‘Mediterranean weaving—fabric as a dictionary of economic, cultural and social relations.’ This rather ponderous title introduces a fascinating exhibition at the Museo del Tessuto in Prato comparing the different textile crafts of Mediterranean countries through the centuries and the way in which, through the commercial network, these crafts have influenced one another. The exhibit underlines how the Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures have become, quite literally, interwoven.
The opening of the exhibition coincided with International Week at the Istituto Datini, where historians from all over the world met to discuss ‘economic relationships between Europe and the Islamic world from the 13th to the 17th centuries’. The religious and political conflicts of the times did not prevent commercial exchanges and consequently the spread of scientific and technical knowledge—an interesting reflection on the tensions that exist in the world today.
The collection of the Prato museum forms the core of over 80 exhibits, but others have been lent by the Bargello, Museo Bardini, Museo Stibbert, the Galleria del Costume in Florence, the Museo Correr in Venice, the Civic Museum of San Gimignano, the Hebrew Community of Padua and the Commune of Assisi. Several early exhibits come from the Museu Tèxtil in Terrassa, Spain.
The first part of the exhibition follows the early development of the silk trade in Europe which, after being introduced from China, spread first to Byzantium then west to Egypt and North Africa, Moorish Spain and finally to Italy. The main Italian centres were in Lucca, Florence, Venice and Palermo. Exhibits include a Byzantine eagle’s head in silk from the Bargello Museum which dates back to the year 1000 AD, a linen and silk tapestry from 12th-century Egypt and a blue and cream patterned silk cloth from 14th-century Persia.
Commerce between Italy and Turkey in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Italian merchants travelled to Turkey and the Ottoman court importing rich Italian brocades and silks, determined stylistic interchanges in textile manufacture between Italy and the Turkish silk centres of Bursa and Istanbul. Certain patterns, the rosette, the pomegranate, the cone, the card, the knot, the star and the saz leaf motif, as well as the Buddhist çintamano symbol of the three globes, which originated in Asia, recur in both Islamic and European fabrics, although their different techniques produced different effects: for example, a pattern which in Islamic countries would give a flat surface would become three-dimensional in the Venetian brocade. The same motifs were also used in other arts: wrought iron, painting and particularly ceramics.
On the second floor is a magnificent display of carpets, the largest of which is the 44-square-metre carpet from Cairo, known as the
Mamaluke carpet, one of two large carpets which were acquired by the Medici and probably used for important occasions at Palazzo Pitti. There is a curious example of a carpet in the form of a cross which was used as a table cover while a Jewish carpet from the synagogue in Padua, which was woven in Egypt, is a clear example of contamination between cultures. In the zoomed photos which accompany the exhibition we can see how carpets were copied in paintings and owe their names to the painting in which they appear: for example, the Holbein carpet is so-called because it appears in Holbein’s portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze painted in 1532, while the Lotto carpet appears in paintings by Lorenzo Lotto.
Other exhibits include articles of clothing, woven in silk with gold filaments, raised slippers, following the Turkish fashion of the day, a book of embroidery stitches and an early history of costume. Each exhibit is correlated with a detailed description in both Italian and English.
The Museum is in the ce-tre of Prato, near the Castello dell’-Imperatore, in a wing of what used to be the textile manufacturer Campolmi. The other part of the building is being restored and will eventually house the new municipal library. It is well worth going on a tour of the rest of the museum and observing the development of Prato as a centre of the woollen industry, from mediaeval times up to the present day, as well as visiting the section on the various methods of textile manufacture in the past and their development and transformation in modern times and, finally, the permanent collection of ancient costumes and fabrics.