When I bought my house, all of its many windows were fitted with lace curtains. The whole house was re-plastered and re-painted before I moved in, and during that time all the curtains were stored in the basement. I had thought I’d replace them with new translucent roman shades, but my moving van was scheduled to arrive and it seemed expedient to re-hang the curtains and wait to replace them later. Eight years have passed and they are still in the windows. I’ve come to love the way they filter the light without blocking views of the green canopies of the trees and the fantastic ridge line of my neighbor’s crested and turreted home.
As the sun tracks across the southern exposure of the house, the patterns in the curtains stipple the walls and floors and surfaces of table tops. In the pallor of winter the light through them becomes so diffuse it hardly produces shadows.
Lace curtains had important functional purposes, despite their frivolous intricacy. Before the invention of window screens they were a deterrent to birds and insects flying into open windows at ballistic speeds. They helped trap and filter dust raised on summer streets, and they prevented wandering eyes from casual and unwelcome glances from the sidewalk.
Despite having arrived in the U.S. in the 18th century, my mother’s family still identified themselves by their Celtic origins, and always referred to themselves as “Lace Curtain Irish,” meaning that they were comfortably middle class. My mother’s childhood photographs are often posed beside towering windows cascading with yards of lace.
The only things she had in common with my Italian grandmother were her Catholicism, and a fondness for lace. Both of them were from generations who wouldn’t enter a church without covering their heads, always with lace mantillas, often of extravagant lengths. In the summer, women at mass in my hometown cathedral carried lace fans. Their rhythmic fanning sounded like the slight flapping of dove’s wings as they roost in my trees in the evening. It was a sound that was equally calming.
I’ve seen meters and meters of lace curtains in family houses in Italy, and have always been struck by the kind of mysterious veil they throw over ordinary domestic life. Something so insubstantial and so impenetrable at the same time.
My favorite scene in the elegiac novel, Il Gattopardo (the Leopard), and the gorgeous film that was made of it, opens with long lace curtains sweeping the marble floors of a Sicilian villa. The curtains move in and out of French doors, as if the house was breathing.
- Michael Guarino