While throngs of tourists ravish their eyes on Florence's beautiful art museums, many of them miss a truly unknown jewel. Secreted away in the Islamic Gallery of the Bargello Museum is one of Italy's most important textile collections. It was compiled from two major gifts. In 1888 Luis Claude Carrand gave the principal donation to the Florence Commune. Then, in 1906, Baron Giulio Franchetti bequeathed his textiles in hopes of providing materials for the study of artists and archeologists, as well as those who have an interest in the historical and technical developments of the art of silk. Not all of this fabulous collection is displayed at one time, but the jewels are there for the connoisseur.
The Bargello Museum's textile collection contains numerous fine Ottoman weavings, a group of "classical" pieces, as well as three medieval fragments. One illustrative piece is of Byzantine origin. Although it is small (only 6-1/2" X 5"), it is one of the few remaining fragments from the 10/11th centuries. It shows an eagle's head facing right and holding a ring with a pendent in its beak. This figure derives directly from the Roman tradition, symbolizing the absolute supremacy of the royal court.
The rise of Constantinople not only led to the ascendancy of Christendom in the East but also to the spread of Islamic iconography through the international silk trade. Textiles were free of Islamic religious icons and used, instead, such creatures as eagles, elephants and flying horses to symbolize royalty and kinship. Various kingdoms adopted them as an international symbolic language to represent wealth and power.
The East was not the only area producing silk weavings. Thanks to the silk trade, both Spain and Sicily had joined in the production of textiles. However, Sicilian textile production began to decline when Frederick II died in 1250. By the 14th and 15th centuries Florence, Pisa, Venice, Genoa, Amalfi and Lucca had taken over the Italian textile industry by importing Eastern silk.
The decline of Sicilian production led to a second major change in the 1300s. In the earlier periods silk weavings were typically designed with geometrical patterns. Animals in roundels were commonly used. In the 1300s the geometrical designs and roundels began to give way to freer compositions. The animals were no longer set in strict formations, but instead placed within compositions of plants and flowers. An example of the change can be seen in the brocades from Lucca of this time. The Italian influence is shown by the use of cheetahs and dogs in the designs.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Mahmet II, textiles underwent a stylistic revolution. Kehmas, woven silk with metal-wrapped threads, became very popular. The designs were no longer focused on nature and animals but incorporated medallions and arabesques.
Although there was hostility between Christianity and Islam, the West has an ever-increasing fascination with Eastern art, such as its silk weavings. As the years have passed and royal courts have fallen, many private collections have been donated to museums for the public to view and enjoy. If you are interested in the decorative arts, make it a point to visit Florence's Bargello Museum. It not only has one of Italy's finest textile collections, but it is also famous for other decorative arts, such as exquisite furniture, pottery and metal work.
Jacqueline Gomperts, Los Angeles
The Bargello is at via del Proconsolo 4, just three blocks from Piazza della Signoria. Tel. 23885. Open Tues-Sat 9-4, plus the second and fourth Sunday and the first, third and fifth Monday of the month. Click here for advance reservations.