Category Archives: Italy

Lusting After Venetian Velvet

Silk velvet, the ultimate luxury textile, arrived in Venice via the Silk Route traders during the 13th century. By the 15th century, Venetian guilds were the global masters of velvet production.

Silk Velvet Italian early 15th c. Photo: Vrangtate Brun

Silk Velvet Italian early 15th c. Photo: Vrangtate Brun

Venice Palazzo Sagredo Bedroom

Bedroom from the Palazzo Sedgrado on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo: Matthew Thompson

The guilds operated under strict quality controls. The regulations went so far as to require inferior production to be burned. Given it took days to hand-loom a few centimetres of velvet, the economic implications of poor quality output could be devastating to a producer. Each area of silk velvet production became highly specialized, from sericulture through marketing, with apprenticeships lasting 7-8 years.

Competition to create the best textiles was fierce.  Companies developed proprietary dyeing and weaving methods, making the production environment ripe for espionage. To guard against trade-secrets getting out, craftspeople couldn’t readily move from one employer to another.

Venice’s silk velvet was highly desired by wealthy Venetians and throughout Europe during the Renaissance period. In paintings by the Venetian artists, such as those by Tiziano Vecelli (better known as Titian), you can see exquisite renderings of velvet gowns, robes, furnishings, coverlets and wall hangings.

Titian Portraits of Lavinia and Jacopo Soranso

Portraits of Lavinia (1561) and Jacopo Soranso (1550) by Titian.

The demand for velvet was driven by more than its sumptuous beauty. Velvet became a status symbol. Newly wealthy commoners sought to upstage less well-to-do nobles by draping themselves and their homes in velvet textiles. This rich display of luxury goods was intended to blur the the lines of class distinction between commoners and the aristocracy.

In their quest to maintain lavish lifestyles, people became heavily indebted, often to the point of bankruptcy. The increased rates of insolvency severely reduced the tax coffers. In response, Venetian legislators enacted sumptuary laws, restricting the use of velvet and other luxury goods. Under these laws, the right to wear clothing made from velvet was limited to high-ranking Venetian nobles. Restrictions even dictated that only plain velvet could be used in upholstery. The laws were moderately successful. Those who could afford to pay the high tax levies for disobeying the regulations did so rather than forgo the banned luxuries.

Globally, few companies produce pure silk velvet today. Silk backings are often used with less expensive rayon or viscose pile, making the material accessible to a greater market. High-end, highly durable velvet is also available in mohair and linen fabrications, sometimes blended with silk.

Velveteen, velvet’s poor cousin, offers better durability than velvet due to its shorter nap. However, lacks velvet’s sumptuous drape and texture. Velveteen is produced in a wide-range of colours and designs. The print used on the Lee Jofa velveteen shown below, is reminiscent of woven Renaissance silk velvet patterns.

Lee Jofa Textile

Modern Lee Jofa Printed Cotton Velveteen Textile.

Established in Venice in 1875,  Luigi Bevilacqua currently produces luxurious silk velvets for interior applications. Skilled craftspeople still operate the hand-looms dating from the 17th and 18th century. The company is also known for their beautiful brocades, satins, damasks, lampasses and trimmings.

Hand-looming textiles is a labour intensive process. Luigi Bevilacqua produces only a few hundred meters of the hand-loomed fabric annually. Since the 1930’s, the bulk of their textile manufacturing is done using mechanical technology. Whether hand or machine-loomed, the fabrics created are based on selections from Luigi Bevilacqua’s exclusive library of 3,500 designs, using only the finest quality dyes and threads. One of their hand-loomed velvets is the fabulous Tagliato Tigre, having a pure-silk pile and a 50/50 linen and silk ground.


Photo Source:

Another name associated with velvet and Venice is Mariano Fortuny. Originally from Granada, Spain, Fortuny relocated to Venice as a child in 1889. By his early thirties, Fortuny was well-recognized for his creative and innovative talents. Among them were painting, photography, stage lighting and theatre design. Today, he is probably best remembered for his forays into textiles and fashion. Assisted by his Parisian wife, Henriette Negrin, Fortuny designed and created the uniquely pleated silk dresses known as Delphos gowns. He also created fabulous hand-printed silk velvet evening coats.

In 1927 New York interior designer, Elsie McNeill Lee, saw Fortuny’s dress and coat fabrics in a Paris museum. She decided they would be perfect for use in interiors. Working with Fortuny to expand his line, Elsie McNeill Lee was instrumental in bringing his fabrics to the United States. Her business savvy also saved the company from receivership during the Depression.

Shown below is an example of one of his early fabrics for interiors. He based the design on a woven 16th century Italian textile and printed it in gold and silver. Eventually, due to cost, Fortuny opted to only use cotton as the base for his furnishing textiles.

Fortuny Velvet

Photos via: (clockwise from top L) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, V&A Museum, 1st Dibs

Sadly, like the Fortuny Delphos dresses, the evening coats can only be acquired today at auction or through vintage resellers, if at all. Wouldn’t the patterns Fortuny used for the splendid silk-velvet evening coat (circa 1930) and purse be wonderful for an interior application?

Mariano Fortuny, looked to the past for his design inspirations. However, his printing techniques were innovative. Using purchased plain off-white fabrics, vegetable-based dyes and a little alchemy based on his knowledge of photographic processing, Fortuny developed uniquely printed textiles. The patterns were created by layering hand-blocked stencils with hand-painting and were often highlighted with gold and silver. For this work, he became known as the “Magician of Venice.”

Today, the Fortuny product line, under the leadership of the Riad family, includes furniture, tableware, mosaic tiles and notebooks. As in Mariano Fortuny’s day, the company prints upholstery fabrics using secret techniques and no two lengths are exactly the same.

One modern-day textile designer, Mirella Spinella, hand-prints velvet fabrics in her Venice studio. With a background in painting and set design, she taught herself how to create beautiful printed velvet textiles. Given the secretive nature of the industry, Mirella Spinella researched old craft treaties and then experimented with pigments and mordants.

Working with stencils and woodblocks, she meticulously hand-prints her designs on white velvet. Mirella Spinella’s patterns have historical references to Venice. However, she adds a unique bold, theatrical flair, creating fresh interpretations that fit in well with today’s preferences for eclectic fashion and interior design. Shown below are two patterns from her on-line catalogue, ‘Chinese Flowers’ and ‘Hunting Lion.’

Chinese Flowers

Chinese Flowers. Photo Source:

Hunting Lion. Photo Source:

Hunting Lion. Photo Source:



Brown, Patricia Fortini. “Behind the Walls: The Material Culture of Venetian Elites.” Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1294-1797. John Jeffries Martin & Denis Romano, Eds. JHU Press, 2002. 295 – 338.

Coleman, Brian D. Fortuny Interiors. Gibbs Smith, 2012.

Facelle, Amande E. “Down to the Last Stitch: Sumptuary Law and Conspicuous Consumption in Rennaisance Italy.” April 2009.

Gregorin, Cristina. “Velvet, Damask and Brocade. The Luigi Bevilacqua Silk-Weaving Mill.” Venice Master Artisans. Grafiche Vianello srl, 2003. 38-45.

Watt, Melinda. “Renaissance Velvet Textiles“. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2011)

Exploring The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

What attracts you to artwork? For me, initial attractions vary. The lasting ones are those which trigger an emotional response. In addition, learning about the artist, the message they intended and the provenance of their work, either enhances or reduces a piece’s appeal to me.

This past spring, when in Venice, I spent an afternoon viewing The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Below are some of my favourites. The last two were acquired by the museum after Peggy’ Guggenheim’s death.

While Peggy Guggenheim initially sought out the advice of art experts when building her collection, her selections were based on her own preferences. She often had a personal connection with the artists whose work she acquired. Art brought her a great deal of enjoyment.

The Antipope, Dec 1941 – Mar 1942. Max Ernst (1891 – 1976)

This Surrealist piece was the first to command my attention at the museum. I kept going back to it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing and sad painting.


The Antipope. Photo: juliesea

Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst married in December 1941, the month Ernst began to create this painting. Peggy believed that Ernst had portrayed her as the figure third from the right, with Ernst representing himself as the black horse. Some scholars agree with this interpretation. Others suggest Peggy Guggenheim is the figure to the far left. You can learn about “The Antipope” via this link to the Guggenheim site.

Just as the poet the has to write down what is being thought – voiced – inside of him, so the painter has to limn and give objective form to what is visible inside of him.” – Max Ernst

Silver Bed Head 1945-46. “Sandy” Alexander Calder (1889 – 1976)

The whimsy of the piece engages me. That it was a personal item of Peggy’s, rather than one commissioned for her museum, is also appealing. Calder created this work of art specifically for Peggy Guggenheim. There is a photo of Peggy in her bedroom at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in my previous post. Calder’s sculpture is on the wall, above her bed.

Best known for his amazing mobiles, it’s not surprising Calder’s background was in mechanical engineering. He studied the discipline at university, then worked in the field for about six years before becoming a sculptor. To learn more about Calder and his work, please visit the Calder Foundation website.

Calder Bedhead Photo Patrick Huber

Silver Bed Head, Calder. Photo: Patrick Huber

Sculptures after Picasso’s sketches, 1964. Egidio Costantini (1912 -2007)

It’s Costantini’s life story makes these sculptures of particular interest to me.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection Blue Glass Sculptures

Sculptures after Picasso’s sketches. Photos: L. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection R. Patrick Huber

Born in southern Italy, Costantini grew up in Venice. After training to become a radio telegraph operator, he worked as a bank clerk. Later, he obtained a degree in botany. His interest in glass began when he worked as an agent for several Murano glass factories. Gradually, Costantini learned the art of glass blowing from the master Murano craftsmen and began experimenting with glass. He envisioned glass as an art medium rather than as a material suited only for functional applications. Through collaborations with artists and master Venetian glass blowers, he began to create his vision. He set up an artists’ co-operative in 1950 called Fucina degli Angeli (Forge of Angels). After achieving some success, he ran into financial difficulties and closed it in 1958. Costantini met Peggy Guggenheim in 1961 through a friend. She provided him with the funds needed to revitalize the company. You can read more about Costantini at The website is in Italian, Google Translate worked well for me.

You can see the grand Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Granda through the window screen behind the glass sculptures. Please refer to my previous post to read about the link between the Corners and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which houses The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The New Gates of Paradise, 1960. Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997)

What a perfect name. The gates lead into the palazzo’s garden oasis, to the home Peggy Guggenheim lived in for 30 years (I think that the longest I’ve lived in one place is 4 years – my husband calls me a nomad – maybe I just need some gates to paradise). Falkenstein’s creation is both functional and fascinating. Their design makes me think of dense bramble bushes.

Peggy commissioned her friend, Claire Falkenstein, an American sculptor and painter, to create the gates. Claire had lived in Paris for a number of years. While there, she became interested in the relationship between space and matter. In this piece, welded iron rods create a multidimensional web around chunks of Venetian glass; instilling a sense of depth greater that the actual thickness of the panels.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice The New Gates of Paradise. Claire Falkenstein

The New Gates of Paradise. Photo: Detlef Schober

Detail of The New Gates of Paradise. Claire Falkenstein. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Detail of The New Gates of Paradise. Photo: Detlef Schober

Bird in Space, 1932-40. Constantin Brâncuși (1876 – 1957)

Brancusi Bird in Space

Photo: rocor

I find the deceptive simplicity of this sculpture appealing. This is another artwork that was close to Peggy Guggenheim’s heart.  That it had such importance to her gives me a greater appreciation of it.

She had been friends with Brâncuși, and an admirer of his work, for sixteen years before she bought one of his sculptures. “Bird in Space” sculpture was the second of his sculptures added to her collection. Although she had long admired the series, she and Brâncuși had a bitter argument of the asking price when she first tried to buy it. They did not speak for months afterwards. Weeks before German troops invaded Paris during WWII, Brâncuși finally sold the sculpture to Peggy Guggenheim. It was an emotional moment for the artist. In Confessions of Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim writes, “Tears were streaming down Brâncuși’s face. I was genuinely touched. I never knew why he was so upset, but assumed it was because he was parting with his favorite bird.” 

Through the highly-polished, smooth bronze surface and elongated tapering shape of the bird, Brâncuși wanted to convey the “essence of flight.” By minimizing the physical attributes of the bird, we are left to focus on the its movement; its ability to quickly ascend into the sky. Please visit to read a short summary about Brâncuși and his work.

La Sibilla, 1947. Pericle Fazzini (1913-1987)

The sculpture shown in the photo below was one my favourites in the garden. Sibilla sits, lost in thought, with the warm summer sun on her back. Her serene smile captured my attention.

Venice Peggy Guggenheim Collection

La Sibilla

Please visit the Guggenheim site to read more about Fazzini. The sculpture was a 2012 bequest of art patron Hannelore B. Schulhof, who once said

“Art is almost like a religion. It is what gives my life dimension beyond the material world we live in.”

Savor Kindess Because Cruelty is Always Possible Later, 1983. Jenny Holzer (1950 – )

I first learned of American artist Jenny Holzer in the early 1990’s. I was living in Toronto, Canada at the time. She was in town to present and discuss her work. It was my first exposure to text being used as a standalone art form. The phrases she uses are provocative and unsettling. They make me stop, look and think.
Speaking about what motivates and inspires her work, Jenny Holzer says:

“I wanted to offer content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand.” (Interview Magazine, 2012) “I’m inclined to work on dark things. Sadly, the world is always offering up something dark and dreadful.” (The Guardian, 2013)

The bench shown below is part of her 1983 Survival series. Another phrase from this series is “Protect me from what I want.” On the series, Jenny Holzer says,

“I wanted to support things that are helpful to people and maybe bash what I think is dangerous.” (NY Times, 1989).


Photo: Richard, enjoy my life!

Jenny Holzer won the prestigious Leone d’Oro (Golden Lion) for her exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale. She was the first woman to represent the United States at the exhibition. While the Guggenheim connection with Jenny Holzer dates back to that Biennale, unfortunately, Peggy Guggenheim, who died in 1979, never met the artist. Knowing what we know about Peggy, it’s likely that she would have enjoyed meeting the artist.
Art (seeing it, creating it, learning about it, thinking about it, talking about it) makes my life richer and helps to keep my brain humming. How does art bring bring enjoyment to your life? Do you have a favourite quote about art or one said by an artist?

Venice, Through the Eyes and Words of Venetian Francesco da Mosto

If you are thinking about visiting Venice, or just curious, I highly recommend watching the BBC’s four-part documentary Francesco’s Venice. The series, presented by Venetian-born Francesco da Mosto, provides a fascinating, historical overview of Venice. The da Mosto family ties to Venice go back to the 5th century, when they were wine-makers. Francesco da Mosto, an architect, historian, author, sailor and film-maker, is passionate about his home city. He paints an enthralling portrait of it as only an insider can.

Venice, Through the Eyes and Words of Franceso da Mosta

The segments, titled “Blood,” “Beauty,” “Sex,” and “Death,” chronologically cover the key events, players, architecture and artworks that shaped Venice. In “Blood” we learn of Venice’s beginnings. In “Death” we are told about the effects of today’s tourism industry on the city.

Da Mosto also brings in personal references. At one point, he takes us inside Cà’ da Mosto, a palazzo dating from the 13th century. It was in his family for several hundred years and the birthplace of Alvise Cadamosto, a merchant explorer. In 1456, Cadamosto was one of the first Europeans to land on what are known today as the Cape Verde Islands.

Originally broadcast by the BBC in 2004, the series is currently available on DVD. Riveted by the documentary’s imagery and dialogue, I watched the first three segments back-to-back late one evening, finishing up with the 4th the next morning.

Should you be thinking of setting down roots in Venice, perhaps a home such as Palazzo Cà’ da Mosto could be yours. While it’s in need of extensive restoration, consider it the price for the beautiful views you could wake up to each day.

Ca da Mosto

Photos via (site no longer active)