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  • How to Curate the Cristalliera

    Discover how Italians treat their china cabinet like an ever-changing art gallery
    Our Paesani

    By Francesca Di Meglio

    An Italian family's cristalliera, or china cabinet, is the keeper of its history. Each item that peers at guests from behind the glass comes with a story. Before you even get to what's inside, however, you have to recognize the significance of the hefty piece of furniture itself.

    Most of the southern Italians I know lived the early part of their lives as struggling peasants. They lived day to day, trying to make ends meet. Many of them faced the hardships of being in Italy during World War II. When the war ended, and the people started to look toward a better life, they dreamed of their bodies getting to rest in pretty, functional homes. The cristalliera was part of the dream, the symbol that you had lifted yourself out of poverty and had made it. After all, it meant you could afford a piece of wood that provided storage but also made the room more beautiful, a luxury. And you could afford whatever treasure you put inside it.

    Cristalliere, which is the plural of cristalliera, are still coveted among southern Italian residents. While young people don't quite appreciate them in the way older folks do, they still have cache. I imagine that when the spilling Italian economy gets back on the upswing, the china closets of yesteryear might become in vogue again.

    In the meantime, plenty of people have their own such closets, some of which are vintage family heirlooms. No one puts together a cristlliera quite like an Italian matriarch. Here are tips from the women I know about how to curate your crtistalliera:

    1. Pick the right cabinet.
      Obviously, the first step is getting a proper cabinet. Many of the older cabinets are dark wood with ornate decorations. There was a brief time in the 1980s and early 1990s when white lacquer finishes were popular. Shabby chic cabinets – that looked like they had been worn and featured soft blue or green painted wood – became common Stateside. But Italians tend to favor the dark woods with less decoration nowadays. You should pick whatever suits your taste.
    2. Size matters.
      To some extent you have to consider the size of the room in which this furniture will live. But most of the Italians I know prefer to first worry about the number of items they have to display in the cabinet. If they have to, they will build the room around the furniture. No joke. Of course, the bigger the cabinet, the better your bella figura.
    3. Find or crochet doilies.
      Italian woman go to the trouble of picking the finest wooden cabinets, often with mirrors or glass lining on the shelves to reflect off the glasses you're storing, so it looks like you have diamonds in there. There are even lights on the top to shine down on all your trinkets. But then, in a constant quest to be clean and organized, the women cover the shelves with crocheted doilies. Some are round. Some are rectangular. Pretty much all of them are handmade either by the cabinet's owner or friends and family. The doilies themselves became part of the artistic display.
    4. Pick your art.
      You can't just use this cabinet for mere storage. The cristalliera is the gallery for your art. So, what is art for an Italian home? Well, of course, it begins with stuff you need for eating. But it can only be the most beautiful things you own. Etched wine glasses, hand-painted ceramics, and all the favors you can fit are winners. Generally speaking, acceptable items fall into the following four categories:
      • Wedding and travel mementoes – Any special items from your wedding, such as toasting glasses, should be kept behind the sacred glass doors. Souvenirs that are particularly special, such as a replica trulli house from Alberobello or a tiny, handmade presepio from Mexico (both of these are in my cristalliera, by the way), make the cut.
      • Religious figurines and knick-knacks – That Pope John Paul II plate and any statues of Jesus or the Madonna (the real deal, not the singer) are acceptable in the cristalliera.
      • Fine china and elegant stemware – I learned about this the hard way, when my Zie did not like anything on my wedding registry and actually yelled at me to change it. Apparently, none of what I originally chose was cristalliera ready, so they bought Lenox dishes and glasses they chose themselves. I now have the tea and coffee service and the glasses in the china cabinet. Thank you, Zie!
      • Bomboniere – Favors, mostly from weddings and baptisms, might be the very reason cristalliere became popular in Italy. After all, where are you going to put all those dust collectors without a closet? Each lovely little gem gets valued. The newer ones, especially if they're elegant, such as the crystal vase with silver butterflies on it, will get prime real estate up front until something better comes along. Eventually, most bomboniere will get rotated in and out of the china cabinet. You have to keep making room as life events that come with a favor unfold.
    It goes without say that Italians keep their cristalliere clean by regularly dusting (it's a religion in the Boot). They also wash the glass, often with a mix of ammonia and vinegar that they wipe with an old newspaper page. Oh, yes, they are that old school. They will show off and explain the significance of every piece in the cristalliera to anyone who will listen just as a good museum curator would.

    Di Meglio uses the written word to help families create memories and stick together. You can follow her on Facebook at Francesca's Newlyweds Nest and on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.


    Article Published 2/8/2016

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