The fabric of a Tuscan town
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The fabric of a Tuscan town

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Thu 01 Jan 1970 12:00 AM

Tucked away on Tuscany’s eastern border with Umbria, an 11th-century town drapes itself eloquently over a steep hilltop.

Far flung on the Tuscan map from the well-trodden tourist haunts of San Gimignano, Siena and Montalcino, the ancient walled town of Anghiari has beckoned me for more than a decade.

Many are drawn to marvel at Anghiari’s well preserved medieval architecture or to retrace notable events sprinkled throughout its history. Michelangelo’s birthplace is a stone’s throw away in the next town of Caprese. Then there’s the Battle of Anghiari, fought between Milan and Florence in 1440, which gave the Florentines both victory and power to rule central Italy. The battle itself was not particularly noteworthy—it was fought and won in a day. But Leonardo da Vinci’s commission in 1504 to paint The Battle of Anghiari as a large fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio gave Anghiari and its battle a place in Renaissance art history.

But my visit to the town is neither for art nor architecture, nor is it to walk on hallowed battlegrounds. Anghiari has captured my spirit with a Renaissance art form from a century ago that cannot be found in books or on a canvas. Via della Battaglia’s long, steep Roman road guides me upward to the hilltop center and to the doorstep of Palazzo Morgalanti.

The palazzo is home to the Busatti family, who for eight generations has produced elegant handcrafted fabrics that have earned the Busatti name international recognition and a prestigious status in today’s world of luxury textiles. From small and humble beginnings, Mario Busatti founded the family’s weaving business with eight wooden looms and ten weavers. That was in 1842. Today, Palazzo Morgalanti is still the Busatti’s home and business headquarters, and their family legacy is as intricately woven in Anghiari’s history as the fabric they produce.

I have traveled to Anghiari to meet the renowned Signor Giovanni Busatti and his family, and to fulfill a wishful dream—indulging my passion and weakness for fine-quality fabrics with one of the finest.

Signor Busatti is gently spoken, distinguished and proud to be the patriarch of his family’s “all-Italian” brand. He talks passionately about their commitment to preserving the traditions of the artisanal weaving heritage and the skills handed down through his family’s generations. Signor Busatti’s welcoming warm spirit reminds me how effortlessly Italians manage this “making of friends” with strangers. With his guiding hand on my arm, we wander the hallways of the palazzo, pausing to look at black-and-white family photographs hung on rough stone-hewed walls.

One step into the palazzo’s basement and heart of the Busatti empire is a thousand steps back in time to the industrial age of 100 years ago. My senses, too impatient to wait, race ahead to explore. The smell of cool, earthy basement air mingles with the crisp sweetness of newly woven fabric. Then there’s the noise. A loud, uncanny clanking of grating metal leaves my ears struggling to decipher the foreign sounds of weaving machines. Entranced, I stand at the basement’s entrance, surveying the chaotic scene before me. Within the confined white-washed walls of this vaulted basement, massive archaic weaving machinery is haphazardly crammed into every inch of floor space. Pausing momentarily, I wonder how these machines were cajoled and maneuvered into the basement through its narrow, low-beamed, 17th-century doorways.

My footing is unsteady on the mismatched, chipped floor tiles. I sidestep between monstrous-sized spinning machines and shuttle looms that date back to a pre-World War I era. Space is tight. Hanging from rusty nails at lopsided angles, obsolete safety signs from the 1920s caution my movements. I hug my arms closer in compliance. Air from an old-fashioned, wooden shuttle brushes my face as it hurtles back and forth weaving yarn between thousand rows of brightly colored threads. I lean in close, spellbound at the slow-motion creation of a Jacquard fabric being woven. Such richness and refined beauty emerge in jarring contrast to the clumsy
mechanical mammoth of its creator. My fingers tingle with impulsive
desire to feel the loom’s newborn fabric. I cannot resist. Defying warning signs on the wall above, I reach over for one quick touch of soft luxury.

Sheep raised in Anghiari’s surrounding Apennine Valley provide Busatti with an abundant supply of “locally grown” wool. Sacks of newly shorn curly fleece sit in a corner of the basement waiting their turn to be transformed. The speed and deft of carding machines entice as their massive rollers clean, untangle, separate and combine the raw wool fibers into long, even “ropes” of thread ready for spinning. Their arthritic parts wheeze and groan like old men reluctantly toiling over a job they are surely too old
to perform.

Amidst the noise and calamity of the basement’s workshop, I find a group of local Anghiari women seated around a table. Heads bent in deep concentration, they patiently hand embroider the finishing touches on napkins and table runners with their exquisite hem-stitch edging. Skills and a trade passed down through their own family’s generations.

Change has seldom visited Palazzo Morgalanti over the last 100 or so years. There is no air-conditioned glitzy showroom with halogen spotlights to showcase Busatti’s designs and newer collections to this summer’s tourists. Befitting its history and surroundings, a plain room of bare brick walls serves as a shop selling fabric by the meter and ready-made home furnishings. In modest and unpretentious displays Busatti’s hand-loomed fabrics, neatly arranged on shelves and table tops, are simply allowed to shine in their own unadorned glory.

My time at Palazzo Morgalanti draws to a close. Signor Busatti pauses our conversation to take a phone call—his work day is calling. But bidding farewell is not a rushed affair. And so, a bottle of prosecco appears. Enjoying the moment, I raise my glass and in faltering Italian, offer a toast of gratitude to Signor Busatti. With a smile of acceptance, he in turn graciously offers me a gift—my own set of hand-embroidered damask napkins, neatly tied with a ribbon.

Gillian Burns hails from Yorkshire in
the North of England. She is a writer, guest blog contributor and editor of two cookbooks. She worked for the BBC World
Service in London and has traveled, lived and worked in Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

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