Exhibition Review

Textiles in medieval Florence. Florence

The exhibition Textiles and Wealth in 14th-Century Florence: Wool, Silk, Painting at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence (to 18th March), presents Florence not only as a major artistic centre but also as a centre of commerce. In a display of textiles, ceramics, metal-work, documents and paintings, it explores the wealth created in fourteenth-century Florence through the manufacture of and trade in wool and silk textiles. The mercantile fortunes produced at this time would ultimately underpin the artistic and intellectual flowering of the Florentine Renaissance.

By 1300 Florence had a long-established wool industry and in the first room its powerful guild, the Arte della Lana, is represented by a beautifully illuminated page from its statutes (1333–37; Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Florence; cat. no.10). During the fourteenth century people in Florence were predominantly clothed in wool, yet examples of dress from the period are so rare that a child’s dress from Greenland is exhibited (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen; no.5). In addition, there is a fragment of Florentine wool from a S. Umiltà’s nun’s habit woven in a mixture of undyed yarns in different tones, called mischiati or mescolati, corresponding to the English term ‘medley’ (c.1300; Vallombrosa Abbey; no.6). Three documents from the archive of Francesco di Marco Datini in Prato display wool samples that illuminate the meaning of historic colour terms, such as paonazzo (literally ‘peacock’ – a shade of purple), rosa secca (‘dry rose’) and sanbucato (green). The catalogue offers useful information about how these colours were achieved.

In contrast to the few, plain woollen fragments on display, there is a wealth of beautiful figured silks, arranged chronologically from the late thirteenth to the early fifteenth century, ending with a room of velvets. This is a rare opportunity to see this material, because silk is so sensitive to light (being both prone to fading and perishable) that museums seldom exhibit many examples together. Unlike its entrenched woollen industry, silk manufacture was just on the threshold of developing into an important commercial enterprise in Florence around 1300. During the fourteenth century, most of the silks worn or traded in Florence were either ‘Tartar’ silks from the Mongol empire or were made in Lucca or Venice, and none of the silks exhibited are specifically ascribed to Florence.

Among several examples of ‘Tartar’ silks in the exhibition, there is a fragment from the tomb of Cangrande della Scala (d.1329) in Verona (c.1300; Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona; no.26), the famous cloth of gold pourpoint (quilted doublet) of Charles de Blois (d.1364) from the Musée des Tissus, Lyon (no.47; Fig.4) and a glorious early fourteenth- century ecclesiastical vestment from St Nicholas’s Church in Stralsund (Stralsund Museum; no.28). The major impact of these oriental silks on contemporary Italian silk weaving is represented through examples of Italian samite and lampas silks woven with palmettes, dragons and other exotic subjects, together with a fragmentary drawing of orientalising silk motifs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no.29). Velvet was another ‘Tartar’ import. It reached Italy in the late thirteenth century and is represented by a complete loom width of crimson velvet with gold discs, probably woven in Iran in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; no.61). In Italy, velvet weaving probably began in Lucca around 1300, and this early production is exemplified by a group of fourteenth-century chequered velvets (Deutsches Textilmuseum, Krefeld; no.60). A key document from the Datini archive (Archivio di Stato di Prato; no.63), juxtaposing descriptions of velvets with sketches of their designs, attests to the high standard achieved by Florentine velvet weavers in the early fifteenth century, and several examples of late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century velvets are shown (no.65; Fig.5).

The organisers have pulled off the difficult feat of exhibiting well-lit paintings alongside textiles that require a lower level of light. Attractive line drawings of enlarged textile designs decorating the walls behind the cases help the viewer to decipher some of the less well-preserved examples. Charles de Blois’s pourpoint is particularly well displayed in a free-standing case permitting close inspection, not only of the cloth of gold but also of its complex tailoring. Due to a lack of surviving examples, apart from the pourpoint, silk clothing is mainly represented in the exhibition by means of documents. The Theatrum Sanitatis by a follower of Giovannino de’ Grassi (c.1400; Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome; no.46), for example, offers illustrations of silk clothing prepared in tailors’ shops. Wearing silk clothing was restricted by sumptuary legislation, but a register of forbidden clothing known as the Prammatica delle vesti (1343–45; Archivio di Stato di Firenze; no.50) offers detailed descriptions of a succession of costly silk outfits whose owners had to pay a fine for the privilege of wearing them. There is also a witty video presentation, voiced over with an ironic commentary about the Florentine taste for extravagant dress, in the words of a notary who compiled the Prammatica. The laity often attempted to offset their extravagance by giving or bequeathing their clothing as pious offerings to the church. A second vestment from Stralsund, composed of several different Italian silks woven with gold and silver thread, is thought to be made up from just such offerings (c.1400; no.51).

The paintings by artists such as Lorenzo di Bicci, Angelo Puccinelli, Gherardo Starnina and Jacopo di Cione – several of which are drawn from the Accademia’s own collection – demonstrate their response to the beautiful silks of their day. Cione’s large altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin offers a sumptuous vision of heaven adorned with colourful silks brocaded with exotic, orientalising designs, while its predella shows heraldic shields, thus representing a combination of ecclesiastical, political and commercial interests (no.44; Fig.6). Looking at this imposing painting, it is worth remembering that Datini regarded smaller, easily transportable religious works by artists such as Cione as useful commodities, which he traded alongside textiles and other items.

One major shortcoming is the absence of embroidery. This is surprising because superb examples were produced in Florence during the fourteenth century and exported by the ubiquitous Datini and others to the papal court at Avignon and the royal courts of France and Burgundy. Ironically, one of the most intriguing documents exhibited (1341–49; Archivio di Stato di Firenze; no.13) concerns a commission given by two silk merchants in 1342 to an embroiderer, Jacopo di Cambio, for a cope with scenes from Christ’s life and prophets. Coincidentally, the Accademia contains an important work by the same Jacopo, a magnificent altar frontal from S. Maria Novella embroidered with the Coronation of the Virgin with Saints, signed ‘Jacopo Cambi’ in 1336. Unlike all the other textiles in the exhibition, this embroidery is ‘certified’ as Florentine, and through its figurative design in silk, it provides a tangible link between the pictorial and textile arts. It may have been considered impractical to move this large textile, which is already well displayed on the first floor, down into the exhibition, but it is a pity that its existence is neither pointed out in the exhibition nor mentioned in the catalogue.

Enjoyment of the exhibition is undoubtedly enhanced by the beautifully illustrated catalogue, with an introduction by Cecilie Hollberg.1 The informative individual entries are accompanied by eight wide-ranging essays. These cover topics such as the Mediterranean silk trade; the Florentine economy and its manufacture of silk and wool; garments made of silk; and the representation of silk in Florentine paintings. Some of the undoubted scholarship is, unfortunately, undermined by the uneven quality of the English translation. There are few factual errors, although English readers might be surprised to read the assertion that Charles VI of France − rather than Richard II − is portrayed in the Wilton Diptych (p.252).

Despite these reservations, this is an altogether unmissable exhibition, distinguished by its lucid presentation of a complex theme, enriched with a display of rare treasures.

1 Catalogue: Textiles and Wealth in 14th-Century Florence: Wool, Silk, Painting. Edited by Cecilie Hollberg, with contributions by David Jacoby, Sergio Tognetti, Franco Franceschi, Maria Ludovica Rosati, Roberta Orsi Landini and Juliane von Fircks. 288 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (Giunti, Florence and Milan, 2017), €44. ISBN 978–88–09–86515–0.