[No: LXI | By Viveka Hansen]

Lucca, Genova, Firenze, Venezia and Milano – cities where silk weaving developed to a work of art during the Medieval period and Renaissance. These desirable textiles were sold via a myriad of trading routes through Europe and beyond. St Petri church in Malmö was one such customer, who aspired to extend its storage of vestments especially during the 15th century and up to the Reformation. My aim with this fourth text of the collection, will give a brief history of the Italian silks and its weaving traditions. Close-up photographs of selected silk and velvet fragments intend to illustrate motifs further, preferred colours and the former uses for these sought-after textiles. Not only by churches and cathedrals, but to the same extent by the wealthy citizens who wished to be fashionable in clothing, as well as for textile interior in their homes. 

These ten fragments are some of the pieces left which are once believed to have been part of a 15th century chasuble. For this vestment an exquisite Italian silk with originally deep red pomegranates and shining membrane gold was used – today purple in colour and darkened metallic threads. Largest width, 68 cm. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

These ten fragments are some of the pieces left which are once believed to have been part of a 15th century chasuble. For this vestment an exquisite Italian silk with originally deep red pomegranates and shining membrane gold was used – today purple in colour and darkened metallic threads. Largest width, 68 cm. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

The competition was fierce between the weaving centres, particularly in the city-states of Lucca, Genoa, Florence, Milan and Venice. Several towns managed to develop an individual style of their own in patterns as well as silk qualities, but these trading secrets were hard to keep and spread quite rapidly to surrounding areas. The late textile historian Agnes Geijer emphasised that at the same time as the weavers took great care of their family’s traditional designs, they were often equally interested in being up-to-date with inventions and methods from nearby workshops. These circumstances resulted in that the complex patterned silks and velvets from various weaving centres, gradually appeared to be more and more similar and finally during the 15th century it became almost impossible to identify local differences in designs, colour preferences or other characteristics.

However, less successful attempts to keep local knowledge within certain city-states were made in the 15th century. For example in July 1440 it became illegal to move looms or other weaving equipment from Genoa, at the same time as several areas had restrictions for the weavers’ movements. In theory this meant that silk weavers could only work where they were once trained, but this prohibition had limited effects. Two reasons were that weavers from Genoa moved and started up their own silk workshops in Milan or Ferrara, or that Venetian weavers moved abroad.

Medieval portraits is a vital primary source for the study of fabrics/patterns of clothes and other textiles. All those who could afford a silk brocade with for example a pomegranate pattern like this was; the church, nobles, monarchs who sought to own these luxurious textiles. This particular motif can be traced throughout history, but it reached great popularity in Italy during the 14th to 16th centuries, both within ecclesiastic and noble spheres, an example of this can be seen here in this portrait of a young nobleman in the 14th century. (Sangiorgi, Giorgio, Contributi allo studio dell’arte textile, Roma 1920).

Medieval portraits is a vital primary source for the study of fabrics/patterns of clothes and other textiles. All those who could afford a silk brocade with for example a pomegranate pattern like this was; the church, nobles, monarchs who sought to own these luxurious textiles. This particular motif can be traced throughout history, but it reached great popularity in Italy during the 14th to 16th centuries, both within ecclesiastic and noble spheres, an example of this can be seen here in this portrait of a young nobleman in the 14th century. (Sangiorgi, Giorgio, Contributi allo studio dell’arte textile, Roma 1920).

On this partly preserved profane coat in the St Petri collection, dating from the late 15th or early 16th century, the pomegranate pattern is present just as on the portrait above. The more than thirty fragments were reconstructed by textile conservator Margaretha Nockert in the early 1980s in order, to demonstrate the probable shape of the coat…

On this partly preserved profane coat in the St Petri collection, dating from the late 15th or early 16th century, the pomegranate pattern is present just as on the portrait above. The more than thirty fragments were reconstructed by textile conservator Margaretha Nockert in the early 1980s in order, to demonstrate the probable shape of the coat…

…The garment is regarded to have been very loose fitting (300 cm in circumference) with long wide sleeves and reaching down to the feet. The largest fragment is 47 cm wide and 103 cm long, here illustrated in two separate images. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

…The garment is regarded to have been very loose fitting (300 cm in circumference) with long wide sleeves and reaching down to the feet. The largest fragment is 47 cm wide and 103 cm long, here illustrated in two separate images. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

Some weaving workshops in the Italian city-states were family businesses while others were larger manufactures, but all together the silk weaving developed to a major trade and wide-ranging export. As mentioned earlier it was not only the European churches who purchased the Italian silks and velvets, everyone who could afford such luxury qualities were potential costumers. For example, in accounts and estate records (1325-1462) from England, it is possible to localise that the Royal household imported silks of Italian origin, a trade often carried out via the town of Bruges [Brugge]. The late Donald King, historian and keeper of textiles at The Victoria and Albert Museum, was specialised in these fabrics and particularly in the silks from Lucca. In research based on studies from Lucca, King also emphasised that the silk weaving in this city-state reached it peak during the 13th century, but the production probably started before the year 1000 and similar exquisite qualities were still much sought-after in the early 15th century.

One of the most famous techniques diasprum [diasper] – a type of complex double silk weave – was woven in one or two colours and often added with metallic threads of gold and silver. Family names connected to this famous silk weaving in Lucca were: Buonvisi, Cenami, Fatinelli, Guidiccioni, Guinigi, Sercambi, Spada and Trenta. These long-lasting weaving families are believed to have been the foundation, not only for the a large domestic production, but also for the extensive export to the countries in Northern Europe among other places. Their exquisite silk fabrics also inspired many more families in close-by areas to master this lucrative craft and eventually Spanish workshops started to “imitate the art of weaving from Lucca”.

Italian gold and silk brocade – a quality which has lost some of its former glory due to its darkened membrane gold – probably part of a chasuble or cope in the Medieval St Petri church. The fabric was woven in the 15th century. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

Italian gold and silk brocade – a quality which has lost some of its former glory due to its darkened membrane gold – probably part of a chasuble or cope in the Medieval St Petri church. The fabric was woven in the 15th century. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

During the 14th century the Venetian silk weavers were seen as equal to the master craftsmen in Lucca, and this century also became the starting point in Venice and other places for a style more inspired by the East. Agnes Geijer, called this style the “free” or “wild” with its; flying birds, Chinese dragons, irregular flower compositions and jumping deers in contrast to the previous use of strict geometrical patterns. Although, early on in the coming century the stricter ideals were once again preferred, with pomegranates as one of the favourite kinds of patterning on Italian silk fabrics. As already noted, several proofs of this popular motif are included in the collection of St Petri church (images 1 to 4 and on one further fragment below).

These fragments of a gold and silk brocade, have probably been used as gussets in garments. The fabric was woven in Italy during the 15th century. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

These fragments of a gold and silk brocade, have probably been used as gussets in garments. The fabric was woven in Italy during the 15th century. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

Agnes Geijer’s research also pointed out that the workshops in Milan reached its peak around 1474, while the silk weaving manufacturing and trade by now involved 15 000 individuals in a population of less than a 100 000. To a great extent they produced silk fabrics with various pomegranate patterns! Metallic threads or so-called membrane gold or silver was equally important for the weft of these fabrics. The common use of gold and silver threads not only gave the textiles a luxury aura, but strengthened the desired visual effects in the weaving techniques. The weaving was not only technically complex, the thinness of the warp as well as the weft pushed the craft to the limit of what was possible. The production of the valuable textiles was clearly a team effort; purchase of the best raw material, spinning, pattern designs, warping, the preparation of the loom, the weaving and finally the commercial side with possible advertising, correspondence and selling of each and every metre of fabric.

The master weaver was assisted by an apprentice boy sitting on the top of the loom, to pull selected warp threads at the right moment after the weavers’s instructions. Since the early 15th century the weaving width was standardised to 60-70 cm, mainly due the increasing complexity of the patterning of the silks and often even more advanced cut and uncut velvets.

This brownish fabric – originally red in colour and part of an altar cloth dating from circa 1500 – is a good example showing that velvets could also be plain in structure. Additionally, the Apostles – Paul to the left with his attribute “the sword” and Peter to the right with his “keys” – are depicted in traditional silk and gold laid work. Biblical motifs in embroidery connected to the Medieval textile collection of St Petri church, will be the theme for the next post in this series. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

This brownish fabric – originally red in colour and part of an altar cloth dating from circa 1500 – is a good example showing that velvets could also be plain in structure. Additionally, the Apostles – Paul to the left with his attribute “the sword” and Peter to the right with his “keys” – are depicted in traditional silk and gold laid work. Biblical motifs in embroidery connected to the Medieval textile collection of St Petri church, will be the theme for the next post in this series. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)

To be continued…

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Sources 

  • Hansen, Viveka, Kyrkliga textilier i Malmö – från medeltid till barock, Elbogen pp. 61-135. 2000. (A large number of primary and secondary sources were studied for this article. For full Bibliography and a complete List of St Petri church textiles, see the Swedish article).
  • St Petri Church, Medieval Church Collection, Malmö, Sweden (researched in 1999 & 2000 for above article. If not otherwise stated, all textile fragments are part of the St Petri collection).

 

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘Italian Silks & Velvets – Medieval Textiles’, TEXTILIS (May 1, 2016); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)