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