In Pignasecca, I found another of Naples’ artisans of elegance: Mario Talarico. Talarico sat at a 200-year-old worktable, fashioning a gnarled piece of wood into a shaft over which an umbrella mechanism would smoothly slide. “I grew up in this shop,” he said. “As soon as I was born my parents brought me here and put me in a drawer. That was my crib.” Talarico’s shop is mostly stocked with the cheaper industrial umbrellas that today’s consumers want. But his handmade creations, which fetch hundreds of euros apiece, are decked out around the counter, and also sold in menswear boutiques as far away as Tokyo and New York.
Talarico’s family has been in the umbrella business since the early 1800s, when they came here from Calabria, further south. “One of my grandfathers was a painter,” he said, as he stared at the curve in the wood that will become the umbrella’s handle. “There’s an art in umbrella-making: First, discovering the form of the wood or horn, and bringing it out by polishing and grinding. Then, matching it to the right fabric.”
An old priest entered the store and asked for a plastic cane tip. Talarico snapped up the priest’s cane, found a replacement tip, and passed the cane back after collecting a couple of euros for the service. When Talarico began this work, he told me, there were a hundred other businesses in Naples that made umbrellas by hand. Now he was alone. His nephew, also named Mario, was learning the trade but manned the counter for now. I browsed the artisanal umbrellas and contemplated purchasing but as I looked out at the clear blue sky peaking through the alleyway, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. “It’s a beautiful kind of labor,” said Talarico. “But it makes you poor. This year it’s not the economic crisis that’s hurting me. It’s the rain crisis. We’ve been dry for months. Read Tom Downey's "Tailor Made in Naples."