venetian silk -- 7/9/24

Today's selection-- from Venice by Dennis Romano. According to the BBC’s Eliot Stein, “Venice was importing silk from the Byzantines before Marco Polo’s journeys east, but it was the arrival of 300 asylum-seeking weavers from Lucca in the 1300s who taught the Venetians how to loop, warp and cut silky-smooth threads into a dense, velvety pile. The Lucchesi learned the skills by trading with Asian merchants, and the newly settled artists quickly established the Republic of Venice’s Guild of Velvet Weavers in 1347. By the 1500s, records show that more than 30,000 of Venice’s residents (roughly one-fifth its population) worked in the silk and velvet trades. “Textiles became the most valuable source of wealth for the republic,” said Luca Molà, a historian at the UK’s University of Warwick who has written two books on the Venetian silk industry. “Velvet required more material and time to create than other fabrics, so it was more expensive, and Venice was exporting it around the world”:

“Patents offer one measure of the city's success in fostering manufacturing and technical innovation. In the final quarter of the fifteenth century, the Senate issued thirty-three patents for various industrial techniques and devices. That number jumped dramatically in the sixteenth century to 577 patents. Since privileges could also be issued by the Provveditori di Comun (Commissioners of the Commune) who had some jurisdiction over trade and certain guilds, one estimate places the number of patent applications in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at nearly 1,000. The silk industry alone saw approximately forty patents issued for everything from spinning machines to cloth printing equipment, to new dyeing techniques. …

“[With its patents, Venice saw] a huge increase in sericulture. Already in the fifteenth century, much of the area around Vicenza was devoted to mulberry trees and raising silkworms, serving, as Doge Agostino Barbarigo declared in 1488, as ‘the main aliment and source of employment for our people of Vicenza,’ especially women. In that same year the Venetian government forbade the export of mulberry trees from anywhere in its dominion. By the mid-sixteenth century the stato da terra was producing over 300,000 pounds of raw silk materials per year.  Much of the spinning of raw silk into thread occurred in Vicenza and Verona. Most of the thread was then exported outside the Venetian state after paying duties. Despite resistance from the Venetian setaioli (silk cloth manufacturers), who claimed that weaving was a monopoly of the capital, the Veronese won the right to weave black velvets in the 1550s and the Vicentines, Brescians, and Bergamasques did so a few years later. The weaving of other types of silk fabrics followed, whether officially sanctioned or not.

“In the fifteenth century, silk manufacturing in the capital already had, unlike wool, a distinguished history, beginning with the arrival in the fourteenth century of political refugees from Lucca. In policy, however, the government vacillated between protectionism and free trade. As for the importation of raw silk, the government was forced, in the end, to favor free trade since it was competing with other European powers for supplies from Syria, Greece, and the Balkans. For semi-finished products like thread, the setaioli and spinners had differing interests. The setaioli wanted freedom to import thread from elsewhere, notably the terraferma cities, while the spinners sought to protect their profession from outside competition.

"La charmante rencontre", rare 18th-century embroidery in silk of Lyon (private collection)

“One of the Venetian silk industry's strengths was its ability to meet the demands of a wide variety of consumers from Emperor Charles V's wife, Isabel of Portugal, who ordered six bolts of Venetian satin in 1532, to Francesco di Antonio, a wool weaver who in 1565 owned silk sleeves, doublets, trousers, and a black silk hat. Silk cloth was used on litters and gondolas, for banners, umbrellas, sheets, curtains, cushions, book covers, and other items. As a diplomatic tool, it was often gifted to ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. When Vincenzo Gradenigo went as bailo to Constantinople, he took with him a cornucopia of gifts including 3.5 kilometers of fabrics.  These gifts served to advertise the quality of Venetian production and generate further demand.

“The government divided silk cloth into five distinct categories, from doth commissioned for personal, domestic use to the finest cloths that were exhibited to foreigners at a trade show, known as the paragon (comparison), located along the Ruga del Paragon (Paragon Street) at Rialto. Here an elite clientele could compare samples of the best Venetian production. Medium-quality cloth constituted another category, as did cloth produced exclusively for export (often to the Levant), and yet another for sale only at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. The sixteenth century saw an explosion of new colors and a growing taste for black as well as the gradual acceptance of fabrics made from silk mixed with flax, cotton, or wool. The silk manufacturers and dyers were constantly torn between preserving quality standards and the reputation of Venetian silk and the changing tastes and budgets of consumers. Large numbers of men and women found employment in the silk industry. In the 1550s, master weavers alone are estimated to have numbered around 1,200. The production of cotton cloth, by contrast, was less important since it had to compete against German-made wares. However, cotton was used widely in the production of sails."



Dennis Romano


Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City


Oxford University Press


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment