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.
According to local folklore, il Tarùsc was a very shy, small bad-tempered gnome who lived on the slopes of Mottarone and Motta Rossa. He was surly, difficult, and misanthropic. Nevertheless from him the ombrellai learned the art of making the shapeliest, lightest, most lissome and elegant umbrellas in all the world. And in the process Tarùsc taught the ombrellai how to speak his own strange tongue. He had a long red beard; wore green clothes, red shoes, and a tricorn hat that doubled as a knapsack. His extreme shyness did not prevent Tarùsc from engaging in spiteful little pranks, such as tripping people on mountain paths, wolf-whistling, and other impertinent behavior. If you found yourself targeted in this way, the only solution was to scatter a sack of rice as near as possible to the site of the affront, so that gathering it all up again, grain by meticulous grain, he was distracted all through the night, long enough to forget all about you and move on to his next hapless victim.
That was of course the unofficial story. In fact, the language called Tarùsc was documented in the seventies by the ethnographer P. E. Manni da Massino, just in the nick of time, before the last old men who still spoke it died out. His view was that Tarùsc drew upon five distinct sources: (1) Italian, that is to say the reasonably stable dialects of Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, and the southern cantons of Switzerland, and was therefore built, in turn, upon the ancient bedrock of (2) Latin; (3) German, that form of it that seeped across the Dolomites from southern Austria, and across the Swiss Alps from Bavaria; (4) French, thanks to the traditional alliances that regularly formed and re-formed in the same period between France and Savoy, and (5) Spanish, because of Philip II’s sixteenth-century annexation of the Duchy of Milan.
But Manni also concluded from his not always helpful informants that by the mid-nineteenth century there must have been various strains of Tarùsc that were sufficiently different from one another to cause a headache in the umbrella-making community. A linguistic fork in the road divided Tarùsc alla stresiana (the form of Tarùsc that was spoken in Stresa), for example, from Tarùsc alla massinese (Massino), and forms of Tarùsc that were spoken in the approximately forty other Piedmontese towns and villages where umbrellas and parasols were made.
Manni never got as far as plotting any plausible grammar of Tarùsc. He made some progress with his old men, but they were inclined to be grumpy, suspicious, and maddeningly reluctant to share any expressions that related directly to the craft of umbrella-making, because obviously their commitment to trade secrecy outweighed any desire to preserve the language they must have known was on the verge of extinction.
All we have is a few stray words, a list of numbers, some cooking terminology, and names for a handful of farm animals and plants. But I assure you: the umbrellas themselves are beautiful.
Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and this word list has been selected from Il Tarùsc: la parlata degli ombrellai, dizionarietto etimologico, by P. E. Manni da Massino (Varallo Sesia, Piedmont: Fratelli Capelli, n.d.).
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