Going through old family photos I was struck by the fact that all the men – especially in the first half of the 19th century – were always wearing stylish fedora hats. This made me think of my own teenage years when I went on a search for a perfect men’s Borsalino hat to complete my (I imagined) chic bohemian look. It made me wonder about the mystique attached to the name “Borsalino” and what its history was. It turns out that the iconic hat factory was founded in 1857 in Alessandria, in Piemonte, and named after its founder Giuseppe Borsalino who had trained in Paris as a hat maker. Hats were extremely popular and the Borsalino factory was turning out some 2,500 hats a day by the beginning of the 20th Century and the word “Borsalino” came to be synonymous with a wide-brimmed felt hat. One of the most enduring and recognizable images of the Borsalino is of Humphrey Bogart wearing it in the movie “Casablanca.” As time went on, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s the wearing of hats became less popular and the company produced and sold many fewer hats and even filed for bankruptcy. It has since been taken over by a private equity firm and relaunched, focusing on new markets, innovation and sustainability but without losing touch with its tradition of glamour and cultural significance. Time for a new Borsalino hat?
One of the most frequent Venetian images is that of the gondola with its gondolier standing in the stern and propelling the boat forward with a single long oar. Recently while I was leafing through a children’s book about Venice I read a paragraph about the history of these boats that claimed that the gondola’s original design was inspired by Viking long boats. The story went that in the Middle Ages there had been commercial contact between the Scandinavians and Venetians, both maritime cultures. The Venetians thought that the flat-bottomed nordic boats would be ideal for their lagoons. I had never heard of this fascinating link and tried to find some confirmation of it but have not had any success. Most articles don’t cite any specific origin of the gondola other than to note a mention in a 1094 document and the first images in paintings from the 15th century. These early depictions are of boats that are shorter, wider and less streamlined in appearance than those we know today. In the 1600s the gondola, which was used for private transport, began to look more like the contemporary version both in terms of shape and color. Pitch had always been used for waterproofing, but in 1609 a decree was passed – to limit the excessively gaudy decoration (!) of the gondole – that the entire boat had to be black. Also, until the 20th century the boats often included a removable cabin (felze) which protected passengers both from the weather and from prying eyes. Today gondole are built to standard specifications: 11 meters long, made out of 280 different pieces of wood, slightly asymmetrical (the left side is larger than the right), with a characteristic iron prow-head (fero) that is rich in symbolism. The oar is made of beechwood and rests in an oarlock (forcola) made of walnut. In the past there may have been up to 10,000 gondole that plied the waters of the lagoon; the 400 or so that are left today are no longer a major means of transportation but a tourist attraction and an icon of Venice.
The Frick Collection is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Luigi Valadier, subtitled “Splendor in Eighteenth Century Rome.” To me, the name Valadier evoked only the Casina Valadier, a building on the Pincio, in Villa Borghese, where I would meet friends for coffee. (It has now been refurbished and is also a restaurant and event space.) It turns out that the neoclassical Casina was built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier who was the son of the Luigi of the Frick show. Luigi (1726 – 1785) was a master draftsman and designer and a silver- and goldsmith. His parents had moved from France to Rome and his father too was a silversmith – Luigi’s career began in his father’s workshop. Luigi and his assistants produced objects, both religious and secular, for the pope, for noble families and for the tourists (foreign aristocrats) for whom Rome was an important destination on the Grand Tour. Although Valadier’s workshop produced hundreds of objects, most of the silverware and gold was pillaged and melted down during the Napoleonic wars so relatively few works survive today.
The Frick show is divided into three sections. One focuses on religious works, including the complete set of silver and gilt bronze statues from the altar of a cathedral in Monreale. Another is dedicated to secular objects – my favorite is a silver coffee pot with a wooden handle. The third part revolves around what I would call more whimsical works of art that use and include a remarkable range of materials. For the pope, Valadier mounted spectacular antique cameos in a frame that includes other cameos and antique gems. They are rather astounding. Yet the highlight of this section is a “deser” or large table centerpiece comprised of small recreations of ancient temples, arches and obelisks made of an incredible array of stones, marbles and metals. It’s an intricate and stunning masterpiece. All in all, I was glad to learn about this artist who amazed me where I didn’t expect to be amazed.
In separate articles or reviews, The Wall Street Journal notes the return to the US of two classic Italian cars: the Fiat 500 and the Alfa Giulietta. The Fiat 500 is the iconic tiny car that defined an era for many Italians. The new version, defined as cute but hip, performs well and has been very popular in Europe. Whether it will sell in the US remains to be seen. The Giulietta, sleek, sexy and efficient, is scheduled to be available in the States starting in 2014.