Monday, January 30, 2012

The River of Beautiful Dolls

A vintage felt doll, probably by the Italian company Fiore





I was 17 or 18 the first time I went to Italy. I can't remember the exact year any more. I can still see it spread out below us as we descended from the sky in a nerve-shattering vintage aircraft. It was small and rocked like a bucking bronco in the air. It had orange shag carpet and turquoise seats. I suppose it was the best we could afford; "we" were my high school Latin teacher, one brave mother acting as chaperon, and about a third of my high school Latin club. I can still see the white hills peaking out from the desert-like scrub. It looked so different from what I was used to. Here, we have red clay soil and pine forests. Once on the ground I fell in love. I felt immediately as if I'd come home to a place I'd never been before ( to nearly quote the late, great John Denver). I connected it finally one night in Sorrento. Walking back to the hotel from a restaurant the scent of lemon trees transported me back to my very early childhood in California. I was suddenly able to recall walking with my parents one night and being startled by a screech owl calling. I could hear my parents laughter at how I jumped, a memory I didn't know I possessed. I guess Italy was a bit like coming home again. Northern California is very like Italy. I went back to Italy in college and spent one summer working in Florence. If I'd had the money and the language skills to get a decent job I'd probably never have returned to America. Every year I still dream of Florence, especially in February, a relatively dark and cold month there.

I never realized how famous Italy once was in the world of dolls, thanks almost exclusively to Madame Lenci. It's surprising, because besides loving dolls, I also love pretty much all things Italian. I think Italians are just better than the rest of us at making things beautiful. I don't even know how I first came to hear of Lenci dolls, but the first time I saw one I was completely hooked. My good husband bought me a reproduction 1930s Lenci (Bettina) for Valentine's Day last year. I bought myself a couple more but held onto them only briefly before selling them again. Even things I love I don't hold on to long anymore. If you've been following this blog you know we've been trying on and off to sell our house ever since the arrival of our third child. We are just completely out of room. So I have something for a short time and really enjoy it and then I have to let it go. A novel I read once described a man who owned an auction house who likened the torrent of beautiful things passing through his hands to a river. Instead of trying to catch the water and hold it, he advised  another character to just let the wonderful things they saw pass through their hands--experience the beauty and let go.

So it is that I decided to sell this lovely doll. I don't know who made her. I don't think Lenci because she's really a bit too pretty. Most of the Lenci dolls from the period of Elena Scavini have either the pouty faces or the surprised googly-eyed look. They are beautiful but not exactly pretty if you can understand that. This doll was certainly made during the Lenci heyday and influenced by the Lencis. She has the side-glancing eyes and a surprised look. She is a felt and linen or buckram construction--if she were a later doll she would have a plastic limbs or a complete plastic body. Her pressed felt face has really strong relief and is pressed really smooth. This is because these commercial makers used metal steam press molds that could really mold the felt like plastic almost. I don't have the equipment to get my faces as well-pressed, much to my regret. This doll also has a regional costume of some sort. I don't know why tourists bought "country" dolls other than from Italy when they were in Italy, but I guess they did. This one looks German or Swiss or even Norwegian, but I guess she could be from the Alpine region of Italy. I've been to the Italian Alps and it was just like walking around in the Sound of Music. The hills were carpeted with soft new grass starred with wildflowers like a picture book and when you got up high the peaks were all sharp points slicing through the ragged clouds like knives. I can tell you, being half Swiss and almost half Norwegian, that if this doll is meant to represent either ethnicity they got it right: all my sisters and I had the same honey blond hair and big brown eyes in our youth. Our hair darkened as we aged, but we started out looking like this girl. My mom is always collecting brown-eyed blond dolls that remind her of her girls.

Another eBay listing showed a larger dolls with a face similar to this one and said it was probably by the Fiore company. I have owned most of the various Italian felt dolls at one time or another, some by Eros of Sorrento or Magis Roma, and some French makers, like Gre Poir, and this one has a different face. What's really different about this doll are her fingers. They are pressed cloth, not stitched or mitten hands. I have only ever had one other doll with these fingers and I thought she was Italian but didn't know what brand. Now I think she was probably also a Fiore doll.

I actually enjoy my "catch and release" collection, but I will still be sorry when this pretty girl goes!

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