When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (2023)

The Collection | Textiles

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (1)

By Liza Foreman1st December 2017

Visitors today flock to Venice to pay homage to the sumptuous textiles of the city’s sartorial reign. Liza Foreman explores an extraordinary legacy.


From the San Marco tapestries to lace exhibits at a small atelier on Burano island, visitors can see textiles everywhere in Venice today. “Places such as the Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia, the Fortuny Palace and the Mocenigo trace a fashion story that bears witness to the role of creativity in fabric innovation and fashion for an entire period of Venetian history,” says Alberto Bevilacqua of the weaving company Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, which dates to the 1700s. “Around the year 1500, there were about 6,000 looms in the city employing thousands of people. Today there is not much of the industry left.”

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (2)

The Bevilacqua showroom in Venice is a treasure trove of beautiful Venetian textiles (Credit: Angela Colonna)

The archives at the factory of Bevilacqua include 3,500 original designs. These are still produced on the family-run company’s 18th-Century looms that once belonged to the Republic of Venice’s Silk Weaving School. Bevilacqua still works with many of its original fabrics, including the so-called Senatori velvet. “This is one of the main fabrics of our archive, and was born for a design for a particular 17th-Century men's outfit, something very important in the history of Venice, or the robe of the Serenissima’s Senator,” says Bevilacqua. “The pattern remains the same as the knits used in the 16th Centuries, as the paintings of Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635) prove.”

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (3)

The archives at the factory of Bevilacqua include 3,500 original designs, many still produced on the company's 18th-Century looms (Credit: Bevilacqua/ Angela Colonna)

“Throughout the Serenissima Republic, Venice had the most important textile trade in the world,” says Chiara Squarcina, a curator at the Mocenigo Museum of Textiles and Costumes, which gives an overview of Venice’s leading role in this slice of sartorial history. The palazzo’s archives reflect Venice’s history in the production of what was a hot collector’s item before fashion became more popular.

These artists combined ancient techniques with new patterns inspired by Art Nouveau and Art Deco– Isabella Campagnol

With its permanent displays, an education centre and its vast archives, Palazzo Mocenigo pays homage to the history of fashion and textiles in Venice and beyond. At the museum, some of the local industry’s most recognisable motifs and styles are displayed. “Silk damask with a caper motif is a typical Renaissance pattern, used both for clothing and for curtains,” says the Venetian textile and costume historian Isabella Campagnol. “At Palazzo Mocenigo, look out for the vesta or dress of the Procuratori and Altobasso (pile-on-pile) that was used for the stoles of the Procuratori, important political figures in the government of the Serenissima,” she adds.

The lap of luxury

More exemplary textiles can be found in the former apartment of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, at the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco. These include the silks in the resplendent Sissi rooms, or the apartment that the Austrian empress Elisabeth lived in for a number of months on trips to Venice. The rooms are decorated by lampas – a type of luxury textile with a background weft – replicating the severely damaged originals that have been removed for preservation. “A walk through these rooms is quite emotional,” says Campagnol.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (4)

The Sissi rooms at the Museo Correr are housed in the former apartment of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Credit: Museo Correr)

With its striking palazzo headquarters on the Grand Canal, which can be visited by appointment, the textile company Rubelli’s archives include work by some of Venice’s most important textile artists, including Vittorio Zecchin, Guido Cadorin and Gio Ponti, the godfather of modern Italian design. “These artists revolutionised the traditional art of weaving, by combining ancient techniques with new patterns inspired by Art Nouveau and Art Deco,” says Campagnol, who was previously in charge of the Rubelli archives. The house’s history is told in the book Rubelli: A Story of Silk in Venice by Irene Favaretto and Campagnol, and the authors also highlight where to hunt for textiles in Venice today.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (5)

The silk and taffeta Eleonora dress of 1912 is by Mariano Fortuny (Credit: Stéphane Piera / Galliera / Roger-Viollet)

Several of the islands in the Venice lagoon have a history with textiles, including Burano. Produced by using only needle and thread, Burano lace was in high fashion during the 16th and 17th Centuries. “It fell out of fashion in the 18th Century, but the craft was revived, thanks to the support of Margherita of Savoy, who founded the School of Lace (1872-1970). “The Atelier of Martina Vidal on Burano is keeping the tradition alive,” says Campagnol. There is also a Lace Museum on the island.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (6)

The atelier of Martina Vidal on the Venetian island of Burano is keeping the tradition of lace-making alive in the city (Credit: Martina Vidal)

Preserving the history of the Jewish community in Venice, theMuseo Ebraico also holds some important textiles. “The magnificent embroideries of the liturgical fabrics of the Jewish Museum – precious silk mantles for the Torah [Me‘ilìm], mappòth, curtains for the Aròn ha Qòdesh [parokhòth] – embroidered in gold, silk and silver tell the story of the Jewish community in the city,” says Campagnol.

Golden age

Then there is Fortuny, of course, the legendary Venetian textile house that still relies upon the original, secret production processes invented by founder Mariano Fortuny. The company’s methods may be a well-guarded mystery, but in the Fortuny showroom, inside a former convent on the island of Giudecca, visitors can see some of its exotic designs. They rival those of the other last remaining Venetian textile houses.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (7)

The Museo Ebraico holds some precious textiles embroidered in gold, silk and silver, that tell the story of the city's Jewish community (Credit: Museo Ebraico)

The subject of an exhibition until 7 January 2018 at the Palais Galliera [http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/fortuny-spaniard-venice], Paris’s leading fashion museum, the Spanish artist and designer Mariano Fortuny lived for most of his life in Venice. One can visit his workshop and gardens on Giudecca (the showroom and gardens are open to visitors by appointment) and the Palazzo Fortuny museum in his former house. The Paris exhibition features some beautiful examples of his textiles, as worn by some of the countesses of the day. It will also examine his printing technique, and his influences, from Ancient Greece to the Middle East.

The Venetian cloth of gold was appreciated all over Europe

Mariano Fortuny created dresses with his fabrics. But fashion has also found other ways to work with Venetian textiles. Consider the trompe l’oeil fabrics of Roberta di Camerino, “The famous Venetian fashion designer used velvets made by Bevilacqua for bags coveted by such glamorous figures as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, and printed jersey for her comfortable, yet practical dresses,” notes Campagnol.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (8)

A model poses wearing the elegant 1920 Delphos dress by Mariano Fortuny (Credit: Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia)

Also with a story to tell are the San Marco tapestries at the San Marco Museum. They “document the passion of ancient Venetians for tapestries to decorate palaces but also as in this case to tell religious stories,” says Campignol. The tapestries were created by Giovanni Rost, a Flemish weaver who worked for the Medici.

When Venetian luxury ruled the world of fashion (9)

The archive of Rubelli includes work by some of Venice's most important textile artists (Credit: Rubelli Archive)

In the end, though, Venice could not keep up with the competition. “The Venetian Government was very keen to maintain a high quality, so strict laws were in place and the production checked by controllers,” says Campagnol. Venice remained competitive until the late 17th to early 18th Centuries, and then Lyon emerged as a competing textiles centre. “In Lyon, they created lighter silks that were more fashionable in patterns that changed frequently, were more lightweight, and consequently less expensive. Venice remained anchored to its system and the old rules and laws, and was unable to compete.” Until that point, says Campagnol, “The Venetian cloth of gold was appreciated all over Europe.”

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