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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 119-120

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La seta in Italia dal Medioevo al Seicento:
Dal baco al drappo

La seta in Italia dal Medioevo al Seicento: Dal baco al drappo. Edited by Luca Molà, Reinhold C. Mueller, and Claudio Zanier (Venice, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 2000) 570 pp. N.P.

This volume is a collection of essays about the Italian silk industry. In their introduction, the editors describe their goal as an attempt "to formulate a comprehensive vision of the sericulture, from the raw material to its transformation into thread and then cloth, and to its marketing and its consumption (x)." The authors of these nineteen essays, predominantly Italian, represent a broad spectrum of scholarly interests: specialists on the technology of silk production, economic historians, and authorities on the religious and cultural history of medieval and early modern Italy. Among the more solid and informative historical essays are Flavio Crippo's and David Jacoby's surveys of the introduction and early development of sericulture into Italy from the Levant; Danilo Gasparini's study of the industry in the Trevisano in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Edoardo Demo's comparable work on the Vincentino; and a comprehensive effort by Francesco Battistini to trace the evolution of Italian silk production from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

These studies amply demonstrate the critical importance of sericulture to the Italian economy during those centuries when so many other sectors were in decline. Equally significant was the role of women and children in the basic stages of silk production, from the care and feeding of silkworms to the spinning of their filaments. Without the paltry earnings from their labors in the silk industry, the living conditions of the urban and rural poor would have been even bleaker.

The evidence for these historical studies of the silk industry come from a wide variety of sources: contemporary treatises on aspects of sericulture, gabelle records, notarial and judicial protocols, and mercantile correspondence. From the account book of a fifteenth-century Venetian merchant, Giacomo Badoer, Dominique Cardon discovered that he had [End Page 119] shipped 380,760 kilos of cochineals (insects used to make a scarlet dye) from the Levant to Venice, a cargo valued at 2,832 kilos of gold (68).

The editors made a serious effort to expand the parameters of their subject beyond the more conventional studies of production and marketing, to explore the role of silk in Italian culture. Daria Perocco combed the literary corpus from Dante to Ariosto for references to that precious filament, which (so one sixteenth-century observer reported) "adorns all of the habitanti gentilhuomini cittadini" of Venice (233). The wearing of silk garments attracted the attention of Italian authorities who, Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli argues, sought "to link the apparel of individuals to their social status (211)." Very few silken tessili have survived the ravages of time, but Doretta Davanzo Poli has discovered a few examples among the liturgical paraphernalia of Venetian churches and convents. In one of the most informative and wide-ranging articles in this mélange, Zanier describes how silk workers in northern Italy and southern France adopted San Giobbe (Job) as their patron saint.

In his essay on the Florentine silk industry during the Renaissance, Franco Franceschi deplored the lack of sustained scholarly research, despite the existence of "numerous contributions of uneven quality, for the most part on limited and disparate themes (402)." That criticism could be applied to this collection of essays. It would have been helpful if the editors had written an epilogue, summarizing what these studies contribute to the historiography of their subject, as well as the lacunae that need to be addressed. The most valuable section of the book is Zanier's comprehensive bibliography on Italian sericulture and the silk industry (511-540).


Gene Brucker
University of California, Berkeley



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