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Photo courtesy of piazzacavour.it

Ah, the old ladies of Italy.  They are in a class of their own.  Once one reaches ‘a certain age,’ it seems, one can go to the front of any line.

We were in a very crowded ice cream shop a while back in Santa Margherita, and a lady of just that age came through and scusami-ed her way to the very front.  Two seconds another lady appeared and announced to one and all, ‘that’s my friend,’ which of course entitled her to move up to the front.  Then came another, then another and another – all with the same excuse – ‘those are my friends.’  Finally Speedy asked, in very good humor, ‘how many of you sisters are there?’  Everyone got a chuckle, the ladies (there were six finally) got their ice-creams and the line began a more organized movement.

When we went outside we were so happy we had not been grumpy.  All the ice-cream ladies were demonstrating Pizzo Tombolo, an incomprehensible cross between crochet, embroidery and knot-tying.  If you’re like me a bobbin always makes you laugh (that and banana peels on the side walk, sorry, I just can’t help it, they are hilarious).  So I was chuckling away when I approached the group and asked about their work.

Meet Giuseppina (note the ice cream).  Why she is not blind I can’t imagine.  She doesn’t even seem to need glasses. She is working on a pizzo, also known as ‘merletto.’ The Tombolo is the pillow on which the work is done.

The ancient art of making a delicate and lacy adornment for clothing and furnishings has existed in Rapallo for centuries.   Archaeologists have discovered bits and pieces from as early as the 13th century.  A shop inventory from Genoa in 1600 mentions articles made from ‘filo di Rapallo’ (thread of Rapallo), suggesting that the ornate handwork was well known and appreciated outside the town.

There is a lovely story about how one of the styles of lace-making in Rapallo, known as Bella Nina, got its name.  In the 1500’s the dreaded pirate Dragut made a raid on Rapallo.  All the townspeople fled in terror.  But upon entering the home of a fisherman, one of the pirates who had stayed behind found two women poorly hidden behind a pile of nets.  One was very old and couldn’t move; one was young and beautiful, and was working lace on a pillow.

‘Why didn’t you leave with the others?’ he asked.  The young woman replied that her grandmother was paralyzed and she did not wish to abandon her. When asked their names, the young woman replied they were both called Nina, as women’s names were handed down from mother to daughter.

The pirate asked what the young woman was doing, and she showed him her delicate handwork.  When asked what it was called, Nina said that it had no name, it was just the work that women of Rapallo did.  The pirate was so impressed with Nina’s beauty and fidelity that he said he would not harm either of the women and that henceforth the work she was doing should be known as ‘Bella Nina.’

How is the work done?  I can’t begin to tell you!

As you can see in the enlarged photo above, Giuseppina attaches a pattern to her tombolo, then uses a million straight pins as anchors for her weaving and knotting.  Now you know as much as I do, which isn’t nearly enough to undertake the craft.  However, if you do want to learn how to do this, you can sign up at the Scuola di Tombolo “Le amiche del ‘Merletto’ in Santa, or, come winter, at the Accademia Culturale in Rapallo.

If you’d like to know more about Pizzo Tombolo, there is a lot of information here and here.

And if you’re in Rapallo and you’d like to see a panoply of examples of Pizzo Tombolo, you can visit the Museo del Merletto.  I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t been there yet, but writing this has aroused my curiosity and I think a visit is order.  I wonder… am I old enough now to go to the front of the line?

Italian at Bronze statue of woman doing Pizzo Tombolo courtesy of merlettoitaliano.it