In Naples the build-up to Christmas is chaotic. Pilgrims descend on the city, pushing their way through narrow streets to Via San Gregorio Armeno, where workshops sell handcrafted miniature nativity figurines. The religious scenes, which are made year-round to keep up with demand, are beautifully crafted in wood, terracotta and silk. They are prized by Neapolitans as the epitome of local craftsmanship: honed over centuries and underpinned by a Neapolitan blend of pagan and Catholic beliefs.
There are, however, many other skilled craftspeople working in the city that are worth visiting. A lot of them have regal roots and have survived the peaks and troughs of Neapolitan history. In fact, the modern perception of Naples as a penurious city neglects its rich and flamboyant past. While Florence and Rome’s artisan guilds flourished during the medieval and Renaissance periods, Naples prospered much later, with the arrival of the “Enlightened” occupying Spanish Bourbon monarchy in 1734.
The first Bourbon king of Naples was Charles III who, according to legend, arrived into the city aged 18 on a golden carriage dishing out coins to the populace and promising to serve his new kingdom with vigour. As the son of Elisabetta Farnese – a family of great Roman art collectors – and the husband of the highly educated Maria Amalia of Saxony, he was interested in high culture and supported the arts at its finest level.
Charles’ principal passion was the advancement of pottery. In 1743, he opened a factory in the grounds of the Capodimonte Royal Palace, which served as the catalyst for the production of porcelain and majolica tiles across the kingdom. Stingo Antica Manifattura Ceramica, producers of the ornate coloured tiles, are one of the last bastions from this time. Its dusty workshop is east of the station, where timber factories jostle for space with Chinese wholesale warehouses, and is a rare window into a pre-industrial age. Every stage of the production process is done by hand by a small team of artisans, some of whom have been working there for 60 years. Individual tiles and colourful crockery (from €15) are on sale above the workshop. The two Stingo sisters running things welcome visitors to sit down with the workers for lunch or even try their hand at painting a tile.
The production of leather gloves also blossomed under the direction of the new king. Via Guantai Nuovi, off Via Toledo, marks the area where the glove-making workshops once thrived. Sadly, today, only one remains: Omega Srl on Via Stella. It survives perhaps due to its military approach to quality control.
“It takes 25 steps to complete a pair of gloves,” says its young heir, Alberto Squillace, son of owner Mauro, “and every step is checked – at least twice!” The Squillaces offer visitors coffee as they welcome them to the Omega headquarters, an apartment on the third floor of a dilapidated 18th-century building. There, clients can buy, at wholesale prices (from €30 a pair), luxurious gloves made from full-grain or peccary leather, tinted in a bright pallet of colours and lined with cashmere.
Squillace and Stingo have become synonymous with quality craftsmanship in Naples yet the families that run the workshops are not necessarily the artisans that produce the goods. But Mario Talarico, whose family has been making umbrellas since 1860, is keen to underline that he is also the man that does the making: “I am descended from a family of female umbrella artisans,” he says, and is the fourth generation to run the business at Ombrelli Talarico.
Easily dismissable as a tourist trap due to the cheaper umbrellas hanging at the entrance, inside there are piles of smart, striped fabrics and crude cuts of exotic wood, and the walls are plastered with press cuttings and photographs with famous figures, including the pope, receiving their own bespoke umbrella. Here, they welcome in clients for repairs and to order a personalised umbrella, which can be ready within 24 hours (umbrellas from €50).
Close to Talarico, above the smart Galleria Umberto I shopping mall, is the Ascione Corali museum and boutique. Ferdinand IV, Charles III’s successor, nominated the Ascione family, who were originally coral fishermen, to be the official royal producers of coral jewellery, when he wanted to reap the financial benefits of localised production. In Neapolitan folklore the blood red coral is a symbol of good luck and new life. Although many shops sell it in the historic centre in the form of a horn, Ascione offers the seal of legitimacy and adherence to a strict ethical and sustainable fishing code. (Visits by appointment only, accessories from €40.)
After more than a century of decadence, the Bourbon reign ended abruptly in 1861, with the unification of Italy – and craftsmanship in Naples suffered without Spain’s financial investment. However, the city’s tailors survived and began to thrive at the turn of century, when attitudes to fashion changed and small family businesses, such as Marinella and Rubinacci, put Naples back on the map as a capital of elegance.
The tailors adhered to historic Neapolitan standards of quality but also took inspiration from Britain. Mariano Rubinacci’s father, who began the business, was obsessed with the tailors of Savile Row, adapting the English style to suit the Mediterranean climate. To this day, its suits are sewn entirely by hand by artisans using British fabrics in the workshop above the elegant ochre-coloured boutique on Via Chiaia (suits and shirts made to order).
No suit is complete without a tie, and with Marinella close by it would be criminal not to pay a visit. Marinella, which shares Oscar Wilde’s philosophy that “a well-tied tie is the first serious step in life”, has been the leading producer of neckties in Europe for a century. Its skill is reflected in a client list that includes presidents, princes and politicians, who wear the handmade silk ties with their traditional but unique prints (ties and scarfs from €80).
Traditionally, Naples goes heavy on menswear. However, for women passing through Naples, en route to the chic islands of Ischia, Capri or Procida, it is almost compulsory to pick up a pair of sandali capresi from Pasquale Cané’s tiny workshop on Via Nardones (97). Cané, who is in his 70s, belongs to a past era of old-fashioned Neapolitan charm and enjoys helping clients decide on the leather and finishes for their bespoke sandals, which can be decorated as simply or as extravagantly as desired and can be ready to wear in a day (bespoke sandals from €60).
Some of these artisan enterprises are unknown to outsiders but in Naples they are household names, revered by Neapolitans who are keen to shift the negative reputation that has, on occasion, suffocated the city. With tourism increasing in recent years, however, and the enthusiastic younger generations, such as Mario Talarico and Alberto Squillace, keen to take up the artisanal mantle, Naples is striving to reclaim its title as the flourishing capital of craftsmanship.