There was once a shop in an alley near the fantastic cathedral of Orvieto.
It was called Erika, after the lady whose spirit it reflected. Most people probably discovered it by chance. Maybe it was when they saw that at the beginning of the alley the stone head of some imaginary beast was constantly spouting water and that water was just what they needed on a hot summer day. To drink they either had to cup their hands or bend down to slurp in the water before letting it run over their wrists to cool off. Vicolo dei Dolci. Was there, or had there been, a pastry shop here? Dolci, sweets. But then one noticed the shop further up, with all kinds of interesting objects on display out in the street. There was a wrought iron sign with the name Erika hanging over the doorway. A couple of steps in the shade of the grey stone wall led to an opening inviting one in. There was a lady sitting at the back and she didn’t look all that Italian. But then neither was Erika with a k an Italian name.
Once inside, you felt you had entered a sort of Aladdin’s treasure cave. You didn’t know where to look first.
Coarse earthenware, for cooking beans, or soup. Pitchers for getting wine from the barrel in the cellar.
Hand-blown glass vases and goblets. In ruby red and glowing yellow and transparent blue, perhaps slightly askew, with a captured bubble making each piece second choice for those who want perfection, but making it more valuable for those who want a sign a vase is hand-made, unlike any other, and not made by a machine.
Brightly colored ceramic angels and plates with indeterminate flowers hang on the walls.
Terracotta whistles, or hooded figurines from a procession, promenade along a shelf.
Hand-woven shawls and blankets in orange and purple, hangings with medieval creatures, stags and eagles and winged lions, marching along over a band of Gothic lettering: Amor Vincit Omnia, or Per Aspera ad Astri .
Nubby Sardinian rugs.
Tablecloths with Assisi embroidery, brocade patterned linen towels with fringes.
Made-to-order smocks of pinstriped blue cotton of the type once worn by peasants, trimmed with strips of Perugia brocade.
Ropes of multicolor wool and red tassels, former ox decorations, now to be hung over a fireplace.
Behind glass in an elegant small showcase are Etruscan style earrings and pendants. Coral and silver and imitation gold.
Floppy green cloth frogs, eyes gleaming, velvety cats sprawled across a chair, all filled with rice.
Here and there a puppet, or a doll to be turned upside down to reveal the wolf hidden under her skirts.
Sheer Indian silk tunics.
Precious silk scarves with stripes in nubby raw silk. From the north of Italy.
Rugs woven in geometric patterns from strips of discarded materials.
To begin with the idea had been Gualverio Michelangeli’s. He had a shop, a workshop, in the center of town and was already known for his whimsical animals created in layered wood. A shop near the cathedral would be ideal, he thought. And who best to manage it than Erika, his best friend Mario’s American wife who was without a job at the moment since the art encyclopedia she had been working on in Rome had reached the letter Z. In addition to having similar tastes, she spoke not only Italian, but also English and German. He would see to the bureaucratic aspects and, aside from his woodwork, they could choose the objects together. It was the year 1968.
It wasn’t easy to convince my husband, Mario, that it was something I could do. For it meant a seven-day workweek. Including Sundays when Orvieto had the most visitors. It was the beginning of an adventure, a sort of skein of contacts with me and the store at the center.
Mario died in 1969 and the shop was a godsend, for it took almost two years before his pension came through. I was now alone with my two children, aged five and ten. In a small town like Orvieto, though, one is never really alone. Friends kept an eye on my children and tried to help out in various ways. Then when business was slow I could make a bit of extra money by working on translations or giving English lessons to grade-school students who were behind in their studies.
And it was more than just a store. It was the people I met, those I helped and those who helped me, the artisans who made the objects. Each year held its surprises and the shop prospered and before long help had to be found. Sometimes it might be American students who wanted to stay on in Italy during the summer after school had closed. I had gotten a position teaching art history in Florence at Gonzaga University and offered some of my students room and board in exchange for assisting me in the shop. The summer of 1973 there were three: Marilyn, Marisa, and tall handsome Alex, with whom all my women friends fell in love. I wonder now how they managed with their elementary Italian. When Signora Rosina, who sometimes also lent a hand, was on duty, and it was one of those hot summer days, my ex-students and I might take a trip to the lake of Bolsena and go swimming. Having American students around was also a way of helping the boys improve their English. Although they sometimes made fun of Marilyn when she read them a fairy tale and it turned out there was a lamb (agnello) in the soup instead of a ring (anello).
Of those who made what I sold, the most “simpatico”, the man I liked best, was Federico in Prato, who wove shawls and blankets. A trip to Prato was always an adventure and we knew we had arrived when the Henry Moore sculpture, that looked to me as if it were made of polystyrene, loomed up at the crossroads. Still don’t know how it got there. Federico was waiting for us as he asked if we thought certain colors complemented each other and did we want the blankets longer or shorter. He was a man content in his work, for, as he said, he could work on Sunday and take Monday off whenever he wanted. He never charged more than he had to, and his prices fluctuated only with those of the yarn.
I respected artisans and my potter in Ficulle appreciated the fact that I didn’t haggle regarding prices. Which was more than I could say about some of my customers.
In the beginning Gualverio and I went on search expeditions together. I don’t remember how we discovered the glass factory in the outskirts of Empoli. One could wander through the sheds and watch the workmen blowing blobs of glowing glass into vases or bottles. It was those with imperfections, the seconds, which were most fascinating, as Gualverio and I chose one-of-a kind goblets and tall slender vases from the ever-changing stock in the storage shed. The factory was a consortium or cooperative and now no longer exists.
The yearly crafts fair in Florence where the regions promoted their artisans was a wonderful source. The Sardinian embroideries were precious. That’s also where we found the rustic Sicilian white wares with blue stripes – particularly popular with the Germans. But then they also always came away from my shop with some of the earthenware jugs and pots from Ficulle, spattered with green and rust. Or an unglazed terracotta whistle in the shape of a carabiniere (people joked about the carabiniere whistling from his behind), or a horse or an ox, a craft one of my Ficulle potters had revived.
The best part of having the shop was hunting for new sources. It might give me an excuse to go to Sulmona, famous for its silverwork and bedspreads as well as the sugar-coated almonds. When a pottery teacher from the US turned up asking for information on local potters, I enthusiastically agreed to take her around in the Marches to see what kinds of pottery were produced there. For rag rugs or wood carvings, I went to the Val d’Aosta. In Gubbio, closer to home, there was a workshop making tiles with the various professions. I could even ask for one with a specific profession, like a midwife or the commander of a ship.
To be continued . . .