Silk Trade of Venice
Silk Trade of Venice, covers its origins and development and evidence remaining today, of a once thriving industry and Luccan community.
Silk production had already spread from China to Persia, India and Syria and came to Italy in the 11th century; initially to the cities of Catanzaro, then Lucca and on to Venice, Florence, Genoa, Milan and Bologna and later to Lyon in France.
The Renaissance period, was not only a glorious time for art and culture in Italy, but also for weaving, especially in Venice. Silk, was one of their most produced and traded textiles and by 1510; Venice became one of the most important centres of silk production in the Western world. Their outstanding production of silk flourished, from the early 14th century until the early 17th century, when it declined.
Today in Venice, you can still find evidence of that silk trade and of the immigrant community from Lucca, in Tuscany.
ORIGINS OF SILK AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE TRADE.
Silk is a natural protein fibre, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fibre of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known silk, is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori); reared in captivity (termed “sericulture”). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles; thus producing different colours.
The production of silk originated in Neolithic period China, within the Yangshao culture (along the yellow River, 4th millennium BC). Though it would later reach other places in the world, the art of silk production remained confined to China; until the Silk Road opened in about 114 BC. It maintained its virtual monopoly over silk production, for another thousand years.
The use of silk within China, was not confined to clothing alone and silk was used for a number of applications, such as writing. Within clothing, the colour of silk also held social importance and formed an important guide of social class, during the Tang dynasty.
Silk cultivation spread to Japan around 300 AD and by 552 AD, the Byzantine Empire managed to obtain silkworm eggs and were able to begin silkworm cultivation. The Arabs also began to manufacture silk at the same time. As a result of the spread of sericulture, Chinese silk exports became less important, although they still maintained dominance over the luxury silk market.
During the Medieval age, silk production had already spread from China to Persia, India and Syria and to Italy; the latter country becoming the most important producer of silk. The Crusades had helped bring silk production to Western Europe, in particular to many Italian states.
- Italian silk production.
The first centre to introduce silk production to Italy, was the city of Catanzaro during the 11th century; in the region of Calabria. The city developed a large silkworm breeding facility and became famous for its fine fabrication of silks, velvets, damasks and brocades. The silk of Catanzaro, supplied almost all of Europe and was sold in a large market fair in the port of Reggio Calabria, to Spanish, Venetian, Genovese, and Dutch merchants. Catanzaro, produced all the laces and linens, used in the Vatican.
Beginning in the 12th century, another notable centre was the Italian city-state of Lucca ; which largely financed itself through silk-production and silk-trading. Other Italian cities involved in silk production were Venice, Genoa, Florence and Milan and Bologna. Later on, the Piedmont area of Northern Italy became a major silk producing area; when water-powered silk throwing machines were developed.
The Renaissance period, was a glorious time for art and culture in Italy, but also for weaving; especially in Venice. Silk production, was one of their most produced and traded textiles and by 1510; Venice became one of the most important centres of silk production in the Western world. Their outstanding production of silk flourished, highly controlled, regulated and inspected; to maintain both quality and preserve trade secrets, from the early 14th century until the early 17th century.
During the 16th century, Lyon in France, joined Italy in developing a successful silk trade; though the efforts of most other nations to develop a silk industry of their own were unsuccessful.
Until early 1800’s, looms were completely hand-operated and each weaver needed an assistant to operate the machines. This production was a slow and complex job and an experienced weaver could only make 4 inches (10cms) of fabric each day!
In France, where there was a greater openness to technological innovations; the domestic textile industry made much progress. In 1806, Lyons-born Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) patented a machine which, when fitted to traditional wooden looms; was able to simplify and speed up the production of woven fabrics and velvets with complex designs. It allowed production of up to 16 inches (40 cm) of velvet per day and eliminated the need for assistants to the weavers.
The Jacquard Loom, incorporated a series of developments of the preceding 18th century, integrated into the loom; which controlled the weaving pattern and could be considered the forefather of the computer. The first was a needle and paper tape device (1725), the second a punch card system (1734) and lastly a mechanical cylinder above the loom (1744).
This innovative machine marked a pivotal point in the history of the textile industry However, despite the fear of mass unemployment, the Jacquard loom soon became very popular, arriving in Venice as well. It was the fore-runner of the modern industrial textile looms
- Early fabric production in Venice and the formation of Guilds
In the 12th century, Venice ceased to merely import luxury fabrics from the near East and started to produce them itself on a limited scale.
Venice discovered unique textiles and decorative motifs thanks to Marco Polo (1254-1324) and his travels in the East. Through the Silk Road, he brought to the Serenissima various kinds of merchandise, including silk fabrics. But above all, he paved the way for trades with the Mongolian Empire, until it collapsed. (Please see my comprehensive post on Marco Polo, linked at the bottom of page.)
The first fabrics produced, were termed “samites”. It was a heavy fabric in pure silk, with a velvety feel and a satin-like and shiny finish. Just like many other fabrics, it originated in the Middle East, Iran and Syria and spread throughout the Mediterranean area through Byzantium and the Arab domination. Considered the most precious silk fabric of the Middle Ages, it could be admired on vestments and sumptuous clothes; which were a privilege of the upper classes of Venetian society. It often had rich decorations embroidered with gold and silver threads. At first, they were made exclusively of silk, but later regulations allowed different yarns for the warp; especially linen or hemp, which made it stronger. The first guild the “Arte dei Samiteri” (Samite Weavers Guild) was set up in 1265 and they also produced brocades, damasks and satins.
Left: Edward IV of England (1442-1483), wearing a “Griccia” Motif Silk Dress.
Velvet arrived in Venice later than samites, in the 14th century. But it wasn’t long before Venice got an exclusive control of its production and by 1347; the “Veluderi” also had their own velvet weavers guild.
Around 1317, around 30 merchant families and 300 artisans (spinners, weavers, dyers, among others) arrived from Lucca as political immigrants. It was already an established Italian centre for the silk trade. They settled down in parts of the district of Cannaregio and the Rialto area, which border each other. Important privileges were granted to them by the government, such as the possibility to acquire real estate, stores and a devotional altar. With their skills and expertise, the silk industry in Venice, really took off.
But with increasing competition, both with other countries and within the city; the government issued laws to control all textile guilds and by 1366, the three guilds were merged.
- The 15th and 16th centuries – Growth and adaption to market forces, changing fashions and taste
With the dynamic growth of the silk industry in Venice, flexible adjustments were made by merchant entrepreneurs; to adapt to the challenges of international trade and competition in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, some two thousand workshops were in operation; producing silk both for domestic use and for export.
The expanding Mediterranean commerce in the various grades of raw silk, was by designated by specific trade names, from Persia (imported through Syria and Palestine), Greece, the Balkans, Italy, and Spain. The primary distinction between these grades was based on the weight of the thread, which had a significant influence on the characteristics of the final product.
There were two types of silk materials, depending on the different grades of silk fibres.
- “True silk” or (Seta leale), was the most prized textile that was produced from “unwinding an intact cocoon in a basin of hot water to form one long, very strong, continuous thread which is a process called reeling.”
- “Double silk”, the second type of silk, which was the less desirable fabric; was produced when two silkworms, were put too close together during their metamorphosis and so ended up wrapped in a single cocoon. This type of lower grade silk was demanded by entrepreneurs, who needed it to produce fabrics at a lower cost for local and international consumers.
The explosive demand for these grades of silk in Northern Europe was reflected in Venetian trade regulations designed to preserve the city’s intermediary role in the trade in Levantine raw silk. Venice’s wealth and fame due to their prolific silk fabric production; brought about several laws and regulations; to ensure the quality and perfection of the silk.
Traditionally, “thick” silk, principally from Persia, had been used in the production of most luxurious first quality fabrics. After 1450, laws were passed to prohibit the use of second-grade and waste silks in the weaving of the finest “drappi da parangon”, or “cloths of comparison”; which included satins, velvets, and brocades. There were also guild inspections that had to be passed to ensure the use of coloured thread markers to signify they were made from the finest silk. “Medium-weight” silk from Greece and the Balkans was used, both for luxury fabrics and lighter satins and damasks. In contrast, by the 16th century it was the “thin” raw silk from Spain and Southern Italy and the thin warp thread (“orsoglio”) produced in the hydraulic mills of the Venetian “terraferma” and Bologna and; that was in greatest demand among Italian producers.
- Widening markets, more competition and lowering costs.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, Venetian entrepreneurs adopted new marketing strategies, to compete with other Italian producers; directed toward the export of lighter and less costly fabrics to the markets of Central and Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Fabric manufacturing, also had to adapt to the evolution of fashion, taste, and colour preferences among consumers in developing urban societies.
New varieties of cloth for designated groups of consumers, was mirrored by weaving and dyeing regulations, that permitted cheaper modes of dyeing and reductions in the density, weight and dimensions of certain categories of Venetian silks; that were destined for specific foreign markets. In effect, fabrics bearing standard brand names with widespread market recognition; were subdivided into several classes or gradations of quality with distinctive trademarks. These included the velvets and other silks designated as a “navigando” or “pro navigando” produced for the Levant trade and the fabrics known as “de fontego” sold in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to the merchants of Central Europe. In volume these categories outsold the more limited quantities of highest quality silk cloth (the so-called fabrics da parangon) and second quality fabrics (mezzani) with greater margins of profit.
Since the reduction of production costs was a primary consideration, 16th century patents designed to improve the various stages of silk manufacture were introduced. Many dealt with modifications to the hydraulic spinning mill; others were directed toward weaving, dyeing and calendering (smoothing out/compressing) of cloth; in ways that affected the outward appearance of the finished product. Although the state was receptive to petitions from inventors, often contravening guild objections, the number of devices that were successfully adopted in this period was surprisingly low.
- Decline of the silk industry in Venice.
Many factors brought about the decline of the silk industry in Venice:
- Venetian trade with the Eastern Mediterranean, was greatly reduced at the beginning of the 16th century, due to the fall of Constantinople and subsequent restrictions on trade with Syria and Egypt; imposed by the new Turkish Ottoman authorities. For example, the main trade in Venetian spice imports, fell from around 1,600 tons a year towards the end of the 15th century; to less than 500 tons by the first decade of the 16th century.
- Alternative sea-trade routes opened up. The narrow western access to the Mediterranean Sea, was unblocked by the defeat of Moroccan forces; allowing competition from direct Portuguese shipments from Asia. Direct sea access became available to Flanders, Great Britain and the Atlantic.
- Between 1388 and 1499, Venice acquired territory on the Italian mainland (terraferma), which included Udine, Friuli, Vicenza, Padua, Verona, Bergamo, Rovigo and Cremona. From 1500 onwards, a significant proportion of Venetian capital, was reoriented to reclamation for farming and the development and creation of Palladian villas and country estates.
- Advances in spinning and weaving loom hydraulic technology and mechanisation; brought the introduction of large-scale factory production in the Veneto and Bologna area. More land, plentiful freshwater supply and better distribution networks.
- Two further attacks of the great Plague, occurred in 1575-77 and 1630; each killing about a third of the population of the city.
- During the 16th century, Lyon in France, joined Italy in developing a successful silk trade. In the early 18th century, the French made a series of significant technological innovations incorporated into the looms, that led to introduction of the Jacquard loom; a revolution in the weaving process.
- The Venetian economy was overtaken by the Dutch in the 17th century.
- The Fall of the Republic by Napoleonic forces, in 1797, deposed the last doge.
- The Industrial Revolution changed much of Europe’s silk industry. Due to innovations in the spinning of cotton, cotton became much cheaper to manufacture. This led to cotton production becoming the main focus for many manufacturers; causing the more costly production of silk to shrink. An epidemic of several silkworm diseases at this time caused production to fall, especially in France, where the industry never fully recovered.
- In the 20th century, Japan and China regained their earlier dominant role in silk production and China is now once again the world’s largest producer of silk. The rise of new imitation silk fabrics, such as nylon and polyester has reduced the prevalence of silk throughout the world; being a cheaper and easier to care for alternative. Silk is now once again thought of as a luxury good, with a greatly reduced importance compared to its historical heyday.
Silk industry in Venice today.
The only remaining artisanal weaving workshop and showroom in Venice, is Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua; located in the district of Santa Croce. They have a fascinating website (see below for link), well illustrated with a video presentation. See the old 18th century hand operated looms in action, recovered from the Silk Guild of Venice. You can also see the wide range of projects they are involved with today.
THE PRESENT DAY EVIDENCE OF THE ONCE THRIVING AND OF THE LUCCAN COMMUNITY.
Corte del Volte Santo – Remains of the Luccan Community and their Guild
Along the Rio Terra di Maddalena, close to the San Marcuola canal; can been seen the high relief of a crowned head; at the entrance to the Corte del Volte Santo. (Below right). In the courtyard you can see the same face on the well-head and on the wall. This is a reproduction of the “Volto Santo” (Holy Visage) of Lucca (Below left) and marks the place, where the merchants from that city resided.
Some 30 patrician families, together with 300 artisans fled Lucca in 1317, when Castruccio Castracini; became overlord of the city. Settling in Venice they started to set up developing the silk trade, that had contributed to Lucca’s wealth. Important privileges were granted to them by the government, such as the possibility to acquire real estate, stores and a devotion altar.
In 1360, they formed their own guild or corporation – The “Scuola del Volto Santo”, also known as “Scuola dei Lucchesi” and bought the present site in A depicts the fire of 20th November 1789.
(Note. The “Miracle of the Volto Santo”. Legend has it, that the Volto Santo, has a resemblance to Christ. Christ was taken down from the cross by two disciples – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The latter set about making a reproduction of the scene, but realised he had no talent as a sculptor.
Overnight, he discovered the crucifix miraculously completed, by an unknown hand. Hidden by him, some 600 years late, it was sent to Christian Europe. First arriving by ship at the town of Luni, in Liguria; it was eventually carried by an oxen cart, towards Lucca.
Now housed in a small chapel in the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca; it is an object of veneration, celebrated by a special procession “La Luminara”, on the 13th Septembe
Remains of the Church of I Servi.
Left. Old print of the complete massive complex of the church and monastery.
Located on the Rio dei Servi, all that remains of the substantial 14th century complex of Sant Maria di Servi; are two magnificent doorways, known as ”Porta del Pellagrino” (Pilgrims Doorway). They are reminiscent of the Tuscan style, associated with the early Servites; who came to Venice in the early 14th century from Lucca. (second photo below left – The Chapel is just above the right of the portal wall, with the large circular window)
(Note. The Servites were formed in 1223 and the “Servite order of the Blessed Virgin Mary”; is a medicant order of the Roman Catholic Church, that combines a life of contemplation and apostolic work.)
The complex was started in 1318 and completed in 1491, it was said to be the third largest in Venice; comparable in size to the Frari and Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The famous theologian Paolo Sarpi lived and died here.
In 1813, the structure was badly damaged and was demolished apart from the portals and the adjacent chapel. The tombs of two doges, Andrea Vendramin and Francesco Dona; were moved to Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The monastery refectory contained a significant painting by Paolo Veronese “Cena in casa del Fariseo” (1570-76). It was later given to the French king, Louis XIV and is now at Versailles. Today, the site houses student accommodation and a youth hostel.
The Chapel of the Holy Visage (part of the destroyed Church of Dei Servi di Maria complex)
Erected in 1360, by the community of Lucca, the chapel was consecrated in 1376 and a copy of the Holy Visage, was here worshipped (now preserved in the museum of the Patriarchal Seminary), consisting of a wooden crucifix that, according to legend, was not made by human hands in the aftermath of the Deposition from the Cross. This crucifix is now worshipped in the Cathedral of St Martin in Lucca. Despite being stripped in the 19th century, the chapel still retains the splendid original ceiling with images of the Fathers of the Church and the symbols of the four Evangelists, probably the work of the Venetian painter Nicolò Semitecolo (dating back to the second half of the 14th century).
The Chapel of the Holy Visage (Face), was saved from demolition of the large complex of the Servi and initially became a warehouse. In 1859, it was acquired by the abbot Daniel Canal and Anna Maria Marovich; to be converted into the church of the Institute for the rescue of women released from prison. In the ’80s, following the closure of the Marovich Institute, the University of Santa Fosca, created a student house here, which still looks after the chapel.
The Fondamenta degli Ormesini,
The Fondamenta degli Ormesini, follows on from the Fondamenta della Misericordia, in Cannaregio. It takes its name from “Ormesin“; a light silk material used for clothing, once sold in many shops; along this canal side. Originally imported from Hurmuz, in present day Iran; hence the name ormesin.
2. RIALTO AREA
Evidence for the presence of the silk trade can also be found in the Rialto area; broadly extending from the church of San Giovanni Crisostoma, to Calle della Bissa. This proves that merchants and craftsmen working in the manufacture and finishing of silk; were not just confined to the parish of Capella del Santo Volto, in Cannaregio.
Calle della Bissa, starts off the Campo San Bartolomeo, leading directly to the Rialto Bridge. It was also once known as the “Calle dei Thoscani” (Tuscans) because of the “Lucchesi”, that lived here. At number 5512, is a pilaster of a carved crest of the “Arte della Seta” (Silk Guild); represented by a mulberry bush, the staple diet of the silk worms. The word “bissa” in Venetian is for a grass-snake, indicating its serpentine layout.
Opposite the Fondaco dei Tedeschi is the Corte dei Tentor, where dyers traded and to the right is the Corte de L’Orso; that takes its name from the Orso family, originally from Lucca. The buildings around here are tall at up to six floors, indicating their exploitation of the limited ground area available.
Close to their parish church of San Giovanni Crisostoma, is the Corte dei Amadi; home to the wealthy Amadi family, originally from Lucca.
Close to their parish church, the street leading to the Malibran Theatre, contains warehouses used to store silk. At number 5864, you can still see evidence of the important “Provveditore alla Seta” (Silk Inspectors Offices). This indicates that the merchants and silk-weavers, had authorisation from the Venetian state; to control their trade and settle disputes.
Above the entrance (it may still be a restaurant), a Latin inscription reads “Provisores Sirici”, with the date 1515 and the crests of the provveditore. These are the Luccan families of the Paruta (escutcheon with three roses); the Sandei (lion rampant); the Ridolfi (escutcheon with sea-waves); the Amadi (escutcheon with three hills and a bird) and the Perducci (escutcheon with three batons. On the architrave, which dates from later; is the date 1578 and other indistinct crests.
Finally, in Campo Nuovo, at Rialto, there were more premises of the “Ufficio della Seta”. At number 553, the doorframe is carved with the mulberry bush of the Silk Guild. Nearby also, is the “Calle Toscana”.
Particularly relevant is my post “Venetian Empire through Trade”, that brought remarkable political and economic success to this city: HERE
The story of Marco Polo: HERE
Museo Palazzo Mocenigo: HERE. Part of my recommended museum series, this exhibition aims to reconstruct, the everyday life of the nobility of Venice between the 17th and 18th centuries. Particular attention is paid to fashion and costumes. The clothes and accessories on display, are made of textured fabrics, embellished with embroidery and lace, documenting the skill of the craftsmen (weavers, tailors, lace makers, embroiderers, etc.); who contributed to the creation of the refined and luxurious elegance, for which the Venetians were famous.
Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua – See the only remaining artisanal weaving workshop in Venice: HERE. Fascinating website with video and many photographic presentations. See the old 18th century looms in action, recovered from the Silk Guild of Venice.
Historical headquarters/showroom-shop. Santa Croce 1320 – Venezia -T. +39 041 72 15 66. Vaporetto n.1 / 5.1 / 5.2 at Riva de Biasio stop.
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