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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 338-340

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Book Review

The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice

The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice. By Luca Molà. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. xix+457. $48.

Luca Molà's book represents the first comprehensive study of the evolution of the silk industry of Renaissance Venice from a structural and technical perspective. In the first of three parts, Molà briefly surveys the spread of silk production in Italy and Northern Europe through the sixteenth century, paying special attention to the role of artisan migration in the dissemination of techniques. This is followed by the core argument on the dynamic growth of the silk industry in Venice and the flexible adjustments made by merchant entrepreneurs to the challenges of international trade and competition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

This second part logically opens with a discussion of the expanding Mediterranean commerce in the various grades of raw silk, designated by specific trade names, from Persia (imported through Syria and Palestine), Greece, the Balkans, Italy, and Spain. The primary distinction between these grades was based on the weight of the thread, which had a significant influence on the characteristics of the final product. Traditionally, "thick" silk, principally from Persia, had been used in the production of most luxury [End Page 338] fabrics. Medium-weight silk from Greece and the Balkans was used both for luxury fabrics and lighter satins and damasks. The explosive demand for these grades of silk in Northern Europe was reflected in Venetian trade regulations designed to preserve the city's intermediary role in the trade in Levantine raw silk. In contrast, by the sixteenth century it was the "thin" raw silk from Spain and Southern Italy and the thin warp thread (orsoglio) produced in the hydraulic mills of Bologna and the Venetian state that was in greatest demand among Italian producers.

This long-term trend in the silk trade parallels fundamental shifts within the industry. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Venetian entrepreneurs adopted new marketing strategies directed toward the export of lighter and less costly fabrics to the markets of East-Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The decision to introduce new varieties of cloth for designated groups of consumers is confirmed by weaving and dyeing regulations that permitted cheaper modes of dyeing and reductions in the density, weight, and dimensions of certain categories of Venetian silks that were destined for specific foreign markets. In effect, fabrics bearing standard brand names with widespread market recognition were subdivided into several classes or gradations of quality with distinctive trademarks. These included the velvets and other silks designated as a navigando or pro navigando produced for the Levant trade and the fabrics known as de fontego sold in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to the merchants of Central Europe. In volume these categories outsold the more limited quantities of highest quality silk cloth (the so-called fabrics da parangon) and second quality fabrics (mezzani) with greater margins of profit.

As Molà indicates, the Venetian measures are consistent with evidence of similar strategies by silk and woolen merchants in other Italian cities who responded to increased competition by developing less expensive products designed to appeal to new buyers in Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, the Venetian evidence throws little light on the structure of demand and the evolution of fashion, taste, and color preferences among consumers in these developing urban societies.

Since the reduction of production costs was a primary consideration, Molà's survey of sixteenth-century patents designed to improve the various stages of silk processing is of particular interest. Most of the proposals dealt with modifications to the hydraulic spinning mill, which did see some cumulative improvements during this period. The rest were directed toward weaving, dyeing, and calendering of cloth in ways that affected the outward appearance of the finished product. Although the state was receptive to petitions from inventors, often contravening guild objections, the number of devices that were successfully adopted in this period was surprisingly low.

One area in which new techniques were employed was in commercial...


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