The last velvet maker in Italy, Bevilacqua of Venice

Fascinating article from BBC:

The last velvet merchant of Venice
By Eliot Stein 14 November 2018

Velvet was once among the most coveted fabrics in the world, but now only one family in Italy produces it the traditional way – and can trace its textile tradition back to 1499.

Rare splendour

With its water-lapped palaces, canal-laced islands and golden basilicas rising from the tides, Venice is a floating masterpiece of creativity and craftsmanship. A metropolis of marble conceived from a cluster of mudflats, the City of Water’s fairy-tale setting has inspired centuries of artists and inventors. But while Venice’s urban fabric has always shaped the city, its fine fabrics once spun the fashion world.

From the 13th to 18th Centuries, Venice was the epicentre of the luxury textile trade, and no fabric from the maritime republic was more coveted than velvet. At the height of the industry in the 1500s, the clacking of 6,000 wooden looms echoed throughout the Venetian lagoon as the city’s Guild of Silk Weavers slowly wove velvet from thousands of silk threads to supply sumptuous patterned garments to the highest rung of Renaissance nobility.

Today, there’s only one company left in Venice – and all of Italy – producing velvet on traditional wooden looms: the Luigi Bevilacqua Company, a small, family-run business that can trace its velvet-weaving lineage back to 1499. And if you follow the rhythmic clattering to a windowless workshop hidden off the Grand Canal, you’ll find a team of loyal weavers single-handedly preserving the secrets of Venetian velvet from sinking into oblivion.



Workshop of wonders

Like the city that holds it, the Bevilacqua workshop is adrift in a world of its own place and time, and entering the dusty studio feels like stepping inside the ghost of a medieval mill.

Some 3,500 designs and weave drafts dating from the Middle Ages to the 1920s sit stacked floor-to-ceiling. A maze of ropes and rigging criss-crosses 18 towering looms from the 1700s. And two ancient circular warps inspired by sketches from Leonardo da Vinci shake the creaky wooden floor with each hand-cranked turn.

“Not much has changed here over the years,” explained company director Alberto Bevilacqua, surrounded by a plush trove of centuries-old silk damasks, brocades and gilt-embroidered tapestries. “The rising tides cause the floor to flood more often now, but we still produce velvet the same way it was made 300 years ago: thread by thread and entirely by hand.”

A remarkable thread

Alberto’s great-grandfather, Luigi, opened the workshop in 1875 across the Grand Canal, and today, it is the oldest active velvet-weaving mill in Italy. Yet, the family’s textile traditions trace back more than 500 years, as evidenced by a 1499 painting showing a parade of Venetian aristocracy in flowing velvet togas with the inscription: ‘Giacomo Bevilacqua, weaver’. Since then, the intricate techniques and patterns of Venetian velvet have been passed down through a remarkable thread of artists in the Bevilacqua family – each of whom has guarded them tightly before revealing them to a trusted team of weavers trained in the family workshop.

In the past 143 years, the family business has woven velvet for popes, kings and more than a dozen royal palaces. Its yellow-patterned velvet hangs in the White House’s Oval Office, its crimson ciselé covers chairs in the Kremlin, and it was an official supplier to the Vatican for decades.

In fact, looking at the faded entries from the company’s water-stained ledger books is a glimpse into a rarefied world: there are commissions from the Shah of Iran, the Sheik of Kuwait and six members of the Swedish royal family. Egypt’s King Farouk ordered a kilometre of green velvet; composer Gordon Getty’s wife wanted her living room to resemble a velvet-wrapped theatre; and the Maharajah of Gwalior requested an embroidery of his coat of arms showing two raised pythons.


Time-honoured tools

Royal patrons have come and gone over the years, but the company still uses the same ancient looms that Luigi Bevilacqua salvaged from the city’s abandoned silk guild decades after Napoleon conquered Venice and closed its mills in 1806.
“There are certain details that you simply can’t reproduce on a machine,” Bevilacqua said, passing under the workshop’s canopy of wooden masts. “This tradition has been lost elsewhere because it is such a slow, careful craft.”

Just then, a rhythmic cacophony of clacking rang through the studio as weaver Silvia Longo pulled the levers of her antique loom to life. With each pass of the beam and step on the treadle, a tiny sliver of vermillion velvet destined for the Royal Palace in Dresden gradually expanded under her fingers. She explained that each weaver can only produce about 25cm of fabric a day, and that she and two other weavers have been working on the 740m design every day for the last three years.

The secret of Venetian velvet is its sheer complexity. It has always been so desirable because it has always been so difficult to produce,” said Doretta Davanzo Poli, textile professor at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University.



Venice’s interwoven velvet history
Venice was importing silk from the Byzantines before Marco Polo’s journeys east, but it was the arrival of 300 asylum-seeking weavers from Lucca in the 1300s who taught the Venetians how to loop, warp and cut silky-smooth threads into a dense, velvety pile. The Lucchesi learned the skills by trading with Asian merchants, and the newly settled artists quickly established the Republic of Venice’s Guild of Velvet Weavers in 1347. By the 1500s, records show that more than 30,000 of Venice’s residents (roughly one-fifth its population) worked in the silk and velvet trades.

“Textiles became the most valuable source of wealth for the republic,” said Luca Molà, a historian at the UK’s University of Warwick who has written two books on the Venetian silk industry. “Velvet required more material and time to create than other fabrics, so it was more expensive, and Venice was exporting it around the world.”

The velvets, silks and damasks spilling out of the Bevilacqua showroom not only plunge visitors back to the days when Venice was a gateway between East and West, but also testify to the city’s rich tapestry of trading partners. There are patterned swathes showing winged Persian lions, tasselled cushions emblazoned with bare-breasted Greek sirens and draped silk brocades woven with Chinese lettering. And, as a way to ensure their sartorial reign, the Venetians did something crafty: they developed ways to decorate and produce velvet that were so intricate that no-one else could replicate it.


From patterns to patent law

Around the time Giacomo Bevilacqua started his velvet business in the late 1400s, Venice’s velvet guilds began weaving with an elevated sense of sophistication. Gilded backgrounds appeared. Glittering metals were woven around silk threads. And the height of Venetian velvet artistry emerged: the soprarizzo, a double-pile technique that’s still slowly produced by the Bevilacqua weavers, in which one layer of cut velvet that absorbs light lays atop a lighter curl that reflects it, creating an undulating texture that ripples like water as your hand passes over it.

Venice jealously guarded the secrets of its soprarizzo– so much so, according to Molà, that the most skilled weavers were prohibited from leaving the republic for fear that they’d share the technique with rival manufacturers. As Venice’s many guilds expanded, the city developed an innovative idea in 1474 to protect its glass, jewellery and – above all – textile profits: it created patent law.

“One of the great legacies of Venice’s craft guilds was the establishment of intellectual property,” Molà said. “No other city had ever protected inventions before, and that further cemented the city as a hub of creativity and new ideas.”

Venice changed the way societies thought about clothing. Textiles were no longer something people wore every day for practical reasons, but as a brief choreography to represent the wealth of the family. Consumerism became fashionable,” said Chiara Squarcina, curator of Venice’s Mocenigo Palace of Textiles and Costumes.

Renaissance couture
While velvet spun Venice’s textile trade to new heights, it also emerged as a symbol of power, wealth and taste. The lavish threads lined the halls of the city’s grandest palaces and richest churches, and paintings portraying Venetian nobility by local artists like Titian and Tintoretto reveal its role in shaping one’s image. Kings and popes wrapped velvet under their crowns, senators and cardinals wore crimson-velvet robes or sashes, and noblewomen walked on velvet-encased high heels.

“In Venice, a person’s status was immediately recognised by the clothing and fabric they wore, and no fabric was more valuable than velvet,” Poli said. “Venice was the greatest influencer of Renaissance fashion through the 1500s, but as the secret of the soprarizzo passed onto other Italian cities and throughout Europe, it all changed.”

By the time Napoleon sailed in in 1797, Venice’s velvet mills were already on their last legs. The little leader closed the city’s guilds to reduce competition with France, and the lagoon’s looms lay silent and unused until Luigi Bevilacqua dusted them off decades later.

The weavers

At the start of the 1900s, nearly 100 weavers worked at the Luigi Bevilacqua Company. Girls as young as 12 would come into the workshop to help their mothers change the threads or lay the spools. After a six- to eight-year apprenticeship, they’d become weavers by age 20 and often stay until they retired.

Today, there are just seven weavers, and looking at the rows of idle looms, Bevilacqua admitted that it has become harder to find artists with the passion and patience for the craft. As in the past, the seven weavers each began as apprentices, training under experts who had worked at the company for 40 to 50 years. Novices may spend a year winding warps and punching Jacquard cards before moving to the lightest looms, which, as Longo explained, take some getting used to.

“You have to learn to feel the loom, to understand it. That can take a full year of working every day,” she said. “Every loom has its own sound. If something is wrong, you may hear a faint noise and have to find one individual thread among thousands and replace it.”


Patient process

All Bevilacqua velvets start as a design, and the evolution from initial pattern to finished product is a painstaking process. Weavers begin by hand-drawing the design on a millimetre grid. Every half-millimetre of the grid represents a cardboard Jacquard card that is punched through with a hammer, and every punched hole in the cards corresponds to a thread. If a design has a repeat of 1.5m, it requires 3,000 cards. After weavers tie the cards together one by one and hoist them atop the loom, the real work begins.
Next, the loom is prepared. Depending on the size and complexity of the pattern, this may take up to six months and involve knotting a thicket of 16,000 threads by hand. Weavers start by spinning the vertical warp while counting and crossing the threads with their fingers. Once the vertical warp is wound, they transfer it to the horizontal warp and hand-crank it into place. It’s then wound onto a warp beam, carried to the loom and slowly laid using a special adhesive to keep the slippery silk threads in place.
Finally, the manual weaving begins. Hidden under every complex soprarizzo cut are two iron rods – one rounded, and one ridged – that must be moved as the velvet expands. With each pull of the beam, weavers carefully slide a blade over the ridged rod to cut the microscopic silk threads from the top layer, while leaving the bottom layer in a perfectly curved loop that glistens in the light.

It’s a beautiful job that enters your heart. You have these tiny threads and you can do incredible things with them,” said Longo, who has been weaving at the company for 19 years.


Fashion icons
In addition to dressing popes and decorating opera houses, the Bevilacqua family’s hand-operated looms have been behind some of the world’s finest haute couture over the last 60 years.
For decades, designer Roberta di Camerino used Bevilacqua velvets to line her handbags that were carried by celebrities like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Farrah Fawcett. Fashion icon Iris Apfel used to stop by the workshop regularly to order tiger- and leopard-cut velvets for her New York apartment. And in the last two decades, the company has collaborated with Valentino, Rubeus Milano and Dolce & Gabbana – which once clad supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a bra embroidered with Byzantine lions as she glided down the catwalk.


Shifting tide

Today, the 3,500 archival designs stacked on the workshop’s warped floorboards are all still available, but many are no longer produced in-house. Like Venice itself, the Bevilacqua company has had to adapt in order to stay afloat in a changing world, and the family now owns a second factory on the mainland where some of its archaic patterns are woven by modern machines.
Bevilacqua explained that many of his long-time clients can no longer afford the high costs of hand production, and that the 6m a machine makes in one day would take a weaver a full month and cost four times as much. Yet, the secrets of the soprarizzo are something that no machine can learn, and after five centuries of craftsmanship, Bevilacqua sees it as his family’s duty to ensure that this ancient Venetian thread doesn’t unravel.

“Each of these designs tells a story from our past,” he said, passing his palm over a soprarizzo pattern depicting the Chalice of Life. “They’re a reminder that many years ago, Venice gave something beautiful to the world.”
Custom Made is a BBC Travel series that introduces you to custodians of cultural traditions all around the world.


Palazzo Corsini, Firenze

Originally, the magnificent Palazzo Corsini began as a casino (a small house surrounded by a large garden) that extended to the banks of the Arno River where Lungarno Corsini is located. The casino belonged to the Ardinghelli family, then to the Medici, and finally to the Corsini: in 1649 the wife of the Marchese Filippo Corsini, Maria Maddalena Macchiavelli, purchased the palace from the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. Today it is in the hands of the Corsini descendants: Miari Fulcis and Sanminiatelli.

The Palazzo today appears as a late Baroque building; one sees Baroque details throughout, from the roofs decorated with statues and terracotta vases – a novelty for Renaissance Florence – and the main, U-shaped courtyard that opens towards the riverbank. The two men responsible for the way the Palazzo Corsini looks today were Bartolomeo Corsini (1622-1685), the son of Filippo Corsini and Maria Maddalena Macchiavelli and, Filippo son of Bartolomeo’s son (1647-1705) who expanded the portion of the Palazzo that extends towards Ponte S. Trinita.

The construction continued non-stop for 50 years. The magnificent interior decorations, which were completed between 1692 and 1700, belong to one of the finest and most intense moments in Florentine painting.

The family commissioned several artists to decorate the noble apartment on the first floor, that includes Galleria Aurora, the Salone, the ballroom and other important rooms; the outstanding painters include Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Alessandro Gherardini and Pier Dandini.

Let’s start at the GROUND FLOOR: consisting of the Summer Apartments and Halls of the Nymph. The decorative scheme here reveals the most romantic and decadent side of the Palazzo with the impressive frescoes and of the evocative grotto built by architect Antonio Ferri.

One level up, the main floor: from the lower floor one reaches the “noble” floor through the imposing grand staircase. From the hallway open the doors to rooms and rooms filled with beautiful frescoes and stuccoes, perfectly preserved. The coup de gras is the majestic Throne Room (320 square meters) where you can feel the ambience of noble antiquity.

Una cornice sfarzosa che si affaccia direttamente sul Lungarni e una vista intrigante.  A magnificent setting overlooking the Lungarni and an intriguing sight.

The Throne Room
View from across the Arno

The Palazzo from the Arno River

Few among the private palaces of Florence are as gorgeous as the splendid Palazzo Corsini, also called “al Parione” and belonged to the famous Corsini family, in the 17th century the richest and most important of all Florence after the Medici. An ascent that culminated in 1740 with the election of Lorenzo Corsini to the papal throne with the name of Clemente XII.

With such prerequisites, it is not surprising that the building with its grandiose façade overlooking the Arno is an architectural masterpiece rich in precious jewels and a collection of paintings, the Galleria Corsini, which can be considered the most important private art collection in Florence. His style (the villla was built at the turn of two centuries, between 1656 and 1737, with at least fifty years of uninterrupted work) is that of a flourishing and decided baroque: each element is stunning scenery and decoration, with a grand façade to the front, from the terrace to the attics with balustrades, until reaching the perfect expression of the “marvelous” in the large helical staircase attributed to Gherardo Silvani.

The building is divided into three main bodies that surround a large courtyard, and among the first things that jump to the eyes there is the obvious asymmetry between the two side parts; according to the original project, in fact, the left wing had to be as big as the right one (ie about twice the current size). Also worthy of note is the crowning of the roof, with the terracotta crater vases and the balustrade decorated with stone statues, following suggestions similar to those that animated the classic “Italian gardens” destined to be famous throughout Europe.

The interiors of Palazzo Corsini at the Parione show once again the best and most fascinating insights of the baroque period, with a great work of stuccos and decorations; Particularly striking is the artificial grotto on the ground floor, designed by Antonio Maria Ferri, an artist who was also the architect in charge of permanently closing the villa’s works; to him the merit for today’s appearance of Palazzo Corsini. In addition to the Silvani helical staircase there is also a monumental staircase made by Ferri that culminates in the staircase of Pope Clement XII.

The rooms of the building are full of original decorations, with frescoes, stuccoes and decorations: especially the Salone del Trono and the Ballroom stand out, truly immense rooms (the Salone del Trono measures about 320 square meters) with rich frescoes on the ceilings, columns , eighteenth-century busts.

On the first floor, Galleria Corsini is a precious casket that holds masterpieces of timeless artists, especially relating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Italian but not disdaining the Renaissance, with a prevalence of Roman, Neapolitan and Bolognese schools: among the exhibited painters, Rubens, Beato Angelico, Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Murillo, Filippo Lippi, Luca Signorelli, the Pontormo, Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano, Gentileschi, and Giovanni Bellini. The Corsini Gallery also hosts bronzes and furniture from the eighteenth century.

Below is a history of the Palazzo Corsini from the 1905 book “Florentine Palaces, And Their Stories” by Janet Ross – some of the scholarship from that day may have changed since!  


The Corsini become a wealthy Florentine family in 1500: Palazzo Corsini, also known as the Parione, located on Lungarno Corsini, is still a family home. The building is the result of the acquisition and merger of many historic houses built by different architects: Alfonso Parigi the Younger, Ferdinando Tacca, Pierfrancesco Silvani – author of the beautiful spiral staircase, and Antonio Maria Ferri – who finished the project by drawing the current frame. In addition to the spiral staircase made by Silvani and the monumental one by Ferri, the interior of several rooms of Palazzo Corsini and its halls are filled with frescoes, decorations and period furnishings. The Corsini Gallery, inside the building, is the most important private art collection of Florence, with works dating back to the 1600s and1700s, both by Italian and European Renaissance artists.