Style / September 2015

Gimmie Shelter: Talarico's Neapolitan Umbrellas

An unassuming little workshop in Naples belies the one-of-a-kind umbrellas being painstakingly handcrafted within.

30In the Spanish Quarter of Naples, there is a small cobblestone alleyway named Via Toledo. It's not the prettiest of thoroughfares. As you walk down it, it feels tight and narrow, and on either side there are old buildings covered in grime and peeling layers of wheat-pasted fliers. Where there are stores, the window fronts display tacky goods and big red signs that shout 'Saldi! Saldi! Saldi!' Indeed, perhaps the only charm along this road comes thanks to the screaming Vespas and children zipping up and down the alley during warm mid-afternoons. Other than that, the street feels fairly unremarkable. Until, that is, you stumble across Talarico Umbrellas.

Mario Talarico's workshop can, on first viewing, seem as plain as the alleyway itself. Cheap, drugstore-quality umbrellas festoon the outside of his shop, and inside, the cramped space feels very much like an old hardware store. All around the one- room shop are bundles of umbrellas - hung from the walls, stacked in corners and piled on top of shelves. Each of them is sheathed in a cellophane wrapping that shines from the fluorescent lighting above. The sight may lead you to dismiss them as just bigger versions of the cheap umbrellas outside, but you'd be wrong.

On closer inspection, you'll notice that the handles are made from some of the most richly shaded dark woods you've ever seen, and at the other end, the tips are capped with animal horn. Next to these masterpieces are framed photos of Mario Talarico with various luminaries, many of whom are awarding him with plaques. It's only then that you realise you're in one of the world's best umbrella shops, where things are still made by hand to the highest standards possible.

At 80 years of age, Mario works here with his nephew, Mario Jr. The two represent the third and fourth generations in their family to make umbrellas by hand, and continue the family's business, which was set up in 1860. Most of what they sell here is ready-made, but if you stop by when they've just received their shipment of woods, they can make an umbrella to your exact specifications. I was lucky enough to stop by at the right time, and the younger Mario showed me the variety of woods they had just received.
The first two were a couple of Eastern materials, including whangee and old-growth Malacca from Malaysia. Both were lightweight and showed a lot of surface interest. Whangee relies on texture for its appeal; canes with more knots are generally considered more aesthetically pleasing in the umbrella-making world. Malacca, on the other hand, is valued for its subtle, mottled surface. These two are perhaps the most popular materials for luxury-end umbrellas, but they unfortunately don't lend themselves to one-stick constructions - it's simply too difficult to find pieces long enough.

Talarico has a wider range of woods for single-stick constructions. For example, there's Eastern ash, which is a bit heavy but has a beautiful, shimmering green grain when the bark has been left on. There's also Canadian hickory, which is so robust that it's often used to make baseball bats. From the Italian countryside, they have Tuscan hazel, which has a handsome golden sheen, and cherrywood, which leaves a wonderful smell in their workroom. Should any of these be too prosaic for you, they also have horns and tusks from rams, warthogs and hippopotamuses, any of which can be used to form the handle of an umbrella.

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Derek Guy