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Effects of Early Renaissance

( Originally Published 1930 )



LET us look a bit at the textile industry of the early Renaissance in Italy, for Italy's Renaissance reached every department of art and erudition and put her products above those of other lands until they learned the trick from her.

Silk culture was well established, a momentous fact. None of the gorgeous fabrics of fine design which have for centuries delighted us could have been made had China been able to keep her secrets of sericulture. The new industry made all possible. As a result artists of high cultivation and talent put themselves to making patterns for the loom. Among these was so great a painter as the Venetian Jacopo Bellini. His designs are a joy to look upon because in them is displayed the intricacy of design ever loved by Venetians, in which is introduced a distinctly Oriental drawing. The reasons for that lie in the adventures of commerce between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and the religious fervor which led to the Crusades. Each class of designs as it appears is not the fancy or fashion of the moment; it is a veritable human document, and re-cords for him who can read the events of the time in which it was made.

Among them all we stand fixed when the eye lights on the specimens called Saracen, for these are full of fine movement, exotics in their way and piquant with interest, for they combine motives of Persia, India, China. One cannot of course make use of Saracenic fabrics in the home for the scant and fragile cloths that remain to us are entirely unpractical for modern use and are also gathered long since into such museums as that at Lyons, the Galleria degli Arrazzi at Florence and the Victoria and Albert in London. It is their influence that counts; their children live after them in the perpetuating of their conventions in ornament.

Notwithstanding the arrogance of Europe towards the peoples to the east of them, the dwellers in Mesopotamia, Turkey, Asia Minor, these had developed an art in design that Europe was pleased to adopt. At the time when Lucca was in possession of silk as a weaving material, about 1200 A.D. there was much use of Saracenic designs coming to her from Venice and Sicily.

These designs were marked by the use of pairs of animals either facing each other or the reverse. The animals always have a fantastic flavor which puts them at once into the land of faerie but in reality these de-signs are antique Persian or Sassanian, which were adopted by the Saracens. And all drawings are in two dimensions with the naive flat look of mere pattern.

It might seem useless to dwell on silks so rare that they exist only in fragments, and serve no purpose in the home of today, were it not that we find in these interesting bits the origin of certain designs that have served through several centuries with alterations. It was from Persian influence through the Saracenic that the originals came of the patterns which enclose the figure in a frame, making a large medallion, round, polygonal or ogival. This was formed of a narrow border circling or meandering to cross with its mate. The whole surface of the cloth was covered thus. Saracen in the Middle Ages meant the Mohammedan of Europe and the Near East, therefore the Saracenic designs carried the flavor of the Mohammedan religious tradition. Each country conquered supplied new motives, and we see Persian and Indian ornament in Saracenic and in Byzantine silk.

Full of suggestion is the fact that some of these de-signs found their way to the looms of Italy and France through the medium of the Crusades. The Mussulman of the Near East, being in possession of the cradle of Christianity, the city of Jerusalem, it seemed a necessary and noble act for Christians to wrest the place from his defiling hand.

It is hard to mention the word Crusades without letting a vagrant mind wander off into journeyings of long-cloaked knights, invariably tall, commanding and inspired, and to follow them with the magnificent Richard Coeur de Lion to deeds of valor all combined with Eastern delights.

But the religious aspect of the Crusades is for the student of history. Our interest in the subject of textiles is better served if we direct a discerning eye upon the merchant of the day. Never once considering himself an artist nor thinking of supplying designs for weavers in Christian countries, he admirably filled these functions.

To the merchant of the big trading cities of Italy, Venice, Pisa, Genoa, as well as Constantinople, the Crusades spelled Opportunity, as we say in modern jargon. They first offered—doubtless at good prices—their merchant fleet for the transport of the knights from Italy to the ports of Palestine and Syria.

Once in these parts the merchants like the knights were amazed at the sheen of pearls, the taste of spices, and, what concerns us more, at the quantity of textiles of design and weaving unknown to them. These things fascinated the merchants who at once established stores in Palestine and Syria, where they bought from the Mohemmedan the packs of his camels who had journeyed many a weary day over mountain and desert trade routes.

The next move was to fill the transport ships now emptied of Crusading knights with a return cargo of goods from the East, not only from Mesopotamia but from far India and farther Persia and China. Thus the textiles were scattered through Italy of the North. And both designers and weavers took patterns from them.

The Crusades ended in 1270, including even that pitiful fanatic venture of the Children's Crusade. And it was at this time that the weavers of Italy were busy with the rare material from the silkworm and de-signers were growing daring knowing that silk would reproduce their drawings in a way impossible to flax or wool.

It is a fantastic story if you wish to dress it up, this influence of the Crusades on trade, but to that can only be attributed a part of the creeping in of Eastern drawing. Constantinople must not be forgotten, once that capital of the Roman Empire, nor Turkey, which captured that same town.

Matters moved slower then than now. A hundred years in textiles saw not the abolition of the Oriental influence so early brought to Italy, but rather its absorption and development.

There is for instance the great motive of the pomegranate and its close relative in design, the Italian artichoke. It began in Persia, and the Mohammedan Empire in adding Persia to its vast possessions, adopted this fine decorative motive. Through Constantinople it came to Italy, and there it altered a trifle because the Italian designer was more familiar with the plant of the artichoke, the leaves of which had shared fame with the acanthus. For perhaps two hundred years the motive was popular with the weavers.

Marco Polo touched Bagdad in the Thirteenth Century, which was then a rich and gorgeous city, and he tells of weaving there, "which included many kinds of silk stuffs and gold brocade wrought with figures of beasts and birds." Mohammedan art had let in Sassanian figures among their arabesques; it was this particular innovation that gave inspiration to weavers in Lucca and Venice.

The Dark Ages were gone. Men were moving about with more freedom, but still the centers of art inclined towards the East, and still men looked to the art of Persia with its romance, Turkey with its flamboyance, Constantinople with its Byzantine convention, and widely to Islam.

The products of these times belong to us now. They are appropriate to our homes. Naturally they are not to be found except in copies, but these copies are ex-pertly made and accompany well the furnishings of a hall of stone walls, a library or dining-room of dark oak. For this reason we like to recall that they represent in design the crystallization of all the romance that went before and the concentrated history of all the peoples who composed the great empires of the Orient.

When Italy came to the fore, Italy as a nation, not as a small part of the Roman Empire, united she was not, but though partitioned under various heads she was recognized as Italy. Roman power—under popes, not emperors—still existed but was limited; Naples was a kingdom with a proper king; Florence was an active democracy, Milan was a center of tyranny under the despots, and Venice as a rich aristocracy stretching a jeweled hand towards the Orient. Here were the materials in which the early Renaissance developed.

And as this awakening reached every department of life, spiritual, intellectual, scientific, industrial, so it was evidenced in the art of weaving, in the art of de-sign and dyeing, and in the employment of silk. Early silks, many from Lucca, show the designs already used in Saracenic art. These make use of the large figures made by a wavy band of ornament enclosing a figure of man or beast or both. The huntsman is the same as the invention of centuries before, and sits his horse while discharging an arrow towards a beast of the forest at his feet.

Another of the early Eastern motives that carried on into the Renaissance was the pair of animals or of birds that face each other or the reverse. Of all the Eastern crystallizations of style that have been unabashed by the passage of centuries, these are the most piquant. They seem to let us into the lives of the people who were brilliant when we were dumb, who were living a life of scientific culture, of art development and of personal indulgence when Europeans were groping in the insensate Dark Ages and content to sleep on straw —glad if the awakening were not a sword-thrust.

The design of the Sassanian huntsman or of his Saracenic copy has about him a youth and eagerness which suggest the noble among the forested mountains in search of sport that he may counteract the ease of the cushioned couch. And the griffins are not without their power to charm, whether they sniff at each other haughtily when vis-a-vis or whether they ignoringly turn away their heads. Their curly tails might belong to mermaids, or they might have been filched from some Chinese carving of low relief done in the times of the Han Dynasty. They were the myths of men who lived so long previous that legend was their only history.

Lions of mad ferocity have their place within spaces circular or ogival, but even more alluring are the birds. These in pairs invariably have their heads reversed. They face each other, breast to breast, and turn away their heads in angry disdain, the hooked beak adding to the general effect of a recent unpleasantness; or their tails are touching, they are back to back, while heads are turned over the shoulder in provocation.

One more favorite animal who traveled in pairs is a lovely beastie that suggests the suave and chivalrous unicorn of two centuries later. He may be a ky-lin of the Chinese, for he has hoofs, he may be a gazelle, for he has the cerf's commanding lift of the head, but he is fitted with a head that conveys idealism in character, and on his body are drawn fantastic lines suggesting wings. It is only in wonderland that such can pasture, it is only from Persian tales that he can have sprung.

The marvelous adaptability of silk made possible the translating of reality and sentiment into the woven fabric. In the early Renaissance when the material became plentiful by being produced in Italy, the weavers made lavish and varied use of it. The accompanying essential was design and that was at the time when every man's brush and pencil was busy with ornament. Patterns for artisans were not left to mere pattern-makers to invent, but every artist, no matter how great a painter, applied himself likewise to motives for the liberal arts. Thus, artists were jewelers or marble cutters, or leather illuminators at times.

Velvets of Italy's Sixteenth Century can make of a room a casket for a jewel. They were made on hand-looms with all the patience that entails. The earliest have a pile of generous thread which gives them a depth and richness unsurpassed. It is not alone because these velvets are antiques that collectors prize them but because of their surpassing and peculiar beauty. The touch of the human hand has put magic into them and this is reflected in every fold.

Brocades and damasks poured out of the looms in those prolific times. They were made in Spain as well as in other places, but lest we grow confused it is better to hold ourselves to Italy, the center of the world in the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.

The Eastern motives of design were giving place to the invention of Italy, yet their fundamental and original impulse can be traced by the savant,

Venice remained long in quasi subjection to the Empire of the East and was also close to the Mohammedan, which explains much in her brocades that would otherwise be unintelligible. Besides this she was a sea-port of wide importance, dealing with all the nations east of her. Her ships sailed to Constantinople, and to the countries on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, to which she was the nearest important sea-port.

The fabrics brought by the merchants of the Crusades had helped to awaken Europe. They were trans-ported all over Italy—for it was in Italy that the merchants were most active—and found their way into Germany and Central Europe over the Brunner Pass. Thus the culture and art of the East was impressed upon Europe, and here we of European lineage must humbly realize how rude and savage must have been our race while the people of the Orient were rich in art, wise in science, erudite in learning.

Venice was the city which best illustrates the contact with the East, partly because she lay between Europe and the Orient, and was dominated by Constantinople, and partly because of her commerce. She was among the first in Italy to weave in silk, and what more natural than that she should copy the fabrics of the neighboring East. These shortly became involved with motive of European invention, and it is this combination that produced the soft bewitching confusion of de-sign that was peculiarly Venetian even into the Eighteenth Century.

In Florence the Renaissance made its beginnings and developed its earliest notable artists. She had naught to do with merchants and a merchant marine. But she led the northern cities in producing designs of elegance and purity. These were mostly founded on classic motives of that old Roman and Grecian culture that was so worshiped by the creators of the early Renaissance.

The reason for the difference between the ornament of Venice and that of the cities of North Italy is plainly seen, Venice was carrying on the tradition of the Orient while other towns were taking patterns from the Hellenic culture. And these things give piquancy to the fabrics we handle today when deco-rating our homes. Each class of design calls loudly for an appropriate setting. Silks of the Venetian make, from the earliest up to the late Eighteenth Century, call for an interior of almost Oriental richness and would make a clashing contrast in a room of New England asceticism.

Again, life in Venice was a life of self-indulgence, of luxury, and early became a life of pageantry. That amount of colorful public display might also have . drifted in from the Orient. However that may be, the pageantry of Venice in the Renaissance became one of the world's sights, and cannot be mentioned even now without pictures in the mind, pictures .of palace balconies hung with rippling brocades, Doges' attendants arrayed in velvets, gondolas draped with silks and piled with cushions of silk—all that any Eastern potentate could have of gold and jewels.

Life in Florence also claimed a share of the increasing luxury. Great men were building magnificent palaces, the Tornabuoni, the Strozzi, the Medici, different from the rude castles of earlier days, and these all called for elegant stuffs to soften their stately interiors and make yet more beautiful the famous women of the Renaissance.

The new culture spread at once to the northern towns which began to develop in art, manufacture and commerce notwithstanding the strange rule of the Despots. Milan was ruled over by the Sforza family, one of whom, Ludovico, married Isabella the daughter of the ruling family of Ferrara, the d'Este. Urbino had the only benign overlord, Duke Federigo Gonzaga, so history records, his wife Elizabetta being also a model among women. The Duke established looms within his territory the product of which is still extant.

Although all these tyrannic and powerful gentlemen of the early Renaissance deserved their name of Des-pots, they nevertheless fostered the arts. They might set apart innumerable persons to die in prison or by the sword, but in matters of cultivation they were eager pupils and almost humble before their instructors. Their children, too, were educated in the classics with a thoroughness unknown to us, and Latin became a familiarly used tongue. To be a murderer and yet a notable patron of the arts was the ambition of every despot. The murdering was a necessity of the time, for a ruler who had snatched his duchy from another by sword and fire must kill at the slightest suspicion any one who might conspire to rob him of his gain and rule in his stead. Notwithstanding all this sanguinary under-current there was much royal entertaining done among the families of the Despots. Most notable were the Venetian visits of Beatrice d'Este and her lady relatives when chests and chests of clothing and hangings were transported thither to make brilliant the occasion.

And at home, in Milan, there were jousts and pageants without number, and so seriously were they taken by Beatrice that she drew the great Michael Angelo away from his immortal works to supply ideas for her gorgeous pageants before the old Castello. Even now, before the old palace of the Sforzas one dreams of these past happenings and the wealth of color displayed by the silken flags and waving brocades of old Milan. Thanks be to the gods that imagination gives the power to roam amid a dull town's utilitarianism and revive a colorful past.

Keep then these three ideas in mind in penetrating the history or the inspiration of woven designs in Italy during the great awakening: the motives of the Orient, the motives arising from the revival of the classic or Hellenistic and the motives invented or altered by the intelligence of this brilliant period. These last, were they not the spirit of the times using as foundation the already existing motives?



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