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A Miniature Fascination

May 26, 2011 | by

Huguette Clark.

When the 104-year-old copper heiress Huguette Clark died earlier this week, obituaries invariably included the word eccentric. This was surely due at least somewhat to her apparent preference for making her home in hospitals. But part of it—the bigger part, I’m guessing—was her passion for dollhouses. In her later years, Clark retreated into an expensive miniature world, surrounding herself with large amounts of the tiny.

Second childhood? God complex? Arrested development? Maybe. But Clark wasn’t alone. Miniatures have exerted a fascination over adults—and often, rich and powerful adults—since Duke Albrecht V forced large portions of a sixteenth-century court into the construction of what’s known as the “Munich Baby House.” Queen Mary’s Windsor Castle fantasia—furnished and outfitted by practically every artisan with a royal appointment—is famous; less well known is the elaborate dollhouse for which Alice Longworth Roosevelt frequently neglected guests, or the modern-art masterpiece created in the 1920s by the bohemian Stettheimer sisters. The Thorne Miniature Rooms, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, were a labor of love for Narcissa Thorne, bolstered by the Montgomery-Ward fortune. And heiress Frances Glessner Lee used her leisure to construct the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, scale dioramas of murders so accurate that they are still used today to teach burgeoning MEs. Clearly, there’s something about the world at 1:12".

The writer, illustrator, and dollhouse-lover Tasha Tudor called the root of the appeal “perfection in miniature,” and it’s not hard to imagine that women of prior generations might have enjoyed exercising power over a larger domain than was their usual wont. A dollhouse could be aspirational: Faith Bradford, the Washington librarian who created the twenty-three-room miniature mansion on display at the Smithsonian, outfitted her creation with a full staff of servants—and Victorian piles, unsurprisingly, remain better sellers than apartments.

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Rain Men

August 24, 2010 | by

The lost language of Italian parasols and the men who made them.

Photograph by Almanac Piemonteis Times.

Last month, on a visit to Piedmont in northern Italy, I chanced upon a small museum in the hill town of Gignese that is devoted to the local craft of umbrella-making. At first, I wondered how this particular region along the west shore of Lago Maggiore became associated with the production—through the past few centuries—of quality umbrellas and parasols, but the reason is not hard to find. Every year more than thirty-three inches of rain falls over the neighborhood of Turin, and more than thirty-nine around Milan. That’s at least a third more than what London gets. Meanwhile the northern Italian summers are hot and sunny. The word umbrella descends from the Latin umbraculum, which means a convenient device for providing shade.

The ancient Romans were very fond of umbrellas, and regularly exchanged them as gifts. Yet umbrellas were virtually unknown in England and America before the 1780s, and the traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one. The problem before the mid-nineteenth century was that Regency umbrellas were oily, not necessarily reliably waterproof, and tended to run—and the harder it rained, the worse it was. Oil and dye in roughly equal measure dribbled and spattered onto silk or muslin dresses. Gloves, bonnets, and satin slippers were maculated by nasty black spots. So at first umbrellas were used in England much more as shelter from the sun than the rain, and exclusively by women. It took several early Victorian decades for the English umbrella to shed its reputation for effeminacy, and more than a century and a half for it to burrow its way into the national character, and take up its dignified position in the crook of Neville Chamberlain’s elbow.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ombrellai of Piedmont were a relatively closed community of highly specialist craftsmen. They engaged child-apprentices from among the poorest families of the region. Upon signing up, the apprenticed ombrellaio received a pair of shoes, somewhere to sleep, two square meals a day, and, of course, an umbrella. He said goodbye to his family for at least a period of four or five years—effectively, for good—and as well as learning to make umbrellas, he hiked from town to town selling braces of them to wholesalers, agents, and traders for export, mostly through Genoa.

As with so many other northern Italian industries (most famously the glass factories of Venice) the relevant production techniques, recipes, and other trade secrets were jealously guarded and protected with much paranoia, even ruthlessness. To that end the ombrellai used an in-house language known as Tarùsc, which seems to have existed in one form or another among the hill-dwelling people of Piedmont and the southern cantons of Switzerland since at least pre-Roman times. And while it came to be associated almost exclusively with the ombrellai, it was also used for related purposes by smugglers, thieves, spies—indeed a comparatively large proportion of the population whose occupations were covert. Read More »

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