Monday, April 8, 2019

Italian Velvet History: Textile Images
The most fanciful images of the weaver's art across the centuries: upon thrones, altars, in royal bed chambers, bourgeois drawing rooms and the ateliers of great couturiers; it is velvet which has marked entire eras. Guiseppe Verdi demanded only the finest velvets for the outfits for the characters in his operas, and the same was true for Rossini and Donzietti. From Caruso to Galeffi to Giuditta Pasta, one and all lavished maniacal attention to the velvety spectacle of the costumes of their operas. And what shall we say then for the long list designers, from Courreges, Cardin, Rabanne, Marucelli, and De Barentzen?

Velvet, however, has been first and foremost an economic phenomenon, which has generated enormous wealth, enough to pay armies, create banks, and radically shift the array of international economies. A powerful lever in the great trade of the Renaissance, velvet made the fortunes of the bankers and merchants of city-states such as Lucca, Florence, and the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice. For centuries, these cities dominated the textile markets of the entire world, with their velvets influencing the prices of raw materials, commercial treaties, fashions, technology, and new discoveries.

The earliest traces of velvet were lost somewhere on the legendary Silk Road, the great transcontinental caravan route that connected Lo-Yang with the Ch'ang-an through the Taklimakan, the desert without return, all the way to the port cities of the eastern Mediterranean. As to the origins of velvet, scholars from all over the world have discussed and debated for many years. It is now a general belief this fabric, originally made of silk, arrived in Italy for the first time from the Far East, transported by Arab merchants, and was then spread throughout Europe, in turn, by the merchants from Lucca, Venice, Florence, and Genoa.

In Italy, beginning in the twelfth century and continuing through the entire eighteenth century, the largest industry for the production of velvets in the western world was set up. For centuries in Lucca, Siena, Venice, Florence and Genoa supplied the rest of Europe with these valued fabrics, to be used in clothing, wall coverings, upholstery, the trapping of horses, furniture of all sorts, and the interiors of carriages and litters.

Many historians claim that the earliest velvets were woven in Palermo, in imitation of the velvets in the east. The hypothesis that this precious cloth was first woven in Sicily and later spread to the rest of Italy was first put forth by the French Scholar A. Latour. Many other scholars tend to favor the Venetian route, since there is documentation from as early as the ninth to eleventh centuries of intense trade between Venice and the East. However, Arabic is the only language that makes use of the name of a city Kathifet in mentioning velvet. This city may well be the place where this type of cloth was produced for the first time. But on the other hand, in Italy, the fabric takes the name from the characteristic appearance - in Italian, "vello" means fleece, and "velluto", or velvet, means fleecy.


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