The history of gloves begins mythologically with the invention of the Graces: summoned by Venus, who had injured her hands, they sewed bandages around her fingers. They existed in Egypt, and in the Odyssey, Laertes uses them to work in the fields, which the Romans borrowed from barbarian peoples. In the Middle Ages, a glove filled with soil would finalize property sales.
A symbol of royal power, it was worn by King Arthur, and perhaps the most beautiful gloves still in existence are those preserved in Vienna, once belonging to King Frederick II for his Capitol coronation; they date back to around 1220, made in Palermo and embroidered with gold, spinels, and corundums.
The great Sicilian tradition of Palermo silk-making spread to various parts of the South, especially in Naples when the Frederickian court temporarily relocated there. Also in Naples, on the scaffold of Piazza Mercato, Conradin of Swabia threw his glove before dying: the challenge for the inheritance against the Angevins was launched (1268).
A bit worse went for Pope Boniface VIII who, according to the legend of the “Slap of Anagni,” received from William Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna on behalf of King Philip IV the Fair, the affront of an iron glove between head and neck (1303).
When his papal tomb was reopened in 1605, precious white silk gloves made by needle were found.
Naturally, the Renaissance is the century that sees the explosion of the glove fashion: perfumers and glovemakers merge into one art to treat leather with fragrant essences. There are even tales from this era of poisoned gloves used to kill lovers and rivals.
The most beautiful pair in painting is worn by Parmigianino’s “Antea” at Capodimonte (1535): a glove almost like a falconer’s, gripping the other one not worn while being bitten by the mink on her shoulder.
In Naples, where glove manufacturing is a pride, a “Guantai” district already existed at Camaldoli; the viceregal statute dates back to 1627 for the Guild of Glovemakers, definitively separated from the perfumers in 1661: the scented gloves “in the Arab-Granadian style” produced in the city were famous.
The modern revival of Neapolitan gloves has a specific date: in 1804, Giovanni Loforte was granted permission to establish a manufactory in the French style. Contacts with Grenoble began, with entrepreneurs coming to the city and multiplying initiatives; there were tanneries on the Maddalena bridge.
By the end of the 19th century, 80% of gloves produced in Italy came from Naples. The Sanità, Stella, Vicaria, and Avvocata districts filled with small workshops, numbering almost 25,000 employees scattered throughout the city in the early 1900s.
After the war, the area of “Guantai Vecchi” (from Via S. Tommaso d’Aquino to Via Armando Diaz), with shops and factories producing glue made by boiling leather scraps, was demolished and rebuilt, becoming “Guantai Nuovi.”
Northern industries and synthetic materials would cause the production of excellence to plummet.
But not all is lost; in the novel “American Pastoral” – Pulitzer Prize 1997 – by Philip Roth: “No one cuts gloves this way anymore… except perhaps in some family-run factory in Naples or Grenoble.”
And indeed, companies of very high craftsmanship still survive, producing the excellence of gloves even today. Korea, Dubai, Singapore, and major brands like Dior, Chanel, Moschino, and Yves Saint Laurent still buy gloves from Naples. The leathers come from all over the world to be cut with the shears – the large scissors – where the “purzata,” the Neapolitan unit of measurement derived from Charlemagne, becomes the ruler, but the seams are millimetric.
And then there are still the “maestone,” the “maste” women who take orders and distribute them house by house, subcontractors of meticulous work often hidden. Neapolitan gloves are mostly sewn by women, hands of humble and skilled hands. Perhaps we still make the most beautiful gloves in the world because they tap into pure, survivor life, beyond every industrial reason but not beyond the industrious one of the art of getting by with skill. They are mostly born in neighborhoods where mothers hold their children very close, perhaps to lose them.