We got back from Italy last night, so here, as promised, is the post about the traditional Italian hope chest, or corredo– while it’s still fresh in my mind (and in the hopes that writing this will keep me awake past three in the afternoon).
Road Scholar, the group we toured with, always includes wonderful, informative lectures about local history and culture that always add to our appreciation of the things we’re seeing, and it was in a lecture on the traditions and culture of the Sorrentine peninsula that the corredo came up.
Back in the day of arranged marriages, a couple traditionally became betrothed quite young–at about the ages of 14 and 17 for the young women and men respectively, or about the ages that Romeo and Juliet were in the famous tragedy. Then they would be engaged for a very long time, usually about ten years, before the wedding would be celebrated. The young man spent these years establishing himself financially in preparation for supporting a family. The young woman worked on her hope chest. One can only hope that she had help from her mother and aunties, because this was to include all of the textiles she would need for her household for the rest of her life. Since all of the articles were made of linen, which has wonderful strength and durability, these pieces would, indeed, last for a very long time. We aren’t talking Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond here.
A traditional corredo was supposed to include, but was not limited to:
Twelve sets of linen sheets, all hemstitched by hand, with embroidered top sheets;
Six embroidered linen tablecloths for a table large enough to seat twelve, because she would need these for family gatherings when she was a grandmother;
A collection of hand-stitched linen dish towels, handkerchiefs, etc. ;
At least a dozen hemstitched linen bath towels.
Our group leader, who was originally from New Zealand but has lived in Sorrento for many years, pointed out that terrycloth is relatively new to this part of Italy, and at first was used only for bath rugs. When she took her new husband back to New Zealand to meet her family in the late 1970’s, she didn’t know what freaked him out more–the fact that he was expected to dry himself off with a bath rug or the fact that men were expected to help with the dishes!
At the end of these ten years of industry, when the wedding was finally celebrated, the young couple would return home to a bedroom where the sheets and coverlet were hand-made by the mother-in-law, as a special gift. (I hope this counted as one of the twelve sets of sheets, so the bride would only have had to make eleven. You probably wouldn’t want to end up thirteen sets of sheets.)
However, things have changed. Now that families are smaller and young women go to school and work, the corredo is only expected to be about half this size, and machine stitching is no doubt involved.
If you were hopeless at hemstitching and embroidery, and your family could afford it, you could always buy your embroidered linens from a place like Gargiulo & Jannuzzi, located on the Viale E. Caruso in Sorrento. The store was founded in the early 1900s by Mrs. Luigia Gargiulo to sell embroidered items made by the Dominican Sisters and young orphan girls. Adele Jannuzzi, a fourth-generation master embroiderer and lacemaker, kindly demonstrated her artistry for us:
Wouldn’t you love to add this vintage sheet to your corredo?
Another example, with a fine example of fancy hemstitching:
The Sorrento Stitch, which was used in a set of custom linens for Enrico Caruso:
I am so glad that there are women like Adele Jannuzzi preserving this kind of fine artistry in an era of fast-and-cheap manufactured goods. We need to be reminded about what is possible with time, care and ingenuity.
And I’m very grateful that Mike married me despite the pathetic inferiority of my corredo, which, if I recall, mostly consisted of sheets and towels that I got with my mother’s collection of Green Stamps. The sheets, which were probably cotton/poly blends, did not last for anything like a generation–and that is a very good thing. Luckily I didn’t have twelve sets.