History & Legends

Portofino, a World apart
June 2016

The Lace Women of Portofino

Timeless Craft: A Portofino woman weaving stories through lace

Timeless Craft: A Portofino woman weaving stories through lace

Another activity that in time has become almost an economy is the work of pillow lace: pillow lace is an embroidery achieved by a design traced by pins on cardboard. It is carried out by the embroiderers interlacing the thread with wooden bobbins, called in Genoese dialect “caige“: In the beginning the grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, to economically help the family budget, and make up the balance, sold their asked for laces. In their free time, early in the morning they worked on their pillows, even the fishermen, rising to go fishing, could hear the rustle of the women’s wooden bobbins.

In the antique period of seafaring, there was a big demand for these laces in the Americas, they were sold by the sailor husbands who had a good sense of commerce, not only for laces but also other products that were exchanged and imported. A particular acknowledgment must go to Caterina Crovo called “dei pizzetti” (Lace Lady), she was a pioneer of this work amongst many other embroiderers of pillow lace: a very important native of Portofino, born in the first years of the second half of the last century and bride of Nicole Traverso, an excellent joiner from Genoa Pra, called to Portofino to carry out precious workmanship in Lord Carnarvon’s new villa, the discoverer of the Tutankhamon tomb.

Caterina, who had a great sense of business, decides to open, on the hill up to the Church, the only way to enter the Village, a real shop (today there is the “Loro Piana” Boutique in its place) to sell the local laces, gathered together from various embroiderers. Success arrives almost immediately and her own clients introduced her to the world of the best Genoese families, so always more often, with her suitcase full of laces, she leaves for the city to do the deliveries and take “orders”. Like that important pieces of Portofino lace masterpieces entered important houses, emphasizing the beauty of wonderful tablecloths delicate laces, and ladies’ skirts, like the nobility required in those times. Therefore the merit goes to her for having, firstly, exported and made appreciated the true Portofino lace, a result of the extraordinary work carried out by the women of the small Village whilst waiting for their seaman husbands to return.

The St. George Church captured in a stunning 1960 black and white snapshot

The St. George Church captured in a stunning 1960 black and white snapshot

Another person to remember who worked at pillow lacing is Teresa Forte called “Tere”, born in Portofino in 1882: She came from an antique fishermen family in Portofino, but they were well-off having a house, a warehouse to keep the nets, and they were owners of their fishing boats. She was a tireless worker who “prepared” the nets and, together with her sister Luigia married to Mussini, repaired them: the “Tere”, also dedicated herself with striking talent to the work of pillow lacing with a first-quality gold thread, after having worked for Giuseppe Scotto’s firm in Genoa, the shop in the Campetto Square, and making drapery for the church.

Her name quickly got around and she was called by Alessandro Fedeli’s firm in Milan to be given different orders of work: the “Tere” dedicates herself to this activity together with her sisters and other women, running the business with caution and honesty, so much so that she was awarded a gold medal for her lace, embroidered with gold thread. She also worked for the Finollo firm in Genoa because the noble and industrious families required these gold laces of the city, furthermore, she made a tablecloth for the Chapel altar of San Martino hospital in Genoa: this tablecloth was adorned with a gold lace 20 centimeters high and was exhibited in occasion of the inauguration of the Chapel.

As time went by, with the event of tourism, with the building of the roads that gave access to the Village, and with the acquired experience, the laces were also sold in the Village: like that a real lace market began, selling to the passers-by from a market stall always in the same spot, demonstrating the same habitual respect as was given to the fishermen’s “spots”. This product was made and sold in Portofino by the women, with the only difference being that the work was carried out in the streets and in the square: it was a very characteristic activity. It drew a lot of tourists who took many photos. The stalls during a period of more than a century were, and are still today handed down to the female succession which was very numerous, and I believe it worth remembering the families who used these stalls, benefitting from an economically interesting work that became a business.

1967: Portofino's piazzetta in timeless black and white

1967: Portofino’s piazzetta in timeless black and white

Leaving the Quay, we find the stalls belonging to 1- the Barbara Costa called “Ba”, who were together with the Prato families (Rosaulla) stall; 2- the Carbone sisters called “Buxine”; 3- the Schiaffino Valle family, who were very important because of their position in front of Rolando restaurant where the road finished in front of the Church; 4- the Annamaria and Caterina Patrone sisters called “Patronette“, 5- Caterina Crovo’s shop, on the hill to the Church; finally: 6- Emanuele Bozzo’s shop (today it is bar Sottocoperta). Going up Roma Street, which had become very interesting when connected, in 1927, to the motor road down to the port, we find the stalls of: 7- the Carboni sisters called “Mutunne”, today it is Bazar de Angeli; 8- Luigia Faggioni; 9- Benita Gardella Viacava, heir of Elena Viacava, wife of “Menelik“; 10- the Rosselli sisters, heirs of Elena Viacava, wife of “Menelik”; 11- the Carbone sisters called “Sciabrune”. Going around the square leaving the San Giorgio’s ice-cream parlor we find the stalls of: 12- the “Picci” Gimelli with her niece Dinora; 13- the Rusitta Gardella with her daughter Ida; 14- the Schiaffino sisters, Auditano and Oneto; 15- the Crovari sister’s shop called “Ricche” (today we find the Delfino restaurant); Up the San Giorgio hill, we find 16- the Boetta Prato and the Teresa Gambetta; 17- the Delfina Schiaffino; 18- the Guglielma Giuffra. On the Dock, there were the Indaco and Faggioni sister’s stalls. As you can see, the lace women have given to Portofino a characteristic of the international level, because there hasn’t been one foreigner who hasn’t taken a photo of them.

The Caterina Consigliere in 1976, had the brilliant idea to teach children how to do pillow lacing: taking the initiative to create a real school of lace, she went to the mayor who was at that time Roberto d’Alessandro and, she was given a school room dedicated exclusively to this brilliant initiative. She had enormous success, which can be found in different magazine and newspaper articles of the international level, as well as the photos: the lace school was attended by all the children of the local elementary school, from children who weren’t from the Village and adults. Even today, after 20 years, this work is still being taught, because in those times it became a school subject for girls and part of the school’s program. Like that Rina, with a lot of patience and skill, continued teaching this noble work, that was the origin of profit which helped the families budget during the antique years of the Village. Thanks to Giovanni Carbone.

Portofino, a World apart.