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The blue plant: woad

by Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro, Francesca Giommi

A symbol of nobility and transcendence, the colour blue has been extracted from a plant that grew lush in the entire upper Tiber valley for centuries: the woad, common name of Isatis tinctoria, has decreed the fortune not only of numerous cities.

In the Middle Ages, the main economic activity, apart from agriculture, was the textile industry. The weavers and merchants’ shops occupied the squares and the central streets of the cities.

THE ETERNAL PLEASURE OF FABRICS

The citizens’ statutes attested the quantitative and qualitative dimension of a branched sub-sector that moved from the popular neighbourhoods where the most polluting activities took place, to the central areas dominated by the sale of finished items. The fabric marketing at markets and fairs generated huge fortunes, and a great part of the population, including the humble sectors, were employed in a variety of jobs ranging from the initial preparation of raw materials (wool, cotton, silk, linen) to the weaving operations at the looms, without forgetting the equally fundamental fulling and colouring of the fabrics. Even if the authorities, in the name of a Christian poverty, sought (in vain) to limit the manifestations of luxury and ostentation, the eternal pleasure for textiles has led to fuelling mass consumerism and fashion.

TECHNICAL MASTERPIECES

But the fabrics, considered for what they really are, a material, are also an ideal point of observation to follow the prevailing cultural trends in society. Consider the importance assigned to fabrics in works of art. Each picture, each fresco, each painting, in fact, is like a window through which the history of fabrics, clothes and colours can be observed with the garments worn by people as well as an infinite quantity of furnishing textiles and everyday use. In this way, pictorial representations help us trace, albeit indirectly, the wealth of forms and techniques that marked the evolution of the textile industry that had to, long before the chemical products arrived, look for a solution in nature to find the pigments to obtain the desired colours. Except for white, the starting point, all the rest, had to be invented and prepared with great care.

THE PREPARATION OF THE BLUE GOLD

To obtain the refined blue, nothing was better than using the woad plant, the Isatis tinctoria, an Asian vegetable species used in Europe since remote times. Galen and Pliny wrote about the colouring properties of the woad on wool. Over the centuries, the woad became essential to the textile industry and botanical treaties provided detailed information on plant cultivation and on the procedures to follow to reach the precious “blue gold” up to recent times. Let’s see them. The leaves of the plant sown in February, showing great resistance to cold climates, had to be picked as soon as they reached maturity – towards June – and deposited in places sheltered from natural inclemencies but also by too much violent sunlight. A dough was obtained with the leaves shredded in the mills (the oil ones could be used), left to ferment for about eight days. After this time, the still moist dough was made into powder and moulded into “cakes” or “pods”. The weight, the smell and the violet colour were good quality clues. To use them during the dye process the “woads” had to ferment in a tub or tin for a couple of weeks, with the addition of substances (lime, urine) that contributed to accelerating the precipitation of the pigment. At this point – and checked by the wise dye master – the threads or fabrics to dye could be immerged. Although the fabric came out initially with slightly yellow shades, immediately after contact with the air, it gained the typical blue chromaticity.

 

ALLEGORIES

The woad cultivation, decreed, during the medieval ages, the fortunes of some European regions. In the triangle between the French cities of Toulouse, Albi and Carcassone, the woad also decreed the birth of the “cockaigne” myth as merchants used spheres or containers called cocagnes to carry the precious commodities. In Italy, instead, the history of the blue plant is closely linked to the lands of the central Apennine, between Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, decreasing the fortunes of cities like San Sepolcro or Cortona. It should be remembered that the father of Piero della Francesca, Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was a renowned fabric and woad merchant and this surely enabled the master to obtain an exquisite sensitivity to blue-painted clothing, similar to those that continue to capture our attention every time we stop to contemplate the beauty of the “Madonna del Parto”, the “Polittico della Misericordia” and many other masterpieces by the artist. It should be remembered that blue, to borrow what was written by the Tuscan painter Cennino by Andrea Cennini  in his Libro dell’arte, symbolised the highest degree of nobility as an allegorical indication of spirituality and transcendence: a “Noble, beautiful, perfect colour beyond all colours”.  If the pre-eminent role assigned by Piero della Francesca to blue was mentioned earlier, always at the centre of the scene, it is equally true also for Pietro Perugino and Bernardino di Betto Betti (the Pinturicchio), Umbrian painters both attracted, in unison, to the shades that the woad gave fabrics, chromaticities then to be transferred to an altarpiece or a fresco, giving life to a suggestive reference of transpositions and referrals between the different fields of artistic creation.

 

THE PERUGINE TABLECLOTHS

If we now move from the painters who with their works allowed the cities of Umbria to play an important role in defining the artistic rhythms of the Renaissance and we turn our attention to the precious textile craftsmanship in medieval Perugia, the use of the woad is the setting of a dense plot of influences between the different plans of artistic creativity. During the Middle Ages, Perugia’s textile industry became famous for the so-called “tovaglie perugine”. This was a type of white linen cloth with a “bird’s eye” or a “low fish bone” pattern with cotton stripes elegantly decorated with rusty figures, even if blue was predominant. In the realisation of the ornaments arranged along the stripes there are floral, geometric, and mythological animals, with great emphasis (it could not be otherwise) to the griffin, the zoomorphic symbol of the city. Richly elaborated elements that gave the entire product, a marked orientalising influence in this the use of blue is decisive. The decorated “tablecloths” of Perugia, even they debtors towards the woad cultivated in the upper Tiber valley, appear in the inventories of churches and noble houses, but we can also see them, thanks to the hand of painters, embedded in sacred scenes such as cenacles of Ognissanti by Ghirlandaio or the Fuligno by Pietro Perugino. Even in these circumstances, the blue of the tablecloths helps fill the ambiences with colour and, as mentioned before, the deep influence of the woad plant and its striking dye substance are captured in filigree.

 

Fuligno by Pietro Perugino

DIE HARD

The woad, like many other realities in Europe, had to bear the consequences of the discovery of the American continent that decreed the spreading of the most affordable indigo, another colouring agent for blue that, in fact, decreed the abandonment of the old plant now used as plain forage for animals in many areas. But today, under the effect of a request for natural dye agents deriving from environmental friendly productive processes, new opportunities are opening for the woad plant. The story of the blue plant is one that will be continued to be written.

 


To learn more:

Borlandi, Franco, Note per la storia della produzione e del commercio di una materia prima, il guado nel Medioevo, in Studi in onore di Gino Luzzatto, vol. I, Milan, A. Giuffre, 1949, pp. 297-324.

Guarducci, Piero, Tintori e tinture nella Firenze medievale (13th-15th cent.), Florence, Polistampa, 2005.

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