The Silk Weavers from Lucca

For centuries Venice was the trading city of trading cities with many exotic and exquisite items trading hands inside her borders. One of these items was of course textiles and few other European places could boast about their imported textiles, and later locally produced textiles, like Venice. In fact Venice managed to outshine her competition from Milan, Prato and Florence with her locally produced high-quality woven woollen cloth, velvets, damasks, brocades, silk fabrics and other fabrics with gold and silver yarns, for centuries.

Trade in textiles in Venice started in the 8th Century AD but in those days it was fairly simply woven cloth. As time went by and trade relations with the Byzantium strengthened, so did the wealth and the weaving industry in Venice evolve to accommodate growing tastes in more elaborate items. When Venice ruled the Adriatic seas, as the only maritime Republic, spices, ivory and silk fabrics arrived at her shores of which she also held the exclusive rights to sell to other European countries. In the beginning Venice was only interested in trading with fine fabrics, but later became interested in the weaving of raw silk itself. Patterns were simple at first, but due to intercultural influences the Venetian weavers were taught fundamental processes in silk weaving that would change the industry in Venice for the better. The Polo’s also introduced exotic fabrics from the East, during the 13th century, with elaborate patterns that allowed Venetians to simulate it into their designs. One extremely popular design was that of the pomegranate. All those who could afford a silk brocade with for example a pomegranate pattern was the church, nobles and 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. The pomegranate design was and is a very popular design in Iran and is often included in Persian carpet patterns, etc. The fruit is seen as having fertility and immortality significance and was thus used in many creations in Iran.

Another region that produced magnificent silk fabrics from the 8th century AD was Lucca. This city became very prosperous through its trade in silk fabrics during the Middle Ages and was well known for its merchants and luxury artisans. It was the centre of Jewish life, led by the Kalonymos family that kept commercial links with the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East. Because Lucca had no direct access to the sea, it forged an agreement with Genoa to become its trading post (ensuring great wealth for the Genovese) and in exchange Genovese ships were to bring back to Italy the raw silk purchased by Lucca's merchants from the Levant.

Weavers in “Lucca made notable improvements in the technology of silk-throwing devices and promoted the sericulture in the immediate countryside. Lucca soon specialized in high quality silk fabrics such as drappi auroserici (fabrics made of a mixture of silk with gold or silver threads). The motifs used in their fabric design broadened from the 12th to the end of the 14th century, incorporating Muslim, Byzantine, even Chinese motifs. The styles continued to evolve, steadily losing their rigidity and becoming richer and more dynamic. Assymetry was introduced bringing with it a sense of movement. From 1375 a more specific Italian style that featured Italian flowers, vine leaves and naturalist themes apperead such as back-to-back animals, eagles, various birds and animals (fox, lions, wolves...), palmettes, romanesque scenes, hunting scenes, flowers, leaves, vine shoots. The series of political disputes that began in Lucca in 1314 served as a prime impulse for the growth of the silk industry in Italy. For more than a century thereafter, a great many Lucchese artisans and entrepreneurs emigrated to the other cities of the peninsula that had already developed the silk craft, helping to strengthen those industries and introducing the organization and technical skills that had guaranteed the thirteenth-century predominance of Lucca in this field. “

Venice invited the artisans from Lucca (predominantly Jewish) with open arms and ensured that they enjoyed a great many benefits that were not given to them elsewhere in exchange of course for their know how in the silk weaving field. Workshops were set up for their exclusive use and many stringent regulations were put in place to ensure that these artisans were given only the finest and best quality raw materials and that none of their secrets were leaked to neighbouring competing regions. With Genoa (also a big silk weaving region) as its maritime and trading enemy, Venice ensured with this move that the Genovese lost one of its’ main trading partners, i.e the merchants and artisans of Lucca. This move would also ensure Venice’s position as the greatest producer of the finest and most luxurious textiles in Europe for centuries to come. It even led to it becoming the fashion capital during the Renaissance. The Lucchese weavers were responsible for taking Venice’s simple silk fabric production and changing it to produce much more elaborately woven fabrics with the intricate and complicated designs that Venice became known for.

Photograph: 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. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation, London)