In the Quest for Italy’s Rain Man

Finding shelter in Naples with a bespoke umbrella maker.  
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Naples, viewed here from the Salita della Pedamentina walkway, has long been known for its artisans. Photo by: Athikhom Saengchai

Just like you, I own seven umbrellas. They are all broken—blown inside out by the wind, torn by my cat, the metal ribs bent at awkward angles or cutting right through the fabric (which varies from cheap and flimsy to overpriced leopard or cloud print). I used to own 10, but three were left in restaurants, on the subway, or in somebody’s car. I buy a new one almost every time it rains. About 33 million umbrellas are sold each year in the United States, a figure I’m confident comes from the fact that we lose or break our little fold-up portables all the time. In London, tens of thousands of umbrellas are left on the Underground every year.

I grew up watching Mary Poppins fly with her charmed umbrella and Sebastian Cabot with his proper black English one—an accessory that would not abandon them on a windy day, and one that they wouldn’t abandon on a subway or in a car. These were umbrellas of substance. Umbrellas that made a statement. And like Mary Poppins and Sebastian Cabot, I want to throw away my seven broken umbrellas and buy one that will last a lifetime. I don’t leave my good winter coat or fancy high heels in restaurants. I want an umbrella that demands the same respect.

Though the umbrella as we know it today—foldable steel ribs under a waterproof canopy atop a cane—was invented by Englishman Samuel Fox in 1852, I don’t want an English brolly. I also do not want one of the 500 million umbrellas cranked out in the factories of Songxia, China. And I don’t want one of the 5,000 types offered on Amazon.

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Fourth-generation umbrella maker Mario Talarico sells his one-of-a-kind wares from his snug Naples workshop. Photo by: Lorenzo Franco for The Bespoke Dudes

I want a gorgeous, handmade umbrella that will keep me dry, remain intact, be too precious to leave behind, and even turn a few heads. That means I want an umbrella crafted by Mario Talarico, who is in his 80s. He doesn’t sell his umbrellas online. To buy one, you must go to his shop in Naples, Italy, the same shop where his great-grandfather began making umbrellas by hand in 1860, and where Talarico’s nephew, also named Mario, is a fifth-generation apprentice.

And so I buy a ticket to Naples.

I arrive during a record-breaking heat wave, which the Neapolitans have named, fittingly, Lucifer. There is no rain in sight. Just hazy blue skies and a blistering sun. Sweating and slightly miserable, I find the tiny shop on Vico Due Porte a Toledo, an undistinguished alley in Quartieri Spagnoli, the old Spanish district of Naples. The shop is marked by the ubiquitous cornicelli—red horns—to ward off malocchio, the evil eye. The horns outside Talarico are as tall as a 10-year-old child. Inside sits Talarico himself, carefully shaping the curved cane of an umbrella from the wood of chestnut trees sourced right here in Naples. Talarico’s umbrellas are all made from local wood: lemon-wood from Sorrento, the juniper trees on Vesuvius.

Talarico is part of the fabric of Naples, where artisans have been hand carving elaborate Nativity scenes on Via San Gregorio Armeno since the 13th century, and craftsmen like glove maker Mauro Squillace, who hand cuts the leather and sews his gloves on non-electric Singer sewing machines, still thrive.

Talarico smiles at us when we enter but doesn’t stop working. He sits on a 200-year-old bench, which has been here since the shop opened, beneath photos of himself with celebrities as well as a picture of Padre Pio (who died in 1968). Talarico grew up surrounded by umbrellas, even as a child sleeping in the drawers of a chest in the family shop. Using the same methods as his great-grandfather, he is one of the only umbrella makers in the world who still forges the canes himself, slowly shaping the 180-degree curve with steam. He may be the sole umbrella maker to create a solid stick umbrella with a single shave shaft—known as the asta intera method—which shows off the wood and leaves it intact in one piece. Those canes are finished with a polished buffalo-horn tip. The canopy, or the sky of the umbrella, is closed with a mother-of-pearl button slipped through an embroidered ring. And those canopies? Made of a special waterproof blend of silk and polyester that brings to mind topaz and lapis and ruby. It takes seven hours to make one umbrella, start to finish. Only 220 umbrellas are sold a year—one in 2017 was made especially for Robert De Niro—and not one of them looks like any of the others.

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A street in Quartieri Spagnoli, the old Spanish district of Naples. Photo by: Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

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A figurine being hand-sculpted at the La Scarabattola workshop. Photo by: AGF/Contributor/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

 

Talarico’s nephew-apprentice leads us around the corner to an equally small shop where there are even more umbrellas. I have to step outside in order to open one, and when I do, it makes a pleasing snap as the fabric spreads and falls into perfect place. There are stripes and small polka dots, a chartreuse one with a coppery brown underside. All these umbrellas are solid, heavy, stately, and sell for around 200 euros (about Rs16,150) each. For a unique umbrella, a work of art, and something that will get you through every storm, the price seems reasonable.

I choose a royal blue- and gold-striped umbrella for myself, a sky blue flecked with red for my husband. Both are made with local chestnut, the canes showing off the whorls and gnarls. I can imagine navigating rainy streets beneath one of these umbrellas, can almost hear the sound of raindrops dancing across the top, and me safe and dry. As umbrellas around me turn inside out in the wind, as their flimsy metal snaps, I am practically singin’ in the rain, owner of a magnificent one-of-a-kind umbrella.

The relentless heat and sunshine await me when I step back outside, but as a sign in Mario Talarico’s shop reads, “Give yourself the gift of an umbrella! If it’s not raining now… it soon will!” I can hardly wait.

A porcelain statue of a cheese maker, manufactured by Capodimonte. Photo by: DEA/L. PEDICINI/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Made in Naples

In Naples, perhaps more than anywhere else in Italy, craftsmanship is handed down through centuries. Today Neapolitan artisans are bringing their work into the present, fusing tradition with innovation.

Nativity scenes

The ceramics workshop La Scarabattola reimagines the presepio, the Christmas Nativity scene. Hand-sculpted and painted figures include priests, devils, angels, even mermaids. Via dei Tribunali 50

Gloves

At Omega, Mauro Squillace and his son continue a glove making workshop founded by Gennaro Squillace in 1923. Lambskin gloves lined with silk or cashmere come in a rainbow of colours. Via Stella 12

Porcelain

Flower bouquets, fairies, and Vespa scooters are rendered by Naples’s top porcelain artisans at Porcellane di Capodimonte, dating from 1743. By reservation: capodimonte-porcelain.com

Tambourines

Tambourines of all sizes, some hand-painted with scenes of Naples, fill Officina della Tammorra, a traditional musical instrument workshop that also makes castanets. Vico San Severino 39

  • Ann Hood is the author of the memoir Morningstar: Growing Up With Books. Her latest novel is The Book That Matters Most.

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