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Definition of a tapestry. How to recognise a good tapestry. Where to find the most famous tapestries. Glossary

 
Where and when the first tapestries were created. How they developed in Europe. History and development of weaving techniques.
 
Detailed descriptions and pictures which illustrate the process from the yarn to the finished tapestry.
 
Advice and techniques on how to look after tapestries. How to avoid the most common mistakes.
 
Pictures of articles and press releases. Some important press reviews.
 
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History

 

The first documents about the origin of weaving date back to about 2000 BC. They are wall paintings in Egyptian graves representing spinning and weaving.

We must go back to the 11th (St.Gereon's Cloth, once kept in Cologne in the church of the same name, now divided between various European collections) and the 12th centuries (Baldishol's Cloth, Oslo, Kunstindustrimuseet) to find the first pieces that can really be described as tapestry.

Since the 13th century, tapestry making spread throughout all of Europe, each country having its own distinctive features, following the development of the figurative arts and the specific tastes of courts, nobility and upper middle class families.

 

France, Belgium and Holland

Since the 13th century the word tapestry has taken on its own meaning, when tapestry activity is seen in French company statutes.

Tapestry spreads widely in France and in Flanders in the 14th century, also thanks to the commission by the French royal household and the Burgundy court for the weaving of the seriess of Apocalypse tapestries for the Angers cathedral.

From the beginning of the 15th century the most important centre of production became Arras (giving rise to the Italian name for tapestry: arazzo), and then Tournai, famous for its elegant masterpieces.

 

Bernard van Orley
"September Month": seventh piece of Maximilian's 'beating the hunt' Brussels, about 1528
Louvre's Museum

Simon Vouet
"Moses saved by the waters": third piece of Old Testament seriessParis, about 1630
Louvre's Museum
 

In this period depictions are taken from holy and profane subjects.

In the second half of the 15th century other factories start up in Bruges, Oudenaarde, Antwerp and Brussels, famous for its tapis d'or, which in the 16th century contributed to the spread of the Italian Renaissance style in Flanders.

The production of allegorical subjects is also remarkable, like the famous tapestry collection of the "Lady with the Unicorn" made in Brussels by Willem de Pennemaker in 1512, depicting the five senses (this picture represents "the taste"), now kept in the Cluny Museum.

 

Willem de Pennemaker
"Signora con l'Unicorno"
Bruxelles, 1512
Cluny's Museum

In 1531 the Fontainebleau manufactory started up, as wished by Francois I and inspired by Italian Mannerism themes (classical, mythological and allegorical scenes, war and hunting scenes, portraits of nobles). At the end of the 17th century French production centres such as Aubusson and Beauvais gain European supremacy, surpassing Flemish producers, who had previously dominated the scene, thanks also to the work and school of Rubens who left a significantly pictorial and monumental mark on tapestry.

Paesaggio di Francois Boucher
Landscape from a
François Boucher cartoon
 

In Paris, under the direction of Charles Le Brun, Colbert starts the royal manufactory of Gobelins in 1662, which imposed the French style during the whole of the 18th century.

Taking its name from the Gobelins family, the Gobelin manufactory moved from Reims to Paris towards the end of the 1400's, becoming famous thanks to the direction of the painter Charles Le Brun. The production of tapestry upholstery fabrics in France reaches its greatest splendour during the 14th and 15th centuries, the famous production industries of Paris, Valenciennes, Lilles and Arras flourish. In this period the pastoral and rural themes, typical of Mannerism, late Baroque and Rococo, prevail. They are represented by such famous cartoonists as Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and J. H. Fragonard (1723-1806).

Towards the late 1700's, many production industries were compelled to close due to the economic crisis which occurred after the French Revolution. Napoleon strove hard to promote their reopening, and in the 19th century there were many efforts to keep this art alive, which only regained its own identity with Art Nouveau.

The production technique underwent important modernization in the Marie Cuttoli's (1925-30) laboratory which made punch cards, prepared to translate works of Picasso, Lurçat, Braque, and Rouault into cloth.

 

Italy

The first examples of tapestry in Italy are made by Flemish experts. Soon important manufactories grew up, like the Florentine, created by Cosimo I in 1546, the Barberini tapestry manufactory of Rome, founded by Cardinal Barberini in 1627, and also lesser centres of production like Mantua, Milan, and Vigevano.


During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, tapestries were a not insignificant part of a noble family's possessions, as many historical documents show. In 1892,Giuseppe Giacosa wrote in his work "The private life in the Castle ": "On the walls istoriati tapestry or vague thin fabrics with garlands of flowers… the duty of the mistress of the castle and the daughters is to care for the upholstery and tapestries, kept folded on appropriate shelves in the room just called the carpets wardrobe… here the foot-soldiers spend the whole day opening out, beating, mending and folding the precious hangings, but their worth is such, and they are held in such esteem, that mostly the mistress of the house takes care of them directly".

Pietro Momenti, in the work " Venetian Art of the Renaissance", wrote: "In 1521 the prince of San Severino was the Compagnia della Calza's guest of honour in a noble's house. The hall, rooms, and porch of the palace hung with pictures and tapestries; a precious golden cloth was laid where the prince sat…".

The craftsman tradition also continued and grew in other Italian regions, like Tuscany and Veneto. With the coming of Jacquard weaving, a high quality mechanized production also begins in other areas, like Brianza and Lecchese.

 

Spain

In Spain in 1720 Filippo V started up the S. Barbara of Madrid manufactory, then managed by Mengs, which produced the famous tapestry seriess of Goya cartoons (1776-91).

 

Coming up... History and development of weaving technologies

 

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