Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Postcard from Lucca: One Source of Venice's Silk Industry

The garden of Lucca's Palazzo Pfanner, with its 18th-century statuary

Venice's knowledge of, and subsequent obsession with silk originated of course with its far-flung Eastern trade, but its silk industry arrived in the city from the opposite direction. As Joanne M. Ferraro writes in Venice: A History of the Floating City (Cambridge U. Press, 2102):
Silk was the social marker of the aristocracy, signaling wealth and ostentation. It first came to Venice from the Byzantium Empire and was widely available to wealthy Venetians after the Fourth Crusade [1202-2104]. Other silks came from China, through Iran and Anatolia (Turkey), together with gold- and silver-wrapped thread. We know from inventories and wills such as Marco Polo's that Asian textiles were plentiful in Venice by the fourteenth century, but between 1300 and 1500 artisans began to adopt the eastern technique of textile making to produce home products. Notably, in the early fourteenth century several families from Lucca immigrated to Venice. They were already familiar with Islamic techniques, owing to their affiliation with Sicilian workshops, and they readily adopted both Persian and Turkish designs for both clothing and home furnishings.
In other words, contrary to what one might expect, the immediate sources of Venice's actual production of silk textiles originated not with travelers from the East, but from the west, from Tuscany, carrying with them knowledge they'd derived from workshops in the south, which had learned it from some of the expected sources in the East.

All of which I offer not only as an example of the curious and circuitous manner in which culture circulates, but as a rather elaborate justification for lovers of Venice to visit the beautiful walled city of Lucca, a little more than 4 hours away by train. The city's silk industry has disappeared, though silk artisans still can be found in the area (such as this one, which offers classes on the cultivation and production of silk: http://lasetadicortegloria.weebly.com.html), but, then, there are plenty of reasons to visit the city aside from silk, anyway. We spent last week there, and enjoyed it a great deal.


  1. For more on the silk industry in Venice, take a look at the work of Luca Mola.

    1. Thank you for the lead, Judy; his book "The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice" looks great.