Art and fashion fans who will be going to the opening of the Venice Art Biennale next month, should maybe extend their visit to Italy and head to the Museo del Tessuto (Textile Museum) in Prato. The institution is currently putting the final touches to a new exhibition, opening on 14th May.
Entitled "Il Capriccio e la Ragione. Eleganze del Settecento europeo" (Caprice and Reason. Elegant Styles from 18th century Europe), the event explores refined taste in the 18th century and the various trends that developed around this time.
The event promises to be quite rich since it is organised in collaboration with private collections and with other institutions in Italy, including (among the others) the Costume and Fashion Museum of the Gallerie degli Uffizi and the Stibbert Museum in Florence, and the Textile Museum of the Como-based Ratti Foundation.
Located in the section dedicated to antique textiles at the Prato Museum, the exhibition includes around 100 pieces, from textiles to men and women's wear garments and accessories (including shoes, buttons, gloves and hats), from interior design pieces to paintings and engravings, often employed to create links with the decorative elements on the textiles.
The objects and items on display are showcased in a chronological order that allows the curators to tell stories about them, while exploring the trends and fashions from the 1700s.
This rich century saw indeed many revolutions, changes and discoveries, mirrored in the selected pieces on display.
The first theme tackled in the event is the exotic influence: new geographic discoveries, trading expeditions and religious missions introduced Europe to the Far East and merchants started importing refined, elegant and previously unseen luxury pieces.
These objects introduced not just a new taste for materials like lacquer and porcelain, but prompted people to look at innovative techniques, materials, and colour combinations.
The art and works produced by painter and art theorist Charles Le Brun, painter Antoine Watteau, draughtsman, designer, and engraver Jean Berain, and painter and etcher François Boucher open up new correspondences with fashion and textiles.
Paintings and engravings are directly linked in the exhibition with the style of figured fabrics that became popular in the late 17th and early 18th century: the event looks indeed at "Bizarre" silks, fabrics woven in France, Italy and Britain, characterised by large-scale and asymmetrical patterns featuring stylised leaves and flowers; it then moves onto Jean Revel's naturalistic silk style (with themes such as flowers, fruit, shells and landscapes) and then analyses the importance of lace.
Textile fans will love the pieces on display and in particular the rich silks with metallic threads, employed to make extravagant waistcoats juxtaposed to precious Chinese, French and Italian porcelain interior design objects. In some cases, the displays hint at comparisons and contrasts: a waistcoat features for example a rather daring animal motif that was actually fashionable at the time also for fabrics made for interior decor purposes.
The archeological discoveries in the mid-1700s had an impact on fashion and style and the theme of the ruins introduces in the exhibition a sort of new chapter, revolving around nature, art, history and architectural elements, such as classical temples alternated to floral motifs.
The National Library of Florence also supports this exhibition with the loan of volumes from the 17th to the 18th century focusing on decorative elements, on expeditions to India, China and Japan, on interior design, or on archeological subjects that inspired the neoclassical trend.
There are interesting links for example between some of the engravings in the books and the glass and porcelain buttons also included in the event decorated with cameos representing subjects borrowed from the Greek and Roman art, produced by Wedgwood at the end of the 1700s.
Gradually, as rationalism spread, the decorative elements diminished giving more space to stripes, garlands and innovative chromatic palettes in which white, delicate aquamarine and pale shades of pink, blue and yellow, prevailed.
The garments showcased also become a way to explore volumes, shapes and silhouettes: visitors will follow the transition from the robe à la française through the robe à la polonaise to conclude with the classicist robe en chemise, in a fashion trip symbolically representing a cultural and social development.
Accessories are equally important: the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum loaned for this exhibition a group of shoes from the 18th century, the core of a collection that the founder of the house had originally started to study footwear.
There will be more to discover, though, for careful visitors: the garments and accessories on display may reveal wonderful connections with art, but they also show different techniques employed to make them, aspects that visitors with some spare time can study more in depth in other sections of the Prato Textile Museum. The latter is indeed located in a former mill that was active throughout the whole of the 18th century and was then transformed into a well-established company operating in the finishing of textiles.
"Il Capriccio e la Ragione. Eleganze del Settecento europeo" @ The Textile Museum, Prato, Italy, 14th May 2017 - 29th April 2018.