history

“Storia d’Italia narrata ai fanciulli” (“History of Italy told to children”), a poster.

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I just came across an interesting legend regarding the origins of Italian designer leather bag tradition. It is somewhat puzzling that thus far I cannot find any additional sources for this legend. All I have is an advertisement copy that was published in New York Magazine on Nov 3, 1980. Yet somehow the story rings true in a sense that it probably goes back to some piece of Italian local lore.

Matilda of Tuscany (la Gran Contessa (“the Great Countess”) or Matilde di Canossa (“Matilda of Canossa”), 1046-1115), a revered Italian noblewoman who is somewhat unexpectedly known for her military talents, was also Italy’s first designer of handbags. A devout Catholic, Matilda supposedly found herself in need of a pouch in which to carry alms that she distributed among the poor. The countess personally came up with the design and asked a local craftsman to make her a purse using the softest leather available. It goes without saying that Matilda probably quickly discovered that one bag was just not enough to serve the needs of Tuscany’s dispossessed. “Honey, I need a new purse for the poor,” she must have said to her husband more than once… Eventually, other Italian ladies followed suit and found many different uses for Matilda’s invention. Although the practice of signing leather goods by their makers most likely began in the 14th century, we actually have Matilda’s signature that could have become the very first Italian leatherĀ  trademark. The signature in an official document that Matilda signed when approaching the end of her life reads “Matilda, Dei gratia si quid est” which is Latin for “Matilda, by the grace of God, if she is anything.” Nice to see such a humble disposition in a woman who started it all.

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