If Gaudi had ever built a shrine to umbrella-making, it would look like Mario Talarico’s workshop. It’s located in Naples’s Spanish Quarter, surrounded by cobblestone streets and the laundry lines hung across them. The one-room shack doesn’t seem to have been built so much as it seems to have sprouted, from the seed left by some ancient umbrella-maker many generations ago – perhaps by Mario’s great-grandfather Giovanni Bongiovanni, the founder of the family business.
Copses of gnarled sticks, gathered from around the world, lean against the walls and hang from the ceiling, waiting to be curled into umbrella backbones. Against the back wall, an underbrush of German umbrella ribs, each one tested for its strength before use. In one corner, like a hobbit home carved out of a sequoia stump, is the elder Mario Talarico’s work desk, and above it are tool cubbies. Each one contains odds and ends, some of which may be useful for only one umbrella in a thousand.
Nearby, behind a mechanical saw, there is a hole bored into the wall, chest-high. But it’s no Andy Dufresne-inspired escape plan. “I had to put a hole in the wall so I could work,” says Signor Talarico. The saw cuts a notch in the stick, to which the umbrella’s clasp for opening and closing the canopy can be fitted. Without the hole in wall, like a cramped pool player, the umbrella-maker would have no room to pass the correct part of the stick over the saw.
Just as each Talarico umbrella is its own unique project, made individually, by hand, the workshop and the tools of the craft within it have been moulded by a history that will never be repeated. Today the Talarico workshop is one of the only places in the world that makes umbrellas by hand. There won’t be any more starting up soon either.
This workshop, however, will survive at least one generation more. Across the shop from Talarico Sr.’s desk is a glass counter, covered with a scrapbook’s worth of photos of celebrities receiving and using Talarico umbrellas. This has become the workspace of Mario Talarico, Jr., Senior’s nephew. He stands behind the counter, sewing in a canopy. The fabric lies open, obscuring most of the pictures, which is just as well. The snapshots capture an instant in time. In the Talarico workshop, time is measured not in instants, but in generations.