Secreted into Burns Lane, this elegant store full of Italian-made delights is well worth the hunt. But beware, once you write a letter on handmade Italian paper, sleep on Italian linens, wear an Italian fragrance or set a table with handmade Italian ceramics, nothing else will ever compare. As soon as your supply of stationery runs out you’ll be planning an expensive supply run to the rolling hills and cobblestone streets of Tuscany and Umbria. Donatella and Giulio della Porta, owners of The Hidden Countship, solve that problem by helping Charlestonians get their fix of Italian craftsmanship.
The della Portas tell a typical Charleston love story: They came for a weekend visit and started shopping for a house within an hour of their first stroll. “We completely fell for this city. I’ll never forget the first half hour here and the surprise of looking at every house thinking that it was more beautiful than the last. We knew immediately that Charleston was the perfect place to put down roots,” Donatella della Porta says.
After moving in, they began to dream of a place where they could share Italian craftsmanship and showcase the little-known Italian artisans they love. “When we moved to Charleston there was a moment when we were standing in front of dozens of moving boxes full of the beautiful Italian objects we’d collected. Each object had the special charm of carefully handmade things, each speaks a timeless language: quality and good taste,” della Porta says. “In that moment we decided we would travel through Italy looking for workshops that are operating today just as they were 300 years ago. This is still possible in Italy. There are amazing places that represent the exact opposite of mass production. We find those places and bring their beautiful objects to Charleston.”
In 2010 their dream became a reality when they opened The Hidden Countship.
Besides an appreciation for beautiful handmade things, the della Porta family has a centuries-old tradition of art patronage. The Hidden Countship is a way for the della Portas to continue that tradition by helping Italian artisans keep ancient techniques alive. “We help skilled Italian men and women who, against the prevailing tide, without agents or fame, continue to carry age-old artisanal traditions into the 21st century that would otherwise be lost. They work out of love and pride, and we represent them out of love and pride,” she says. Della Porta worries that Italian craftsmen are an endangered species, and she has a very personal connection to the loss. “My father taught art history at the Academy of Fine Art in Perugia. For 60 years he taught formatura, the special way Romans created sculptural masterpieces. When he died, the head of the Academia said the old secrets of the art were now lost. To me, it felt like a crime,” she says.
In part, this experience fosters her abiding dedication to Italian craftsmen. “There are no longer schools for craftsmanship, the old workshops are closing and massive low-cost production is killing the market for handmade items. The last 15 years have been difficult for Italian craftsmen. Those that survive bring superior quality, very often thanks to the American market,” she says.
Della Porta, like many Italians, believes our two countries share a special friendship, which is one of the reasons she and her husband have faith that Italian craftsmanship and traditions can be saved. “Italians look at America in a special way; there is no other country we are fond of like this. Two generations have grown up listening to their parents and grandparents tell stories about the help that America gave to Italy at the end of World War II. The Americans brought an end to a dark age after years and years of fascist madness. All Italians know the words sbarco degli alleati (the landing of the Allies). The stories bring feelings of love and sentiments of humanity. Today, America is still the promise of a new world, a country open to hope. And Americans can come to Italy and enjoy our small, crazy country full of culture, art, fashion and thousands of years of history. Italians are genuinely fond of Americans,” she says.
Visitors to the store are greeted with that special brand of Italian generosity and warmth. When you stop by The Hidden Countship for a browse, do as the Italians do: Don’t rush. Della Porta (or dashing store manager Matthew) will be happy to tell you the stories behind the products and the artisans. Give yourself time to discover Italian traditions and innovations. Check out the Rometti dinnerware, a prestigious small company that has been making beautiful and functional ceramics since 1927. These ceramics are an excellent example of how Italian objects are made for use and just get better with age.
Gambettola has been making traditional woodblock-printed linens since 1826. Artisans hand carve stamps from pear wood, soak them in colored pastes and use them to decorate handwoven linen and cotton cloths with images from local folklore. Luxurious journals from Il Papiro are marbleized by hand in the old way: The maker sprinkles colors onto a liquid base made up of water and a jelly-like solution. Then the colors are blended with a marbling comb to make the swirl design. The craftsman places a sheet of handmade paper over the liquid, which absorbs the color. No two sheets of marbled paper are ever alike.
Each year, the della Portas return to Italy and bring back handcrafted jewelry, ceramics, linens, furniture, marble and alabaster sculpture, cutlery, handblown glass, and men’s and women’s fashion. The Hidden Countship offers handmade treasures from all over Tuscany and Umbria, and there truly is something for everyone.
Robin Howard is a Charleston-based writer.