter of the town doctor. Twenty-four years Salvatore's junior, she first met her future husband at the age of 3, when she sat on his lap at a family wedding. Fifteen years later, in 1940, Salvatore had returned to Bonito to look for a wife. When he saw Wanda, he turned to his sister and said, "That is the girl I am going to marry."

For her part, Wanda remembers primping for the meeting by putting on her best pair of silk stockings. "He came like a fairy tale," she says. "He said to me, 'Take off your shoes. I want to measure your feet so I can send you a pair.' I turned red. I was so embarrassed because one of my stockings had a tiny hole in it." Two weeks later the shoes arrived, a pair of black suede oxfords with tiny perforations shaped like scarabs in the front. "When I opened up the box," remembers Wanda, "bellezza. I had never worn anything so comfortable. I thought I could fly." They were married five months later.

The Ferragamos raised their children at II Palagio (the Palace), a 30-room villa high in the hills of Fiesole, four miles northeast of Florence. "When Daddy arrived home, it was a big event," recalls Fiamma. "He would blow his horn when he was at the gates, and all the children came running." Yet Salvatore was a stern parent. "At the table we were not allowed to refuse anything or leave anything on the plate," Ferruccio adds. "I remember I studied Latin with a priest. I never worked out whether the priest was more severe than my father."

Three weeks after Ferragamo's death from liver cancer, Wanda, Fiamma and Giovanna, dressed in black, drove into Florence and entered the Ferragamo headquarters. "Everybody thought, 'What is going to happen now?' " said Fiamma, who trained beside her father before he died. "It was most unlikely that his widow, who had never worked, let alone his daughters, could have taken his place. Those first years were very hard."

The summer mornings are cool at II Palagio when Wanda steps into her gray Mercedes. Living with her at home are two unmarried sons, Massimo (who also works in New York) and Leonardo. Ferruccio has a house on the grounds, and Giovanna owns one down the road. Fiamma lives in the center of town in an exquisite apartment, while Fulvia has decamped to Milan.

As the electric gates swing open, the chauffeur guides the car past the tiny private shrine at the end of the drive, down winding roads bordered by cypress and olive trees and along the fashionable Via Tornabuoni to the office. Despite the hectic pace of the business, Wanda remains calm in the midst of crises, always dignified. There is a call to be made to Massimo in New York, details to iron out about the new store in the States, a talk with Ferruccio about one of the factories in Naples. Underlying Wanda's every move is her profound impulse to keep the business and her children together. "I think of everything to avoid dissension," she says. Among her rules: No in-law may work for the firm, and every child receives the same salary.

The family's hard work pays off. Besides II Palagio, Wanda owns a wine-producing farm in Tuscany, a villa in Capri, an apartment in Cortina, a beach house at Maremma southwest of Florence and an apartment in the Olympic Tower in Manhattan. The Ferragamo empire undoubtedly will continue to grow. And with 14 grandchildren waiting in the wings, the family is planning ahead. While looking to the future, the Ferragamos are ever mindful of their past. Now and then they wonder what Salvatore would think if he could see them now. "We are all dreaming he would feel happy," says Giovanna. "Everything we do is in his honor."