Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Spain, Peru, Cloth of Gold

( Originally Published 1930 )



WERE I a Spaniard with a name denoting Arab blood, my pride would be insufferable because of the cultivation brought to Spain by the Saracen. What was Europe in the Eighth and Ninth Century? A waste in which crouched dumb races, either fallen from the recently banished Roman Culture or never having developed.

And what was the culture of the Mohammedan? It was such that it led the world in science and carried with it an art of exquisite development and permanent beauty. It was the intent of Islam to improve the regions of which it became possessed through conquest, to establish there not only its religion but its culture.

The Moors having entered there, Spain was the chief European country, that was blooming intellectually in the Eighth Century, establishing universities, building marvelously beautiful mosques and palaces, and ornamenting all with an art peculiarly its own. The Moors were driven from Spain in 1492 when Boabdil breathed sadly, "l'ultimo sospiro del Moro," and left the field of art and learning to the Christians. Naturally it was the first duty of the conquering Christians to destroy that art and learning. But never did the new power succeed in obliterating the spirit of Moorish art in Spain, and thus the ornament of that alluring country has ever differed from that of the rest of Europe.

Grateful let us be that the conquerors in obliterating Grenada left the Alhambra. If inclined to resent the presence there of the big Renaissance building erected before it by Charles V one must think on that Emperor's tolerance in leaving the rest of the palace as it was built by the Moors. And happy are we that in destroying the university of Cordova the new in power left the wondrous mosque.

Putting these great examples with the palace of the Alcazar and the Giralda tower in Seville, we have a complete education in the Moorish design that colors all Spanish ornament that is truly of Spain and not a direct importation from Italy's Renaissance.

Take a few days off and loaf among them and see what can be absorbed in a little time. Arabesques, of course, geometric designs and interlacings which are the peculiar touch of Mohammedan art in its purity. But with what fine intellectual quality these arabesques are invested. Their variety is infinite, their meanderings exquisite, and they seem ever to speak of life itself, the life of luxury and cultivation led by the elegant and fastidious Moors in this European Caliphate of Cordova.

As you meditate, people of those times come to life, and the palaces are dressed in Oriental richness as a soft background .for slender figures, gauze-draped, who lounge among the rugs and cushions, who mistily wander among the columns, who listen thrilled to the beat of distant Arab music, who throw a rose from a draped balcony. Othello and Desdemona become real, and Ferdinand and Isabella invite your hatred.

As one discovers the arabesques in fabrics woven during the three centuries after the banishment of the Arab, and is able thus to say of a strange exotic ornament, "Ah, this is old Spanish," so in the pure arabesques themselves, as drawn by the Moors, there is the trace of yet older ornaments.

And thus an extra fascination invests the fabrics. Persia is found to have contributed the leaf which lies fiat in a trefoil and when doubled makes the ornament yet more pointed and graceful as it bends on curving stems. From Persia, too, comes the cone-shaped flower which began as a pomegranate and grew in Turkey almost to a fan in size. The design of four flowers became a classic, a central rose surrounded by a hyacinth, tulip, carnation, all with long curved stems. And the truly Mohammedan motive of interlaced lines excites admiration by its variety. All these motives are familiar in all silk weaves. Arabic lettering, too, was judiciously woven in. To these add the color of the Orient, the daring use of color for its inspirational value, and you have the key to Spanish textiles.

Remembering that the Mohammedan caliphs invaded Persia while Persia was one of the centers of art, it is easy to see the reasons for these designs. The Moslems in conquering adopted the art of the conquered, rather than creating one of their own, thus writing their history into their ornament. Without these out-side influences Moslem art with its geometric patterns and interwoven designs of straight lines would have become arid in the course of centuries. But Persia gave her lovely use of flowers with their endless possibilities and poetic suggestions. There is magic in the words—a Persian garden; it makes one think of tinkling fountains, perfumes, moonlight,—and those who walked therein—clandestinely or otherwise.

But before the Moors had been part-banished, part-suppressed the pattern set by Italy was being followed. The Renaissance was Italy. The whole of Europe was on the upward trend, but in Italy was the great development. It was not the gift of some conqueror be-longing to a higher culture, but was a development of self. And after Italy had evolved the new kingdom of science and art, the crudeness of the Middle Ages gradually disappeared in country after country.

But each country which adopted the art of Italy in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, wove into the designs some motive peculiar to themselves, or some local color scheme. Spain at the time of Ferdinand and Isabella was not entirely Moorish. Christian influence from the North had been steadily encroaching on the power of the Moslem and with its political advance came its art. And that was the art of Italy's Renaissance.

Velvets, brocades and damasks woven at that time in Spain are only distinguishable from the Italian product when they show the touch of the Moor. Spain produced more and more rich fabrics, the demand for them became extraordinary not only among the royalty and the nobles but among the rich men of business affairs; and many of these textiles are' in our hands today.

We are dealing with a most exciting time in history, for events in Spain in 1492 are intimately connected with "these United States of America." Columbus sailed then by the grace of Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. Navigation was one of the freest movements of the Renaissance. All persons of intelligence knew then that the world was not flat but spherical. And all navigators and merchants hoped to find a shorter way to the Isles of Spice and to the wealth of Inde than the trade-routes over the land.

Spice seemed to be a puny motive for perilous adventure, cinnamon and cloves and pepper a small reward for danger, until one remembers that spice not only en-livened the dull stews of the early days but they preserved perishable food. The frigidaire was yet to come. Marco Polo's accounts of spice in the markets of the Moluccas and Ceylon lured many a sailor from home and fireside. In 1486 Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498 Vasco da Gama followed that path and traced it still further, sailing straight across the Indian Ocean to Hindustan; and Magellan soon after sailed right around the world.

But these accomplishments counted Iess with Spain than the discoveries in America, for the new world was annexed as Spanish territory and from it she drew wealth that seemed to be inexhaustible. On this she grew to greatness and power, and a royal daughter of Spain was desired by Maximilian as wife for his son Philip, and from this marriage was born the Emperor Charles V, whose story involves the whole of Europe.

Gold from the new world was then in every Spaniard's pockets. The royal treasury bulged with it, and extravagance was lauded, not rebuked. And among things produced for church, for home, for personal use were the magnificent textiles. The walls of churches and of palaces were hung with damasks, and embroiderers were set to work on altar cloths and clerical vestments such as amaze us of today. It was sufficient glory for the aristocratic family of Covarrubias to be known as the best embroiderers in the kingdom. Much gold was woven into fabrics and stitched into vestments and clothing. Heaviness rather than delicacy was characteristic. Portraits of the time show skirts that must have been a burden of great weight. The lightsome step of youthful maids must have been suppressed by such heavy volume of riches in brocade.

Thus Spain spent her money easily that came so easily. "Savages" in Peru, in Central America, in Mexico yielded up their mines and golden images under the gentle persuasion of the sword. And while the supply lasted Spain was a great power with a great commerce in textiles.

And just here we stumble upon an evidence of weaving in one of the countries of the new world Peru, that home of a developed race which was taken over about 153o in the name of Spain by the adventurer Pizarro. Chronologically it has no place here except as a discovery of Spain during the Renaissance.

Peruvian weaving is placed as far back as the Third Century of our era. Beautiful cloths, perfect in preservation, are dated as far back as the Tenth Century. One of the piquant puzzles of the history of weaving is the similarity between the Peruvian product and the Coptic. Both are preserved in burial places—or none would be remaining. Both are of the weave adopted by tapestry makers of Europe. The Peruvians, how-ever, have the distinction of a technique in weaving, a certain twisting of the warp, that brings despair to the heart of the archeologist who would reconstruct the Peruvian loom.

The ornament is that of people who picture nature symbolically, many birds or fishes being seen in repetition. The swastika, the fret, are such as are found among all primitive or fundamental art. The dyes are gay, red and ivory tones predominating, and time has not hurt their colors. We stand before them amazed. They are the great enigma in the world of textiles. They were woven contemporaneously with the Coptic, of the same stitch, yet a world apart in "locale" and in tradition of ornament. It was the Incas who destroyed these South American people and these were in power when Spain appeared, and took over the country which they named "Peru."

If the collector or even the student can airily dismiss from his mind the real object of a tomb, he can become thrilled over the archeologist's treasure unearthed in Peru—still being unearthed. The strange burial customs of ancient Peru demanded large quantities of textiles enclosed within the huge bundle which contained the mummy.

As has been said, these are mainly woven in a technique identical with that of the tapestry weavers among the Copts (during the same centuries) and of the European tapestry weavers whose work' flowered a few centuries later. The color gamut too is noticeably similar.

Thus these newly discovered textiles are the excitement of the day among archeologists and textile col-lectors. It is easy to see the reason. So few very ancient textiles are in existence, that this large and sudden addition thrills the searcher after evidences of the past.

Peru has now been divided into districts for search, and into the periods, pre-Inca and Inca. The tapestry weave is not the only one found, the designs are archaic, the dates are from obscure times until 'z00, when the Incas conquered the native, and from then until Pizarro the Spaniard took a conqueror's possession of the country.

While still thinking on Spain, her conquests and royal extravagances, her art and at last her decay, it is agreeable to remember that in the Seventeenth Century she produced artists beyond the ideals of the time. It was a century of decadence in Italy; the bud had opened, the flower had bloomed, and now the wide-expanded petals were falling. But in Spain Velasquez had arisen, and through all that century there were others, Murillo, Ribera, and El Greco, the Greek Theotocopuli who brought with him the Byzantine tradition.

As is ever the case the lesser arts were influenced by the greater, and textiles in Spain during the Seventeenth Century showed tremendous vigor in design. Not only were the large motives continued, but there were introduced the fine-woven small figures sprinkled over a plain background which are in direct contrast to the older ornament. And ever a reminiscence of the Moor appeared in a detail or in color.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com