They say it takes nine tailors to make a man. As one man tells it, it took one good tailor to help take nine men to safety, traveling on foot over the mountains on a dangerous two day journey several days after Christmas during W.W.II.
Well before the stroke of nine, with the noble and elegant profile of the eagle, a tall thin man rests in the mild sun of mid April on a bench in a park dominated by three soaring conifers, and surrounded by high facades of dark brick, terra-cotta and ochre. His fluffy white hair curls longish over his crisp collar and his jacket sleeves fit his long arms as though they were tailor made. They were, in fact, tailor made, for he is the Tailor of Barga.
Born in 1928 in a stone farmhouse at Fraia, in the mountains about 8 kilometers north of Barga, he had an idyllic childhood , even if that typically difficult of farm life, he especially remembers how cold it was in winter, until the war came. He said he loves this countryside so much he refused an opportunity to emigrate to Glasgow, although, there may also have been a young lady here involved, he recalls. He returns to the nearby farm of Grifoglia every spring on the last Sunday in May when Mass is held in its small chapel which he helped to build after the war.
Of the many farms in the area above Barga, two were used as outposts for American forces. The main outpost was at La Ferriera di Scarpello, a glen named for the stone cutting tool that was manufactured there. The other outpost was on the nearby hillside property known as Grifoglia.
News spread in those days by word of mouth, and word had it that there were Germans in the slightly higher locality of Bebbio.
The teenager, who would become Tailor, whose house was just below Bebbio and just a kilometer away from Grifoglia, heard the news of the Germans and, with his father who had lived and worked in Glasgow and spoke English well, took the news to the soldiers at Grifoglia and La Ferriera. It was then planned that the outpost would decamp to headquarters at Camaiore.
Marching under cover of night through the chestnut forest, up the mountainside from La Ferriera to Crocialetto and on to Coreglia Antelminelli they began their journey to Camaiore. One advantage enroute was the system of interconnecting trails that have been used for millennia leading from one farm to another, but one of the disadvantages included not being helped or hosted by the proprietors of the farms for fear of fatal reprisals if they were seen by the Germans, as tragically happened at Sant’Anna di Stazzema.
They rested at Coreglia and then continued to Bagni di Lucca and on near Borgo a Mozzano where the American forces had leveled the sides, and fortified for tank crossing, the elegant Ponte del Diavolo, the Devil’s Bridge, over the Serchio River. They sought and found a shallow point at which to cross the river. It took about two days to travel westward through the Apuan Alps leaving at night via Valfreddana toward Camaiore where they met up with the American commanding general Mark Clark who was in charge of training units during the invasion of Italy. The Tailor recalls this meeting with great emotion.
After the war the young man continued to work in his uncle’s Tailor shop above a caffe on the main road in Barga. His uncle, who had lost a leg as the result of a work related accident in the countryside, had set himself up as a tailor and employed several people, taking on his nephew as apprentice. When given the opportunity to study, the nephew went gladly to the branch of the Studio Artistico, Istituto Sarto-tecnico di Milano in Piazza Bernardini in Lucca. There he learned the arts of pattern making, cutting and sewing. He returned to his uncle’s shop and went back to work.
Ready made clothing was unavailable at the time so there was plenty of work for the eight tailors in Barga. Though the competition was intense, this tailor succeeded through his knowledge of pattern making, clothing construction, his artistic eye and his commitment. Where other tailors worked by ‘eye’ and experience, he worked with learned skills, drafting his own patterns. With an astute understanding of cut, contour and fit, he received praise and recognition for the quality of his workmanship. A modest man, he has asked that his name not be used, and insists that it is not to boast that he tells this, but just to get the story down. His uncle passed away and he took over the shop, which eventually moved to the more central location on the park.
Entering his busy shop, which is chock-a-block with ready made merchandise for men and women these days, one notices the three central industrial sewing machines which remain of the once busy Sartoria. The sturdy, wide, waist high cabinet countertop was specially built with a fold up leaf to make it the necessary 3 meter length, to cut, with enormous scissors, a full garment at once.
Slowly the other tailors relinquished their work to competition, ready made clothing or retirement, but this tailor successfully persevered, and is still seen occasionally at his sewing machine when he isn’t enjoying taking in the sunshine on the bench in the park and reminiscing of how it took one good tailor to take nine men to safety during the war, the liberation from which we commemorate, with the proud 85 year old, one of the unsung heroes of W. W. II and last tailor of Barga, Italy, today on the 25th of April.
This is the first in a series of articles profiling artisans and legendary figures of Barga.
Kerry Bell leads the ACSI affiliated Laboratorio della Moda, fashion workshops in Barga and has written a comprehensive guidebook to Barga Vecchia, entitled Barga, Tuscany, which is available on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com