It is always good to go back to a museum after an exhibition has started and check how it is going or if the organisers have added new events in the programme. In the case of the exhibition dedicated to Milena Canonero's costumes for Marie Antoinette - "I costumi di una regina da Oscar" (The Costumes of an Academy Award Queen) - at the Textile Museum in Prato, Italy, the organisers decided to extend the event until 10th June as the exhibition was particularly successful. In the meantime they have added to the offer a smaller event focused on textiles from the Renaissance.
On display in the ground floor hall dedicated to historical fabrics, this event is entitled "Drappi d'oro e di seta" (Gold and Silk Textiles) and includes textiles made for the European courts during the Renaissance that show the evolution of luxury fabrics between the 1400s and the 1500s. The exhibit includes 120 examples of fabrics, many of them never exhibited before to the public and restored for this event.
The fabrics are also explored in connection with six famous figures from the Italian Renaissance, among them Bianca Maria Sforza, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Sigismondo Malatesta and Cosimo Primo de' Medici. Visitors are invited to look at paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Titian and Alessandro Allori and analyse the styles of the garments donned by the famous Renaissance figures they portrayed, making connections with the textiles on display.
From the 1400s on silk became very popular in Italy, where it was produced according to the highest standards: Venice, Milan, Florence, Lucca and Genoa became famous for their production of silk-based textiles such as precious velvets, lampas and visually enticing damasks enriched with gold and silk metallic threads. Such textiles were produced by highly skilled artisans including dyers and weavers, but the main materials needed to produce them – silk, precious metals and special dyes – were also very expensive which meant such products were destined to the European luxury markets.
One of the most expensive textile was velvet: artisans needed a lot of silk to produce velvet-based fabrics and expensive metallic threads to enrich them. The most expensive velvets were the thickest ones, the velvets woven with golden threads and the ones died with kermes, a red dye derived from the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect in the genus kermes, especially kermes vermilio, or with grana (grain), made with another cochineal insect from the species Coccus ilicis or Kermococcus vermilio.
There is a variety of cloths, fabrics and textiles on display: some of them were destined to be used to decorate the house rather than be turned into garments, among them there are tablecloths, pillowcases and textiles made with linen, cotton and wool that were probably made for blankets and quilts, plus a variety of linen pieces including silk embroidered handkerchiefs, quintessential accessories in the wardrobe of the 16th century fashionistas. The textiles from these times also display a contamination of inspirations and influences: the Moorish styles are particularly fascinating as they are inspired by architectural motifs.
Samples of Medici velvet - a heraldic textile made in Florence for the noble family and incorporating the balls on the coat of arms of the Medici family in red on a golden background - are among the rarest textiles on display. A key item on display comes from the male wardrobe: it is the "scarsella" (purse), the bag donned by men anchored to their belts during the Renaissance. The one on display (from the mid-15th century) probably belonged to a member of the corporation that in Florence managed currency exchange operations and features a forest green flap and a golden polka dot motif that may have been inspired by coins.
The exhibition may be of interest to textile designers and art or fashion fans, but also to visitors who are into business, finance and investments: the sales of these products generated indeed enormous amounts of money that allowed the families behind these activities to launch and manage banks, proving that these textiles do not just tell stories about clothes and families, but remind us that the economy of places such as Florence was founded on fortunes in cloth. Something that makes you stop and ponder a bit about modern fashion, quality, textile production and the way we have come to discard fabrics, textile manufacturers and garment-makers. Looks like the Renaissance has still got many lessons in store for our modern times.