The National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia is so tightly packed with artistic treasures that, it has been said, if the gallery were located in so popular a city as Rome or Florence, it would be on every tour guide’s Top 10 list.
That said, it has one, huge gap. Strangely, the National Gallery displays almost no Umbrian textiles, and does not do justice to the few it does show. This is extremely hard to understand, given the great beauty of Umbrian textiles, as well as their millennium-long history which is tightly woven into the artistic, cultural, political, and economic history of the region.
A visitor is better off turning to Marta and Clara, the creative forces behind the Giuditta Brozzetti Laboratorio di tessitura a mano -- the Brozzetti workshop of hand-woven artistic textiles-- in central Perugia to really get a flavour of traditional Umbrian cloth. (Shown above)
This daughter-mother team is doing far more than any institution to preserve and promote the long artisanal tradition of textiles, so inextricably woven into the story of Umbria. (In fact, their workshop has been officially listed in Umbria’s formal system of museums.)
Marta, an extremely talented weaver, researches historic patterns carefully. She has closely studied depictions of Umbrian-made cloth shown in Renaissance art by painters such as Pinturicchio, in order to resurrect historic patterns that had all but disappeared in the dust of time. Traditional Umbrian cloth can also be seen in paintings by early artists including Pietro Lorenzetti and Ghirlandaio.
Marta’s hand-woven pieces, from tablecloths to cushion covers, sachets, lamp covers, curtains, and bed linens are all works of art. I’ve even had her table runners mounted to hang on my walls as tapestries.
Her mother Clara -- granddaughter of the original Giuditta Brozzetti -- is a textile historian, studying the influence of the industry across Western culture and specifically in Umbria, as well as the enormous influence the textile industry has had in shaping the politics and economics of the region.
Shoppers can find small Brozzetti-made pieces, based on historic patterns, for sale in the National Gallery of Umbria’s bookshop. Which seems ironic, given that the gallery doesn’t actually display many original pieces!
Brozzetti works can also be found in a handful of stores in Umbria. But the most interesting and, I think, meaningful way to purchase a piece is directly from the Brozzetti atelier itself.
Located in Perugia’s oldest Franciscan church, the 13th century Chiesa di San Francesco delle Donne, a visit to the atelier is a fascinating experience. So much so, that in June 2010, I arranged for a 3-day workshop there with Marta and Clara.
I certainly have no dreams of becoming a weaver myself. But after buying several pieces from Brozzetti in recent years, I decided I wanted to learn much more about the traditions of this beautiful craft.
During my time there, Marta and Clara gave me an entirely new appreciation of their art. I spent several hours each morning with Clara, discussing the historical context of the Umbrian textile industry. Afternoons, Marta tried to teach me the basics of weaving on a simple, four-heddle loom. I even took a turn at the spinning wheel, which she uses to fill bobbins to use in the loom’s shuttle. (below, Marta on the spinning wheel)
I admit: I have been very sceptical about weaving for decades. I believe I was scarred as a teen during the 1970s by “crafty” friends who wove lumpy orange ponchos and screech owl wall-hangings while listening to John Denver. They also dabbled in macramé.
So, to steel myself to sit at Marta’s smallest handloom, I reminded my inner teen that the light, elegant, richly coloured Umbrian textiles were clearly nothing like the fuzzy ponchos of the 1970s.
That said, the small square of various colours and patterns that I produced, following three afternoons with Marta, was not really any more attractive than a fuzzy poncho. But it wasn’t lumpy. Nor was it orange.
I did get a real appreciation of how physically challenging weaving can be. It’s very hard on the back and shoulders, and the constant risk of getting slivers in the feet from trying to manipulate the wooden pedals is an occupational hazard. I was also reminded how clumsy I am – I had trouble mastering the proper technique for batting the shuttle back and forth.
And that was just working a very small loom. Much of Marta’s work is produced on the far more exacting, intricate, antique jacquard frames necessary for the complex patterns used in her larger pieces. Just looking at these is exhausting. Yet, at least two dozen hours of hard work on these huge looms would be needed to produce a decorative table runner showing a dozen “rampart” griffins, such as the piece I have hanging in my home.
While Umbrians have always been weavers, the city of Perugia became a major European centre for weaving during the 13th and 14th century, according to Clara. At the industry’s peak, as many as 12,000 people were employed in Perugia’s textile industry.
Besides the traditional cloth woven for every-day wear, Perugia became famous during the medieval period for its beautiful altar cloths – the tovaglie perugine, which date back to the 12th century. Eventually, these altar clothes became sought-after decorations for the most fashionable homes, with their distinctive blue bands of woven patterns, often featuring birds and mythical creatures, and usually on a linen base.
Also popular were the carefully woven, extremely sheer -- almost transparent – veils which came from Perugia’s looms. A historical record of these can be found in many Renaissance Umbrian paintings, showing Madonnas wearing the beautiful, transparent veils. These were woven of such fine materials as silk, as well as sometimes cotton and linen.
The entire textile industry became a dominant player in Umbria’s economy during the medieval and Renaissance periods and was the source of a good deal of wealth. However, all that was brought to an end during the Salt War in the mid-16th century when Perugia in particular, and Umbria as a Papal State, was subjected to a series of crippling Vatican taxes that contributed to the destruction of the regional economy. Since then, the region has been hard-pressed to recover.
While Perugia was the centre of Umbria’s textile industry, there was activity all over the region. Spello, Città di Castello, Spoleto, Orvieto, Corciano, Deruta and Valtopina have all been known for their lace, embroidery and textiles.
Today, Brozzetti is one of the few workshops in Umbria that still produces textiles by hand. Another is the much larger Busatti textile factory, based in the delightful town of Anghiari just outside the Umbrian border in eastern Tuscany. Busatti has a much larger retail presence with its own shop in a numbers of towns in the regions, and also ships all over the world.
But to my eye, nothing quite matches the intricate designs and historic detail in a hand-made Brozzetti work. (below: one of Marta's small pieces, and mine)