During the Renaissance, luxurious fabrics made of silk and precious metal threads counted among the most valuable items owned by both individuals and the Church. As an expression of power, wealth, and taste, specially woven fabrics incorporating a family coat-of-arms or other motifs associated with the family’s reputation were particularly valuable. Such fabrics were used in secular dress, religious vestments, and interior furnishings. The precise meaning of some of the motifs that held special significance during the Renaissance has been lost over time. But the fact remains that these luxurious textiles were the most highly valued products of the talented silk weavers of the Italian peninsula, and were exported all over Europe, as well as to the Ottoman empire. The consumption of the most expensive fabric was confined to the upper classes who could afford them, but the production and marketing of the fabrics involved many more people at almost all levels of society. The period from about 1400 to 1600 was one in which the weavers of the Italian peninsula, as well as Spain, excelled at producing spectacular patterned velvet textiles.
What Is Velvet?
While linen fabrics with looped pile were first made thousands of years ago in Egypt, the technique of creating silk velvet is a more recent development. It probably originated in China, and appears to have been developed by at least the thirteenth century, if not earlier. The term velvet describes fabric with a pile made of silk thread; the structure of this fabric is created by warps that are drawn up over rods or wires to make the loops. This is part of the weaving process, and the looped pile is integral to the structure of the fabric. As the weaving progresses, the rods are removed. The resulting loops may be cut to form dense pile, or left uncut. As well as being very time consuming, this technique requires a larger quantity of thread in the warp than flat textiles.
Cut silk velvet has a wonderful sheen and depth of color, and the appearance changes as it drapes and folds and the light reflects off the various angles (46.156.133). Velvet woven with more than one colored warp enhances this effect (41.87), but the addition of glittering metal thread to contrast with the richness of the silk pile brought velvet textiles to the height of their technical and artistic refinement (46.156.72).
Today, the velvet design most frequently associated with this period is the so-called pomegranate pattern composed of bold stylized floral and vegetal motifs that often resembled ripe pomegranate fruits, artichokes, or thistle blossoms (46.156.120). These fabrics appear in contemporary painting in a number of contexts that reveal their symbolic importance in addition to their actual usage. For example, single lengths of “pomegranate” velvet are often used as a cloth of honor hanging behind a seated Virgin and Child; they were also used as ecclesiastical vestments. Smaller pieces of these velvets appear in secular portraits as part of fashionable dress, often made into sleeves or skirt panels. And painted imitations of these grand woven patterns, such as the one which appears on a cassone (14.39), act as a reference to the owner’s valuable possessions.
Italian Centers of Production
Venice, Florence, and Genoa have traditionally been recognized as the most important Italian centers of high-quality velvet production. More recently, the importance of the Milanese silk industry, which began in the mid-fifteenth century under the patronage of the Visconti and Sforza dukes, has also been recognized. Venice and Genoa—seaports with easy access to both western European and Eastern markets—had ready customers both domestically and abroad for their luxurious velvets (12.49.8). During the sixteenth century, the superiority of Genoese black velvet was recognized even by their Venetian rivals. Florence was known for its production of velvets with looped metal bouclé nestled into thick silk pile (though this technique was practiced in all major centers) and for especially high-quality design. In addition to large stylized floral patterns, consumers could commission specific patterns reflecting family armorials or other associated motifs (46.156.70; 1995.7; 46.156.137). The Museum has a number of examples associated with the Medici of Florence, and it is likely that these textiles were made in that city (46.156.118). While local regulations often stipulated the color of the selvage stripes or the number of warp threads required, the markets for luxury textiles were extremely competitive and industrial espionage was common. Competitors often imitated their rivals top-quality products. Milan’s silk-weaving industry statutes even stated specifically that their industry should be modeled on the practices of previously established centers such as Florence. So while definitive identification of the place where a fabric was woven is difficult without documentary evidence, motifs associated with a regional family are often considered the best indicators of where a textile was made (51.139.2a,b).
Guilds and Raw Materials
The importance of silk textile production to the economy and society of Italy during the Renaissance was expressed by one sixteenth-century writer: “The silk craft is a very noble art, worthy of being plied by any true gentleman . . . It is a craft that exalts the rich and helps the poor; and great skills are needed to ply it since it involves an infinitude of operations; no one is to be found who is capable of doing on his own the many tasks that it involves.”
These many tasks included: the cultivation of silkworms; the processing of the cocoons to remove the silk filaments; spinning of the thread; cleaning, dying, and reeling of the finished silk thread; mounting of the loom with the prepared thread; weaving; and finally presenting the finished cloth for inspection and sale. In addition, goldsmiths prepared fine silver and gilt-silver strips that were wound around silk thread to create the decorative brocading found on the most expensive velvets.
The skilled craftspeople, the thread dyers, metal thread makers, and the velvet weavers themselves were all members of different professional guilds. Members served apprenticeships of as many as seven or eight years before being accepted as independent professionals. The quality of the threads and the dyes and the final products were carefully controlled by these professional organizations, as well as by local law. If the quality of the final woven product was deemed inferior, the textile had to be destroyed, according to regulations.
The quality of the dyes used for the threads was so important that weavers were required to weave special selvages or edges to denote the quality and the density of the silk thread used. Merchants searched the globe for the most brilliant shades and were willing to pay a premium for the reliable dyestuffs, which did not fade with time and exposure to light. Crimson red shades were perennially popular, followed by bright green and sapphire blue. Black and white velvet garments were fashionable, particularly in the fifteenth century. Only rare fragments of these fabrics survive, as the processes used to obtain deep black and bright white were corrosive to the silk fibers. All textile dye colors were derived from plants, minerals, or, in the case of the best red, insects. Nevertheless, a wide range of colors were produced from these natural substances by expert dyers.
The secrets of dyeing and weaving were carefully guarded, and the most skilled craftspeople were, at certain times, prohibited from leaving their native cities for fear they would share their expertise with rival manufacturers. The quality controls and strict oversight of the production of luxury textiles reflect their importance not only to their owners but to the entire society that contributed to their production.
Watt, Melinda. “Renaissance Velvet Textiles.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/velv/hd_velv.htm (August 2011)
Buss, Chiara, ed. Silk Gold Crimson: Secrets and Technology at the Visconti and Sforza Courts. Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana, 2009.
Molà, Luca. The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Monnas, Lisa. Merchants, Princes, and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings, 1300–1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Phipps, Elena. "Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 67 (Winter 2010).