Venice and the Silk Road: Lace

Burano – Lace Maker

Long ago a Venetian seafarer brought his beloved a gift of seaweed from the far, distant seas. She wanted to preserve the memento forever, so she painstakingly copied the delicate outline and patterns using her needle and thread. . .

So goes the legend of how lacemaking began in Venice and its surrounding islands, now renown for the art. Once, Venice and Burano Island were the lacemaking capitals of Europe. Other than its lacemaking, Burano Island is known as a fishing community. It is easy to see how the women of Burano – accustomed to sewing and repairing fishing nets – could take to the fine art of lace. Together, Venice and Burano filled orders for coronation robes and papal vestments as well as personal adornments for aristocrats and wealthy merchants across the continent. Once, large workshops of women worked long days and nights like armies of spiders to create their diaphanous web-like creations. Today, sadly, handmade needle-lace is a dying artform. A few, often older women, sit stooped in their chairs with a pillow on their laps working on intricate borders and sewn ornaments.

Like most legends, the fisherman’s gift of seaweed to his paramour has a kernel of truth in it, but that kernel has been embellished with a dash of romanticism and a splash of whimsy. The kernel of truth is that lacemaking came to Venice from across the Mediterranean Sea – from Cyprus. The missing bit is that the origin of lacemaking can be traced to more than two millennia earlier in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty.

Mummy Cloth

The earliest (and simplest) precursor of lace can be found in Egyptian mummy cloths. There sheet-like garments were used to wrap the dead in preparation for their journey to the afterlife and were usually made of finely woven linen decorated with fringes. Some mummy cloths had drawn thread work on them in which warp threads had been removed and embellishments added in the holes left by the missing threads.

Herodotus tells us that Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt (570 BC – 526 BC) sent finely woven linen to the Spartans, which, was made of no less than 360 threads (iii. 47); the figures woven on this cloth (drawn-thread or open work) were partly of linen and partly of gold thread. Herodotus also mentions a wonderful pallium sent by the same king to the shrine of Athene at Lindus. Amasis is also important in the lacemaking story for incorporating Cyprus into his kingdom.

By the Greco-Roman period, beginning in the 4th Century BCE, intricate selvedge borders routinely decorated the edges of mummy cloths and sometimes, complex beadworking decorated the hems of the cloths. It is easy to see how the patterning of the beads could be translated to stitch patterns for later lace borders.

Mummy-Cloth Beadwork

Flash forward a thousand years and the Arabs are producing woven macramé. It is difficult to determine Cypriot Lefkara lace is a direct descendant of Egyptian drawn and open work or whether the Arab macramé tradition was an important influence on that development.

Macrame

Either way, Venice begins its control of Cyprus as early as the late 12th Century. Although this is often called the “Frankish period”, Venice was the hidden hand in ruling the island, until taking direct control in 1481. It is probably during the Frankish period that the art of lacemaking is introduced.

As early as the end of the 14th Century, the Dogaresse Morosini (Doge Michele Morosini) begins to promote the art of lacemaking by forming a workshop of more than 130 women to create personal lace adornments for her and the nobility of allied states and countries in the form of gifts. Another Dogaresse, Giovanna Dandolo, wife of Doge Pasquale Malipiero protected and encouraged lacemaking in 1414 and soon lace had spread throughout Europe and become a fashion necessity for those who could afford it.

Today some five stitches are routinely done on Burano Island: Venetian, Rose Point, Point de Gaze, Alencon, and Argentan. This indicates a decrease from the 20th Century when Flowered Lace (Tagliato a fogliami) and Brussels point were also commonly used.

So, a artform that began in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty persists to this day in Venice’s nearby Burano Island. It is an art that is hanging on ‘by a thread’ and may soon be gone given the age of its masters both in Venice and Cyprus. To me, however, it is a voice from the Western Silk Road that continues to echo today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Burano Lacemaker by Laura Kelley, Photos of Mummy Cloths and Beadwork from the British Museum, Photo of Modern Macrame from Google Images and Photo of Lefkara Lace from Wikimedia.)

Venice and the Silk Road: The Muslim World

Villa with “Islamic” Windows

Sea gulls calling, businessmen sweeping the sidewalks in front of their shops and restaurants and of course the incessant lap of the waves on the stone foundations of La Serenissima – the serene place. These are the sounds of Venice at dawn – the same sounds to which the city has woken to for countless generations. More than a powerful city-state that became an Italian province in the 19th Century, Venice was a major European player on the Silk Road that was often the end stop for goods and ideas coming across the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

Coming to power from the 9th to the 12th Centuries, Venice first rose to prominence by defeating Dalmatian pirates that often seized or demanded payment from the merchant vessels coming to trade in the city’s lucrative markets. With defeat of the pirates and control of the eastern Adriatic, Venice’s sphere of influence spread westward onto the mainland to secure the flow of agricultural products for the city and then into the Aegean all the way to Cyprus and Crete. From the 9th Century on, trading relationships with merchants from North Africa, the Levant and Arabian peninsula also helped feed Venice’s growing prominence among European cities. A large portion of the city’s growing wealth also came from its dominance of the salt trade in the Mediterranean.

At first a defender of the Eastern Roman Empire against Norman and Turkish incursions, the Venetian conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204 made Venice a major imperial power that also helped to bring about the fall of Byzantium. At the height of its maritime power in the late 13th Century, Venice had more than 3,000 ships dominating commerce from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Remnants of this age of empire can be seen in design elements around the city today in the use of spiraling sets of glass lanterns and Persian carpets to adorn the interior of churches and in the pointed, domed windows and doorways on the buildings that line the canals. Insidiously perhaps, the graceful curve of these Islamic-inspired windows and doors are often topped with a Coptic cross or a Fleur de Lys reminiscent of the triumph of Christianity that the crusaders would have espoused.

War spoils seized from Constantinople can still be seen in the San Marco treasury today, gold, precious gems, jewelry, scepters, goblets and statues of almost incalculable value are on display for the payment of a few Euros as are the famed quadriga of bronze horses that once pulled a chariot on a monument to second century Roman emperor Septimus Severus.

San Marco – Quadriga

Even after the recapture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the 15th Century, and the loss of many of Venice’s territories in the eastern Mediterranean, links from the city state to the Muslim world remained strong as evidence in the portraits of Ottoman and Turkmen rulers that still line the Ufizzi. Friezes of palm trees, camels and gazelles decorate the ancestral home of the Zen family who were merchants trading with the Arabs, geographers and explorers, and ambassadors to Muslim Persia and Damascus.

When moveable type reached Venice in the 15th Century, Venice became the printing capital of the world. The leading printer, Aldus Manutius, also invented portable books that could be carried in a saddlebag. Instantly popular, these books soon superseded the heavy, metalclad manuscripts and books and the dissemination of knowledge was brought beyond the bounds of the monastery, palace and private library. At this time Venetian printers also began to reprint Islamic treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics thus allowing these disciplines to spread freely in Europe once again. Among the portable books printed were also cookbooks, with Apicus’ early text being printed in 1498.

With all of this cross-cultural contact, trade and exchange, the Silk Road also had a strong effect on Venetian cuisine that can be enjoyed to this very day. In addition to the spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper that came from Asian shores or agricultural products such as oranges, lemons and saffron, there are recipes that also bespeak Asian and/or Muslim influence.

Fish in Saor

One of the special Venetian dishes that display the maritime contact with the Muslim world is Pesce de Saor. Fish – often sardines, sometimes mackerel – is marinated for days in layers of onions, white wine vinegar, pinenuts and raisins. The fish is sautéed (dredged if desired), and set aside, then the onions are cooked over low heat until they begin to caramelize and the vinegar, pinenuts and raisins added. This is then placed in alternating layers of onions and fish in a large casserole and allowed to sit in a cool place for several days prior to eating. This dish is clearly related to Sayadia or Sayadieh enjoyed from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula – but is not cooked after layering given the omission of rice. It is delicious and lightly sweet despite the large amount of vinegar and onions used. The dish is sometimes served with grilled polenta which takes on the flavor of the saor. Shellfish and other fish such as monkfish are also traditionally prepared in this manner in Venice but have variations on ingredients such as the use of oranges, bay leaves and mixed greens to flavor the saor.

Many dishes labeled “Italian” also have ties to the Silk Road as well. One such dish is the Salmon with Oranges. This flavorful dish, served as a carpaccio or in pieces often served on a bed of arugula owes two of its main ingredients – arugula and oranges to Western Asia. A peruse of The Silver Spoon shows a variety of baked Persian vegetable omelets known as “kuku” for their use of eggs. Almonds for use as ground nuts and sauces are another popular Muslim addition to Italian cuisine. Pomegranates were also brought into Italy and flourished in its many warm, dry temperate climates. Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (Opera) in 1570 included treatises on Arab pastry making and “Moorish” couscous in addition to the many Bolognese recipes he recorded.

Roasted Coffee Beans

A discussion of the Islamic world’s influence on Venice and Italy’s cuisines wouldn’t be complete without a mention of coffee. Muslim traders first brought coffee to Venice where merchants and their customers would sample it in Piazza San Marco. At first, raw beans were boiled and then fermented and then cooked again – a time consuming process – that produced a bitter brew. Later, in the 16th Century, when the Muslims began roasting the beans prior to brewing them, the Venetians embraced coffee drinking and the fashion spread quickly to the rest of Europe.

We stopped recently at Venice’s Cafe Florian – which opened in 1720 – to enjoy a late night desert and listen to some great live music. The gianduiotto of hazelnut gelato with bits of peidmontese chocolate and whipped cream was wonderful. My husband had a melon gelato based dessert while the kids played in the square in front of the cafe. Later, an evening thunderstorm raged while we continued to enjoy the cafe – sheltered under the arcade of Procuratie Nuove and my daughter (successfully) videographed lightning.

The influence of the Silk Road and of the Muslim merchants who traversed its land and sea routes can be found all over Venice and more broadly in Italian art, architecture, cuisine and culture. This post is a toe-in-the water of a subject we shall revisit again and again in future explorations. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photographs of Palazzo with Islamic Windows by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pesce de Saor borrowed from Buttalapasta website.)