Weaving a story about silk velvet in Venice has been a fascinating experience. So much involved. Technology, inventiveness, courage and challenges. And emotions.
Weaving is… rhythm and sounds
In the 18th century Venice was a capital of entertainment and pleasure. Fashion, but also furniture, required silk velvet and textile. You would then see and hear hundreds and hundreds of looms in action, thousands of women and men busy working in the weaving laboratories, shops and storage rooms packed with colourful shiny silk drapes. And more: merchants, weavers and customers bustling all around.
Sounds like these ones. Multiplied hundreds times. Here you can see (and hear) a weaver at the Luigi Bevilacqua Textile factory in Venice while preparing crimson red velvet:
Weaving is… a multi-ethnic and inter-religious story
The guild of the silk weavers in Venice soon understood how contamination with different cultures would only but improve the production quality and variety. In the year 1265 the capitulary of the silk textiles weavers in Venice was renewed, which means the art existed before that date. But it was thanks to the arrival in 1309 in Venice of silk weaver masters from Lucca that the silk velvet production skyrocketed. Escaping for political reasons from Lucca, the silk weavers reached Venice. The Serenissima gave them a place where to stay, the possibility to acquire real estate, stores and a devotion altar. Important privileges.
In those same years Marco Polo had come back from Asia. Son of a silk textile merchant, Marco Polo related in his memories of wonderful Asian drapes in silk. In his inventory at his death in 1324 there appears a “coltra una de veludo”, fabrics in velvet. Was velvet then from Asia? Maybe, although some propose France, too.
Cannaregio was the favourite district!
Most of the silk weavers lived and worked in Cannaregio, the northern district of Venice. Two hundreds years after Marco Polo and the arrival of the Lucca’s craftsmen, the activity was still deeply rooted. In 1509 the Labia family settled down in Venice, too. Originally Catalan, the Labias made a fortune with silk and gold textiles and chose the most peripheral district of Cannaregio where to live. This way, though, they would be close to where Jews not many years later would move to.
In the middle of the 18th century, the ballroom of the Labia palace was frescoed by Giambattista Tiepolo, depicting the gorgeous dress of Cleopatra as a Venetian lady wearing her soft translucent silk. At the same time, 84% of the silk weavers had decided to live and work in the surrounding areas.
Why Cannaregio? Because the silk weavers could find more business commissions there, thanks to the Jewish ghetto and to the diplomatic immunity that the foreign embassies of Spain, France and for a while Mantua could guarantee. So while the law established that silk weavers had to sell their work to Venetian catholic merchants only, in fact considerable profits were made with Jewish, Turkish, Greek and Armenian traders, too.
A weaving mill in the heart of Venice today
Near one of the most beautiful campos of Venice, campo San Zandegolà, you can visit the Luigi Bevilacqua factory. While the company was founded in 1875, a silk weaver named Giacomo Bevilacqua is mentioned in a painting by Giovanni Mansueti in 1499 already.
But guess what? Beforehand, the factory had operated since 1892 in palazzo Labia, right next to that frescoed ballroom, after the Labias moved out… Does this remind you of Ariadne’s thread, too?
At the moment eighteen 300-year old looms are hosted in the room downstairs, illuminated by large roof windows. Piles of grey Jacquard punched cards contrast with the brilliant colours of silk bundles. Over 3500 different drawings, from the Middle Ages to the Art Deco. In the middle of the room you can see the ancient warpers and creel, as in Diderot’s encyclopaedia.
On the walls you can see the old photos. Or documents witnessing the participation to the International exhibitions in Brussels, Turin and Barcellona in the early 1900s. Old instruments to manually punch the cards that will determine the pattern.
The scenographic showroom created in 1928 open on the Grand Canal is one of the highlights. Its wooden table to display the fabrics, samples that enchant you with their colours, provoking your desire to touch with fingers and eyes.
But this is not a museum of textile industry. It’s a working place.
The ecological niche
When industrialisation seemed to have taken over, in the late 1800s applied arts turned fashionable again and artistic crafts experienced a revival. Venice could not be the seat of a mass production on a large scale. Small scale plus prestigious unique production linked to art was the only recipe to guarantee an economic growth and consideration in an international market.
Today the Luigi Bevilacqua is the only company that continues the most ancient Venetian tradition of the hand-woven velvet. Able to create the punched cards for a pattern, set up an ancient loom with 16,000 yarn threads by hand.
Working both for restoration of ancient textile for upholstery and modern fashion designers such as Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana and Roberta di Camerino.
Weaving is… eyes, fingers and hands
“It often happens we don’t know what will be done with what we create.” Gloria is one of the six weavers working for the Luigi Bevilacqua, together with Ilaria, Giulia, Chiara, Carlotta and Silvia.
Gloria started 14 years ago doing some training and not expecting this would become her profession. But then she fell in love with this place and the fabrics produced here.
There is a difference between the hand working looms and the mechanical ones. It’s the same difference between art and a very well made imitation. The velvet produced here records the weavers’ feelings and moods, almost reaches perfection without achieving it (and that’s why they are valuable).
And it all depends on their eyes, hands and fingers.
It’s a job that requires patience, a lot. It’s demanding and difficult. But “it gives a deep satisfaction to know you are able to do something like this”, admits Gloria and adds: “Thanks to this job, I feel I am a person with social value.”
I left this place enchanted, thinking of eight hands working together like a harmonious team whose goal is beauty.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy