This is second to the printing of letters and just as useful. It is worked by men, gives larger profits, and it is a beautiful and clever invention.” - Leonardo’s Notes on Silk Weaving
There are very few experiences we can have that allow us to really touch something being made today that replicates the glorious era of Renaissance Italy exactly how it was done. Here is one...
Like most of Leonardo’s inventions, they were never built during his lifetime. Could be that no one would put up the money to finance the design or he had another bright idea and lost interest in this one (highly likely).
It wasn’t until the 1700s that someone took his design and built the loom according to his specifications. Six of the ones built by noble families during that century are still being used today in one of the last remaining authentic silk workshops in Italy. Antico Setificio Fiorentina.
They’ve never sought to improve the design or build new ones, because these do the job magnificently. One cannot improve on perfection. Plus, new machines would break the delicate thread that is made from silkworm cocoons. It takes an entire day for one of these looms to produce mere inches of fabric.
Florence made most of its wealth beginning in the 1300s from silk and wool. The Silk Weavers Guild was one of the most powerful of these “corporations” that controlled both the arts and trades. Focused on high quality and political influence, it laid the City’s financial foundation and is a big reason why Florence continues to have such a strong arts tradition.
Eleonora da Toledo by Bronzino (1545)
Eleonora married Cosimo de Medici, a union of love & power. She employed 15 weavers to handle her glorious wardrobe. This is the most famously painted dress of that era! More modern era clients included the wardrobes for the Pope, Maria Callas and Andrea Bocelli….drapery and wall fabric for the Czar’s throne room at the Kremlin, the Villa Medici in Rome and the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence.
And women are the ones doing this intensely demanding work. (Apparently, only two men have worked at the looms in decades.) This precious skill is kept alive in the tradition of mothers and daughters who are given the training.
They produce about 100 different kinds of silk fabric including brocades, shantung, damasks and taffeta. A showroom displays them like the precious jewels they are.
As they say here: “Silk is like poetry. We are creating the historic fabrics of tomorrow. And we do it for love.”
Poetry can rustle in our minds. This fabric has a faint whisper to it when it is caressed as well as a delicate-as-air feel on the fingertips.