Like secret restaurants hidden behind unkempt facades, one must overlook rows of cheap plastic umbrellas in a chaotic Naples storefront in order to discover Italian master umbrella maker Mario Talarico.
On any given day, the fourth-generation Mario Talarico Sr. can be seen in a corner, hunched over a dog-eared workbench scattered with tools of his own invention. Rows of wooden drawers have lined the adjacent wall since the company was founded over 150 years ago, in 1860. The 86-year-old umbrella-maker nimbly loads a metal handspring into a wooden shaft, then hammers on the Talarico nameplate. Instant pride emerges on Mario Sr.’s face as he pops open the iron stretchers to relish in yet another ombrello perfetto.
While most modern umbrella shafts are joined at the handle, Talarico umbrellas are world-renowned because the rods are crafted from a single piece of wood—commonly cherry, Canadian hickory, or the popular lightweight Sorrento lemon tree. The delicate act of shaping a straight wooden shaft into a curved handle takes 15 days of pressurized steam (an improvement from the era when the stuff had to be soaked in water for months).
Every other detail also takes a significant amount of time—seven hours total—and skill, or what Mario Sr.’s nephew, Mario Jr., simply refers to as “heart.” Colourful canopy patterns are cut from nothing less than polyester silk blends, while tips are decidedly sculpted from the same material as the button clasps (often buffalo horn), the latter iconic to the brand. A Talarico umbrella brings form to an otherwise purely functional item—it’s no wonder every year, crowds of sartorialists make a pit stop here for a souvenir before heading to Pitti Uomo.
Getting a feel in-person for the various sizes, canopy styles, knobby textures, and handle weights is a magical process—quite possibly the closest Muggle experience to Harry Potter choosing a wand at Ollivander’s. Though if one believes in eutierria, it is the wooden handle that inevitably chooses its owner. A classic 63-centimetre black umbrella with an elm wood handle called this author’s name, a stylish yet practical choice for rainy Vancouver.
Mario Sr. grew up spending countless nights sleeping head-to-toe next to his brother below the shop’s tool shelf. Eight decades later, he still comes into the workshop every day, though regular operations are now managed by Mario Jr. Having been born into a legacy family business, and now having served the likes of the Pope, would Mario Sr. have ever considered any other career? “Si, gigalo!” he jokes with a burst of laughter, and proceeds to show off photographs of himself with famous Italian women, including Silvia Fendi.
It’s hard to fathom how retirement could ever be a reality, and Mario Jr. offers his own understanding of his uncle’s raison d’être: “He used to work to live; now he works for jokes,” he says. “But money is like gasoline. It keeps him going.”
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