Painting of Cristina Manelli, done by her husband, Gino Manelli. (Gina Manelli, Baltimore…)
Cristina F. Manelli, an Italian immigrant who designed and sewed clothes for clients, family and friends and later created a line of costume jewelry, died Wednesday of renal failure at St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation Center in Southwest Baltimore.
The longtime Catonsville resident was 96.
The daughter of a farmer and a homemaker, Cristina Flagelli was born and raised in Teramo, Italy, where she was trained as a seamstress and embroiderer.
There, she met her future husband, Luigi "Gino" Manelli, an artist who had been born in Philadelphia to Italian immigrants. His family had returned to Teramo, in the Abruzzo region, where they owned and operated a general store and later a dry cleaning establishment.
"She wasn't giving him the time of day, and her brothers did not want her to hook up with him. He was an artist and a bicyclist," said a son, Julian A. Manelli of Ellicott City.
"To get her attention, he painted her portrait and put it in the window of his parents' cleaners. Then she gave him the time of day, and they got together," said Mr. Manelli with a laugh.
The couple married in 1940. "Then the war broke out, and he was forced to join the Italian cavalry, from which he soon deserted," her son said.
Mr. Manelli joined a partisan group, the Avoltoi delle Ripe, or Falcons of the Ridges, where he spent the remainder of the war fighting forces loyal to dictator Benito Mussolini.
"She worked in the store and raised my brother. She also hid her brothers and my father from the Fascists when they came down from the mountains," said Mr. Manelli.
Mr. Manelli described his mother as being "stunning," which during wartime could be a liability.
"She deliberately made herself ugly because during the war she had to go out and barter for food with which to feed her family. She had to be careful," he said. "She didn't tell us these stories until many years later."
Reunited with her husband after the war, the couple owned and operated a dry cleaning establishment in Teramo, while Mr. Manelli also worked as a newspaper caricaturist and played drums in a jazz band.
In 1956, Mr. Manelli left Teramo and immigrated to Baltimore, where he settled into a home on North Hilton Street and took a job as a garment worker.
The next year, he was joined by his wife and family, and then moved to a home in Catonsville and later Ellicott City.
For the next 20 years, Mrs. Manelli worked in men's tailoring at Isaac Hamburger & Sons, and later for Stetson-Dee, Carey Clothes and finally, the Hecht Co.
"She was very proud of the fact that she was one of the last women to make her own complete trousseau, and throughout her life, she designed and made clothes for family, friends and clients," her son said.
"Always impeccably dressed, she was in the tradition of una bella figura," he said.
In the late 1960s, Mrs. Manelli began collecting and repairing vintage costume jewelry, while designing and making costume jewelry of her own, which she sold under the name of Cristina's Curios.
Mrs. Manelli regularly sold her work at the City Fair, Flowermart and Italian Festival.
She worked in a basement studio of her home and later moved it to her garage.
"It was incredibly organized. It was not sloppy, and she knew where everything was," her son said. "She kept working until about four years ago."
Mrs. Manelli was known for her cooking and love of entertaining family and friends.
"She was a master in the kitchen and was able to put together delectable seven-course Italian meals with ease or a quick meal for a surprise visitor," her son said.
"The aroma of fresh espresso and delicious homemade biscotti greeted frequent visitors like artists Joe Sheppard and Bennard Perlman, who loved to come to my parents' house to eat and drink," said Mr. Manelli.
Mrs. Manelli returned in summer and fall to Teramo, where she visited family.
Her husband, who was a professional artist and teacher, died in 2010.
She was a communicant of St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church, 2612 Wilkens Ave., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Mrs. Manelli is also survived by another son, Bernard Manelli of Catonsville; five grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.