What buttons can tell you about Italian society

When I was a child, one of my favourite pastimes was playing with my grandma’s button tin. Over the years she had collected hundreds of buttons, and I used to tip them out onto the carpet and spend hours arranging and admiring them.

Giorgio Galavotti, founder, owner and curator of the Museo del Bottone (Button museum), has spent a lifetime playing with buttons. For years he ran a button shop, setting up the museum when he retired, so he could share his passion with others. The buttons on display are mostly from the shop, as well as buttons brought along by friends and locals who raided their own button tins after he opened the museum. When I ask Giorgio if he has favourites he looks a bit schocked. “They are all my children” he says.

I learn that my grandma’s button tin was not unique “every house had one, and it’s a classic childhood story, playing with the button tin”

As I browsed, Giorgio appeared by my side with a little torch, highlighted one of the buttons and began explaining its significance. It’s a medium sized navy blue button, decorated with white letters and dating from 1910. At the time much of Italy’s population was illiterate, and the button commemorates the work done by Maria Montessori, who made a game out of teaching children to write using wooden letters. She went on to found the Montessori education method which revolutionised teaching in Italy and beyond.

He calls them ‘buttons that talk’. He can tell a story like this about almost every button in the place, and there are thousands of them, of all kinds of shapes and colours. Round buttons, square buttons, flower-shaped buttons, plain buttons, candy coloured buttons, bejewelled buttons. A stone encrusted garment fastener signed “Gianni Italy”, thought to be an early Versace piece. Although they are very pretty to look at, the real interest is in the way Giorgio uses them to reflect Italian society, fashion and history through the years.

A couple of button sets from the 1960s are obviously very fancy; quite valuable looking. Designer logos had not been invented at this point, and the wealthy decorated their clothing with fancy, jewel-like buttons to show off. Just ten years later the first logos were starting to appear – buttons from 1970 show an early Chanel logo. A display of plain, dark grey buttons used for denim jeans reflects the ‘leaden years‘ of the 1970s when Italy suffered a wave of terrorist attacks.

'Leaden' buttons used on denim jeans in the 1970s

I wonder what stories the buttons from my grandmother’s tin would say if they could talk too.

Photo credit: Museo del Bottone

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About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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1 Comment

  • Nuria

    I love this, Lucy! :) So wonderful! I’d like to visit it next time I’m in Italy! Would love to hear all the history behind the many buttons there!