Traces of of textiles are everywhere in Florence.
The textile trade, including the banking institutions that it fostered, made Florence rich. The production, finishing, and sale of cloth funded the art that now supports the city’s tourist industry. Its greatest single artwork may be famously nude, but traces of the central role of textiles are everywhere in Florence.
Take the street names: Via de’Vellutini and Canto de Velluti refer to velvets. Calimaruzza and Calimala are named for the guild that finished and sold foreign cloth, such as English woolens, while the Via Dell’Arte della Lana is named for the wool guild. Its symbol of the Lamb of God with a banner is everywhere—a seemingly religious sign that is as much a commercial brand as an Apple with a bite out of it.
The Calimala is slightly less subtle, with an eagle on a bolt of cloth.
The city’s luxurious silks mostly show up in paintings. Art historian Rembrandt Duits argues that the abundant gold brocades represent in cheaper paint what even the wealthiest Florentines couldn’t afford in real life.
Even without the gold, weaving such complex patterns was incredibly time-consuming and labor-intensive before Jean-Marie Jacquard’s famous punchcard system automated them at the turn of the 19th century. If you visit a still-existing workshop like the Antico Setificio Fiorentino in Florence or Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua in Venice, you will see what now looks like a laborious process. But it’s actually speedy and high-tech. These artisans use Jacquard looms, which can be operated by a single weaver, without an assistant to lift pattern threads. Coded into cards, the patterns can also be stored and reused. Here’s an 18th-century depiction of a European draw loom, with figures showing the weaver and the “draw boy (or girl)” who pulled the pattern threads. Every single pass across the loom required a different selection of threads, and the setup was new for each new pattern. (For more details see chapter three of The Fabric of Civilization.)
Having written about Florentine sumptuary laws, I was also amused to see the mini-tunics, or pannos curtos (“short cloths”), that revealed men’s legs above the middle of the thigh when standing. Under a law passed in 1373, such sexy styles were prohibited unless the wearer paid a fine/fee of 10 florins. They were still in evidence decades later. Aside from showing off men’s muscled legs, they economized on expensive cloth, surely saving more than the value of the fine.
This essay was originally published on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.
Photos courtesy the author.