In September 2019, I visited the exquisite exhibition "Fili d'oro e dipinti di seta" in the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, Northern Italy. Together with the 2015 exhibition in the Catharijneconvent and the 2016 Opus Anglicanum exhibition in the V&A, this was one of those 'must-see' exhibitions. This one visit provided me with research material for several years. Especially as I was allowed to take as many pictures as I liked. As long as you don't use flash, the textiles absolutely do not mind. Today, we are going to look at some early Venetian embroidery. It includes some techniques unique to the Venetian embroidery workshops. Let's dive in!
As you can see in the picture above, the cope is no longer an actual vestment. Only the mutilated orphreys have survived. They were used secondarily on an antependium which was probably made at the end of the 19th century. The orphreys were taken of this newer antependium in 2006 when they were restored and applied to a neutral backing. The orphreys represent three pairs of saints facing each other, a smaller square orphrey that would have sat on the neck of the wearer and which connected the two sets of three and part of the cope's hood with the Coronation of the Virgin. Identifiable among the saints are: John the Baptist (top left), James the Great (top right), Bartholomew or Peter (middle left) and Saint Jerome (square in the middle). The embroideries were made in a Venetian embroidery workshop around AD 1410-1417.
When you look at the outer garments of the figures, it looks like they have the measles. These 'measles' are actually characteristic of Venetian embroidery. The 'measles' are made by covering a metal disc, with a central or off-centre hole (think spangle/sequin), with gold thread. Some discs are made of pressed paper. The gold threads that cover the discs are worked in gimped couching, but with an underside couching stitch. Proof again that underside couching is not exclusively English. Keeping the gold threads from rolling off the edges of the padding was probably no small feat!
Another characteristic of Venetian embroidery is the elaborate dimensional frame around the orphreys. String padding is used to achieve the different textures. By using strings with different thicknesses, they could achieve several 'levels' in the frame.
In general, many different embroidery techniques are used in these Italian embroideries from the Middle Ages. There is beautiful (directional) split stitch in silk, there is laid work, diaper couching and trellises. Or nue is absent as that was probably invented in the Southern Netherlands/Northern France and had not yet made its way to Italy.
If you would like to see more (detailed) pictures of these nine orphreys, then please visit my Patreon page. Journeyman and Master members will find 23 images which can be downloaded.
Prá, Laura Dal; Carmignani, Marina; Peri, Paolo (Eds.) (2019): Fili d'oro e dipinti di seta. Velluti e ricami tra Gotico e Rinascimento. Trento: Castello del Buonconsiglio.
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