Italian Industries for Women

VERONESE’S opulent and lovely figure of Arachne, weaving her web with aspiring eyes, might serve as an image of the Coöperative Society for Italian Female Industries. Arachne stretches her delicate cobweb with careful, capable fingers; she is not groveling over her work, she gazes upward, and her womanly figure is flooded with golden light; but by her side is a very useful, well-filled workbasket. This society seems to possess the same combination of ideality and practical good sense. Partially to compensate the loss of its extensive exhibit at the Milan Exposition, which was burned August 3, 1906, it has just published an attractive, illustrated volume,1 upon its work and aim, giving many interesting details about the occupations of women. Its two main objects are to enable Italian women to execute the exquisite and manifold crafts for which their ancestresses were distinguished, and to find an honest market for their handiwork, so that a middleman may not gobble their profit. It has been no stereotyped association, proceeding by mechanical means, but has grown out of the love of individual women for their fellow women, and for the multiform branches and tendrils of old Italian art. Their efforts have matured in drawing-rooms, among earnest twos and threes; each step has stood for a personal sacrifice of time and thought. This Coöperative, which now has the best names in Italy on its roll and is patronized by the two Queens, is the evolution of a small society called “Arts and Crafts,” formed in 1901, to make Italian laces and fabrics known abroad. From the Paris Exhibition and the Chicago Fair their productions returned with gold medals and abundant orders. In 1902 and 1903, two successful exhibitions were held in Rome, and it was felt that the society must take a more enduring form. In May, 1903, it was constituted with an unlimited capital of one-hundred-franc shares. The King and Queen took the largest number, and during the meeting a hundred other shares were subscribed, amounting in all to twenty thousand francs. There is a central committee of twenty-four ladies to supervise the artistic movement by personal advice, patterns, and deputed inspectresses throughout Italy. There is a technical body to judge absolutely as to the acceptance and price of work. Besides the central committee in Rome, which has a permanent sale room in the centre of the city, there are twenty-four regional ones throughout the country, with agencies in Florence, San Remo, and Palermo. Sales are made in the large hotels and at summer resorts, and there is a permanent representative of the society in New York. In the first part of 1904 the Roman sales amounted to55,375.73 francs, which increased in the next to 128,933.054 francs, and in 1906 the monthly entries amounted to from 25,000 to 30,000 francs. At the international Liège lace exhibition, Æmilia Ars, one branch of the society, took the thousandfranc prize and a gold medal. Several American women are active and prominent in the society, which has no limits of creed or nationality. Miss Amari, who has founded one of the most successful schools of art-needlework and lace, near Florence, is now in New York, starting, with Miss Colgate, a like school for the children of Italian emigrants. She is the daughter of the patriot historian who, in that vivid and thrilling story of the Vespri Siciliani, made history to pulse and live, as truly as Motley or Green. So the father rang a clarion note for free, united Italy, and the daughter is helping the children of that Italy to live.

Female crafts in Italy are as various as her climates and her people. Piedmont, at the foot of the snowy Alps, had an art of her own, colored by vicinity to, and dealings with, France. Her cold climate makes her women housewifely; like the honest women of the Marches they are past mistresses of distilling liqueurs and bitters, conserving fruits and jellies, handling pastry, and making their families comfortable. An ancient Piedmontese art called bandera embroidery has been revived by the society. It was the custom in great Piedmontese and French houses to have furniture-covers, which were called housses and were removed only on very important occasions. These housses became in time objects of luxury, and were made of silk, damask, and even leather, with embroidery and ornaments of gold and silver. People giving dances or receptions, whose furniture was not up to the mark, borrowed or hired housses for the occasion. At first they were only loose coverings to protect the furniture from dust, but gradually they were shaped and fitted and held in place by ribbons or clasps, and were called housses à la Romaine. Those peculiar to Piedmont were made of a kind of tan linen, named bandera, embroidered with monochrome and polychrome wools in floral designs, on an architectural motif, or scattered in garlands and nosegays, intertwined with floating ribbons which gave surprising lightness and grace. They were especially used for bed-covers, and were practical, as they could be washed. Many fine specimens of this old work exist in patrician Piedmontese houses, and they have been copied by machinery, but the ladies decided to reproduce them by hand, and it was done for the Milan exhibit in a bedroom fitted with such draperies.

Many are familiar with the revival of the Venetian lace industry, after the freezing of the lagoons in 1872, which shut off the livelihood of the Burano fishermen and reduced the people to terrible straits. Only one old woman of seventy could be found who knew how to make the lace, for the Venetian artisans, after teaching lace-making to France and Ireland, had forgotten it themselves. This old woman was glad to teach others, and a school was formed, beginning with six girls, increasing to twelve, twentyfour, one hundred, three hundred. It has been ably managed by a noble Venetian lady, Contessa Andriana Marcello; and the Queen Mother, then Princess Margaret, endowed the school with a valuable dowry of ancient laces, and in her frequent visits to Venice, herself spent hours with the Contessa Andriana and two workwomen, studying the antique punti, picking to pieces some specimens to discover the secrets of the art. In this way were rediscovered rose point and “ponto in aiere,” condemned by the ancient magistrates of Venice as criminal luxury. The needle laces of the Burano school vary in price from 30 to 2000 francs per metre, and the wages of the workwomen range from one franc to two and one-half francs per day (20 to 50 American cents); but the greater number work by the job, so as to attend to their households. About the same time the bobbin laces were revived, and at present Jesurum has 5000 women in his employ who earn from onehalf to two and one-half francs per day. The magical rapidity with which the women ply their scores of wooden bobbins made Queen Margaret ask one girl, —

“How do you find at once the bobbins you require ?”

“They come into my hand, Lady,” was the reply, which epitomized a facility become second nature. Paid Fambri, the member for Venice, who was largely instrumental in the lace revival,said, “The only real lacemaker is the one whose bobbins come into her hand ; if she had to seek each one, she would go mad making an inch a week.” Polychrome laces are also made in Venice, and at salty-smelling Chioggia the women are busy making and darning net. The crafts of the Veneziane are legion, and among them are the characteristic ones of threading shells and beads. What visitor to Venice does not remember those twittering groups of creamy-skinned girls, sitting in low splitbottom chairs in the calle before their doors, dipping long pins into the opalescent beads, and flinging “quips and cranks and wanton wiles” at the passersby. Whole skeins of these beads are distributed to the workwomen or threaders, at their dwellings, by a kind of middlewoman, who when they are finished collects them and consigns them to the factory, whence they are sent over the world, but especially to India and America. As it is largely a household industry, it is hard to estimate the numbers engaged in it, or their gains, but they make about 12 centimes (2½ cents) per hour.

In one sestiere of Venice whole families are gathered around an old pair of bellows, with capillary tubes, fusing gold and colors to enamel by hand the famous perle a lume by the primitive method used in 1400. Some seventy women are expert enough to gain from 32 to 38 cents per day. With these beads two Italian ladies conceived the idea of copying the necklaces, chains, and coronets in the old Venetian pictures and prints, and these ornaments, which bear the historical names of Loredana, Grimana, and Caterina Cornaro, are in great demand in Italy and abroad. The Queen Mother is said to be an adept in these creations, to which she gives the imprint of her own exquisite taste and knowledge of art. The widow of Sir Henry Layard, to whom the glass works owe much, uses these beads, threaded on metal wire, to make fan and muff chains suggested by those in the Carpaccio paintings on her walls. They bring in a fair sum for the maintenance of a small hospital on the Giudecca. A few Venetian women are engaged in the manipulation of leather, gilding, tooling, and painting upon it, reviving that ancient art of “cuori d’ oro,” which formerly brought such profit to the Serenissima. In the old sumptuary laws of Venice to restrain the luxury of the women, and from which to-day’s knowledge of her industries is drawn, there are no limitations of the Venetian’s art of charming, and in that she is as supreme as ever. She has a flexibility of wit and tongue, an alluring deference and grace, as subtle as they are fascinating. I have experienced the seducing feminine mesmerism of the lower and middle classes, and I am told it is even more potent in the patrician ladies. When the German Emperor spent twenty-four hours in Venice, it is said that he called on, lunched, and spent the evening with, the lovely Countess Morosini; and when the city authorities gathered in the early morning to see him off at the station, the witty old mayor murmured, in Venetian dialect, to a friend, “When we next wish to entertain the Emperor, instead of ten thousand francs in illuminations, music, and fantastic fêtes, it will be more economical to give la Morosini a ticket to Berlin.”

In Romagna, the Countess Rasponi has founded a school to revive the ancient hand-woven fringes, and braided homespun linen covers copied from the native ox-cloths. The designs are so primitive and original as to prove great antiquity, and are easily adapted to bed-covers and hangings. The women of Romagna are devoted to their strong, gentle beasts, and they are intimate companions in the long winter evenings when the women sit spinning in the tepid asylum of the carefully kept stables, and cuddle their children, like Mary herself, in the very manger of the cattle.

What quainter picture for a painter than the girls of Carimate, making bobbin lace to the accompaniment of the rosary, in dark, smoke-stained kitchens, and in the stables, under the very heads of their cows.

The women of Valsèsia make beautiful old ivory point on antique designs and on imported Greek patterns. Near Bergamo the peasants wear ivory point on their ancient costumes, which they vowed to retain forever, to exorcize the plague of 1600.

A lady who wished to employ the women of a small place in Emilia set up a factory of étamines, but finding that the material alone yielded small profit, it occurred to her to have it embroidered by the women, and she started a school to teach this in her own villa. Now the business has spread to a branch establishment, and turns out complete dresses, table-pieces, and curtains.

A lady of Perugia found in her attic, at the bottom of an old chest, a little bag, yellowed by time and gnawed by mice. From it she drew four pieces of linen so finely worked in reticella (Venetian point) that not a thread showed of the original warp. The most notable piece was a sampler barely half-a-yard square, containing forty designs of borders finished off by teeth and innumerable punti, each different from the other. It must have been a woman’s life-work.

Interesting carved looms have been found throughout Umbria; in one place a loom made by himself is still the young man’s first gift to his bride. The Umbrian ladies have revived the hand-woven bird’s-eye damask, with traditional Perugian griffins and fountains woven in raised blue thread across the ends. The counterparts of these cloths are to be seen in thirteenth-century frescoes, and in the paintings of Ghirlandaio and Da Vinci. This industry was at its zenith in the sixteenth century. Another woman at Perugia has brought to life again those “flame” stuffs of silk shot in shaded, pointed designs on an invisible web. At Assisi the Ladies’ Society has set up the making of braids and borders, for dresses and furniture, with patterns borrowed from the ancient churches and oratories of the place, also constructing leather purses with geometrical, Franciscan designs. Towels are also embroidered with the alternate doves and deer copied from the vestment given to St. Francis by St. Clare. A Philadelphia girl, married into an old Umbrian family, has started the women on her husband’s estate to doing Portuguese point; and another “lady of quality” has taught the women and girls of the island in Lake Thrasymene to crochet Irish lace, so that now each woman can boast a little account of her own in the savings-bank.

At Sienna one lady has copied the pattern, tassels, and fringes of the divan on which the figure of Peace sits in Lorenzetti’s famous fresco, and instituted table cloths and fringes in the same delicate gamut of color.

Labor, no less than misery, makes strange bedfellows. From 1476 to 1484, Dominican nuns in Florence were employed to set up type, and they actually composed the type of the Decameron and the Morgante. In our day the Siennese nuns weave the striped tights worn by the jockeys in their famous races!

It is comforting to think that at two places in the Florentine province where the Countess Spalletti has introduced mogano lace-making, 180 women, who formerly earned 20 centimes (4 cents!) per day plaiting straw, can now make from 60 centimes to 1 franc 20 centimes, by lace. Other women have found in their garrets curious old looms for weaving a kind of net on which original designs are embroidered in colored silks, and these productions, called buratti, afford work which can be done at home with better profit than toiling in factories. At a hamlet in the Casentino, where the art had nearly died out, a member of the society has revived plaited straw mattings for country houses, and at another village an Irish lady has taught the peasants to work her original designs on heavy linens. In five years she has accumulated for them a saving of seven thousand francs, for the time when she can help them no longer.

The beggar girls of Viareggio have been gathered into a lace school which started with eight and now numbers eighty pupils.

How necessary lighter occupations are for Italian women is seen when we consider “the woods-women” on the great estates near Pisa, who count it a privilege to which they can only attain when past forty, to carry loads of wood weighing one hundred and forty pounds on their heads from early morn to dewy eve; and the young girls in the Marches hoeing the ground by moonlight, and, failing that, by their scant oil-lamps. The exploited chimera of Italian laziness crumbles to dust as one regards the homespuns, brocades, damasks, embroideries, laces, gonfalons, vestments, banners, and costumes which have been woven, stitched, and decorated by the patient, mobile fingers of the past, and are now being restored and copied.

My old Abruzzese woman was not exaggerating when she exclaimed, “To weave is my passion;” and I think Arachne must really have been an Italian, for the peasants still weave their own and their husbands’ clothes among the glowing geraniums of Calabria, in the snow-girdled fastnesses of the upper Abruzzo, and in the adobe, cactushedged Sardinian dwellings, where the no less patient little blindfolded gray donkey grinds the family flour all day in the one living room close to the weaver. They make the dense black cloth which renders the Sard’s dress unique; and the female dress is far more elaborate, with lace of their own making on improved patterns which sometimes require a hundred needles to raise the thread according to the pattern in the worker’s mind. They also weave curious coverlids, copying the flowers on their stamped kerchiefs, and giving their own names to the several patterns, such as the sun pattern, the grapes-and-fox pattern, the lemon pattern, and the like. Exquisite open-work embroidery was set by them on their funeral sheets and on the bed hangings. Calabria also has her curious coverlids, a bride sometimes carrying as many as twelve of her own weaving; for in Calabria the first thing named in the inventory of the bridal outfit is the loom.

But the most curious counterpanes are those made by the Abruzzese women, who introduce into the borders strange animals, leaves, and heraldic designs, which seem suggested by their quaint mediæval buildings. The tradition was that this work was introduced by a Turkish slave carried of old to Pescocostanzo, a remote mountain village now becoming known for its bobbin laces, which have been revived. But what proves the designs to be indigenous is that they are found in other parts of the Abruzzi and are repeated in the laces of that region. A piece of lace was made for Queen Margaret at the professional school in Aquila for which seven thousand bobbins were used.

A little story is told of a famous altar cover which has disappeared, but is said by some to be the one before which the Pope says mass. It was embroidered by the aristocratic order of San Salvatore at Camerino in the Marches, and it had a border of birds and leaves and flowers which seemed to have fallen from the very pencil of Raphael. In the four corners, four angels presented flowers and palms to the Redeemer in the centre. One of the angels was so perfect that its creation was said to be a miracle. The little nun who had worked her life long on the cloth had not finished one angel, and she was about to lose the holy virtue of patience. One morning, after watching late in great sorrow, she rose early to expiate her scant perseverance, and set herself to the frame, — lo! the angel had been finished by an angelic hand during her night of repentance and prayer.

The limits of a magazine article forbid even a mention of the hundreds of industries in which women are engaged in Italy. Who has seen can never forget the absorption of the women in their silk worms, carrying the cocoons in their corsets and sleeping with them to keep them warm, and then, at the critical time when the worms need constant care, neglecting hair, children, and house for the squirming investment. Not to mention the thousands in factories, laboratories, offices, there are women picking and preserving olives, putting up tomatoes, making cheeses, conserving and crystallizing fruit, drying, baking, and stuffing figs, polishing and perforating coral, making mosaic, pulverizing orris, packing oranges and lemons, molding clay amfore, decorating majolica, painting and restoring tapestries, weaving fishing nets, and plaiting baskets of asphodel and straw and palm. The list seems endless, and therefore I bring this imperfect summary to a close with the words of Countess Rasponi,—

“We were not aware of it, but a revolution has taken place,— nay, rather a resurrection. Quite silently our women have opened their old presses, fragrant with orris and lavender, and drawn forth heavy rolls of linen bleached by the sun of May. Delving and upturning, they have found the bobbins with which our great-grandmothers made laces for christening robes ; with patience and love they have studied and re-found forgotten stitches ; a few old women in Rome and Venice and the mountainous Abruzzo preserved traditions which have been treasured anew.

“ First Venice answered to a revered and royal voice, then Bologna arose and once more taught; from every part of Italy came voices of counsel and help. Sicily remembered her Greek lines and soft Oriental colors, Calabria and Abruzzo revealed their treasury of most ancient Italic art, Pisa found and reproduced a strange Arabic style brought to her coast by fugitive Moors, and Piedmont sent the bandere of her castles, vines which had budded in old feudal walls ; Lombardy sent silks and fringes and exquisite reticella embroideries. The old linens of Romagna lived again in Æmilia Ars. And all this is fused and exchanged ; every land of Italy brings her rich contribution, and Rome welcomes all. But in the infinite variety, the instinct of the one race is felt, that Latin genius which seeks and finds harmony, proportion, beauty, attained in the simplest manner. In the tiniest lace are the same art qualities as in themost important edifice: the bishop’s cope has delicate decorations worthy of his cathedral.

“ But what only those see, who work and cause others to work, is the fine open intelligence of the women of our people, the admirable ability of their hands; the rapid and sure well-being diffused by this Coöperative Society in which all the net gain goes to the workwoman. Every day new markets open; young America has a thirst for beautiful things, and Italy, the ancient nurse, gratifies her; but there are thousands and hundreds of thousands of francs coming, and they will become far more. We were in a labyrinth of misery and ignorance, we produced very ugly things which no one wanted, material and execution were lost. Women who could earn much in delicate work were exhausting themselves, earning little, in hard labor.

“ What was to be done ? Every tradition of art had been despised, broken, cast away to give place to false gods. We women have knelt to collect and put together the fragments, seeking to understand the admirable law uniting them, in order to subject ourselves to it; we planted the broken branch in the ground, and it has bloomed in our hands. Misery and ignorance are about to disappear. Faithful Ariadne has cast the clue to her sisters, and they have gathered it up.”

  1. Le Industrie Femminile Italiane. Pilade Rocco, Editore. Milano.