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«Work peacefully and happily, like the stars move: without fury, but never still, on a path that follows the great law». Alice Hallgarten Franchetti

«It is a slowly disappearing art. We are trying to beat time, or even stop it». With these words, the weaving master Maria Menchi Bocciolesi[1] tries to explain the essence of Tela Umbra in a 1962 newspaper clipping[2]. The skills of the weavers and the work of the loom was in danger of being lost, so the author of the article refers to the workers of Tela Umbra as «vestals». At the end of the 19th century, Città di Castello counted 1240 looms, on a population of a little more than 24.000[3]; of course, these were domestic looms, mostly used for linen and hemp, cultivations which were widespread in the area, requiring little attending[4].

 

A business at the heart of Città di Castello

It is in the years of domestic weaving, when the art and knowledge was passed down mother to daughter, that Alice Hallgarten Franchetti came up with the idea of venturing into a proper business with the mission – as clearly stated in its manifest – of «conserving […] the ancient Umbrian art of weaving with hand worked loom and allow women and especially mothers to have a paid job while free of worry for their children, taken care of and fed by the kindergarten made available by the laboratory»[5].

On June 8th[6], 1908 the laboratory was inaugurated, installed at the ground floor of Palazzo Alberto Tomassini. After Alice Hallgarten Franchetti’s death – in 1911 – her husband Leopoldo, who had always supported her emotionally and economically, gave the direction of the laboratory to Maria Pasqui Marchetti, the dear and trusted Marietta to whom Alice had written countless letters, affectionately signing herself as «mamina»[7].

Hand-woven linen since 1908

In 1985 the laboratory, still in its original location, was turned into a cooperative, founded by the workers, the city council of Città di Castello and Sviluppumbria. A museum was also created in the premise. Today Tela Umbra. Hand-woven linens since 1908 is the only active laboratory in Italy of cloths made exclusively in linen, for warp and weft.

 

Weaver at work foto by Tela Umbra

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti[8]

(New York 1874-Leysin 1911)

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti was the daughter of Adolph, of rich bankers’ family, and Julia Norheimer, both German Ashkenazi Jews, and she was born in New York where the family had moved for the father’s work.
In 1882, when Alice was only 8 years old, the father was forced to leave his job due to health reasons, so the family returned to Germany.
On July 9th, 1900, Alice marries Leopoldo Franchetti, Sephardic Jew from Livorno, senator of the New Kingdom of Italy, whom she had met in Rome – where she had moved after living a few years in Frankfurt. They met at the pharmacy of the San Lorenzo neighborhood where they both volunteered as humanitarian and social assistants at the Union of San Lorenzo.

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti

In Città di Castello, Alice and Leopoldo promote a number of educational initiatives for the emancipation of the farmers, especially for women and children. In 1901, Alice founds the Scuola della Montesca, inside the palazzo baring the same name, and later on, the Scuola di Rovigliano, both free of charge for the peasants’ children up to the sixth grade. From 1905, the direction of the schools is entrusted to Maria Pasqui Marchetti, and from 1910 the educational plan is reviewed to fit the Montessori system[9].
In 1908 the laboratory Tela Umbra is born, under an extremely innovative management for those times, as it included a kindergarten for the working women’s benefit. Apart from the nursery school, at Tela Umbra one could also find an evening carpenter school for the youth and a medical consultation ambulatory to learn how to better take care of newborns. Alice Hallgarten Franchetti died of tuberculosis in 1911.

 


[1] To learn about her and the other workers see M. L. Buseghin, La “Tela Umbra” di Città di Castello. Una storia di donne, in «Pagine altotiberine», a. II, n. 6 (sept.-dec. 1998), pp. 123-136.

[2] P. Magi, Un antico laboratorio che ha fermato il tempo. Le “vestali” della Tela Umbra, in «La Nazione», June 15th, 1962.

[3] In 1881 the population counted 24.491 people. The data is collected from A. Tacchini, Le vicende politiche di Leopoldo Franchetti a Città di Castello, in A. Tacchini, P. Pezzino (curated by), Leopoldo e Alice Franchetti e il loro tempo, Petruzzi, Città di Castello 2002 also avialble on the website www.storiatifernate.it.

[4] Cfr. A. Tacchini, Artigianato e industria a Città di Castello tra Ottocento e Novecento, Petruzzi, Città di Castello, 2000, pp. 334-339.

[5] The citation of the Manifest is taken from M. L. Buseghin, Alice Hallgarten Franchetti un modello di donna e imprenditrice nell’Italia tra ’800 e ’900, Pliniana, Selci Lama, 2013, p. 66.

[6] For the date see M. L. Buseghin, Alice Hallgarten Franchetti un modello di donna e imprenditrice nell’Italia tra ’800 e ’900, cit., pp. 67-77.

[7] The letters have been published fully by M. L. Buseghin, Cara Marietta… Lettere di Alice Hallgarten Franchetti, Tela Umbra, Città di Castello, 2002.

[8] For a more detailed biography see M. L. Buseghin, Cara Marietta… Lettere di Alice Hallgarten Franchetti, cit., pp. 467-472 and the website curated by da M. L. Buseghin in http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/biografie/alice-hallgarten-franchetti/.

[9] S. Bucci, La Scuola della Montesca. Un centro educativo internazionale, in P. Pezzino, A. Tacchini (curated by), Leopoldo e Alice Franchetti e il loro tempo, cit., pp. 195-242.

In the various cultural centers that emerge in Italy and especially in Umbria, textile production plays an important role in expressing taste, the idea of ​​beauty and the values ​​of an era. The textile sector is one of the forms of craftsmanship strongly rooted in the Umbrian economic-social reality.

Popular Art

The charm of this region is discovered through this glorious folk art, which translates into the production between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth century of the famous Tovaglie Perugine, made of white linen. The pannili alla peroscina were appreciated and marketed throughout Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In the historic center of Perugia, there is still the historical weaving workshop by Giuditta Brozzetti. It is one of the last weaving workshops in Italy where only original looms are used. In addition to Perugia an interesting point of reference is in Città di Castello where, in the splendid rooms of Palazzo Tommasini, in pizza A. Costa, there is the laboratory Tela Umbra, born as a charitable institution by the Baroness Alice Franchetti Hallgarten in order to protect the conservation of this ancient art.

 

Madonna della Misericordia. 1482. Museo Comunale di Montone

Embroidery and Technique

In Umbria the fabric work is also reproduced by local and foreign painters, through a variety of shapes and techniques; the fabrics underline the almost unreal beauty of Virgin covered with large cloaks entirely painted but which seem to be embroidered on the canvas. In the Fifteenth and the following century, many textile workshops are endowed with the presence of artists, masters and foreigners who bring new techniques and make new embroideries known; the artists therefore also rely on the workshops of the embroiderers, who enjoy a consideration that is not inferior to that of the painters. The garments depicted in the various works in the Umbrian territory are great. The fabrics that are most painted are velvets, damasks, lampas and brocades, a symbol of great value. Next to the processing of the fabrics also that of embroidery, enjoys great prestige. In painters, the garments of their characters are full of charm and elegance and the dress is an integral part of the figure. The design is built with a magnificent and solemn conception of balance: the floral decorations in the Virgin’s garments are becoming more important, recalling acanthus shoots, of classical memory. The suit completes the character: it is the spirit of its elegance and the expression of its refinement.

 

Madonna del Belvedere di Ottaviano Nelli

A dress, an era

And just by observing the change in the shape of the dress and the fabrics, it is possible to perceive the alternation, in works of art, of eras and styles. Of particular importance is the Madonna del Belvedere (1413), a masterpiece of the most famous painter Ottaviano Nelli. The dress delicately follows the body line, while the wide sleeves bear witness to the inspiration of time: not only the garments are embellished with gold, but with the same technique the clothes of the musician angels have also been reproduced. The fundamental garment in the Fifteenth century was in fact the gamurra: a long dress, closed by buttons or by side strings.

 

Beato Angelico di Polittico Guidalotti

Not only does the Virgin have ample and precious clothes, but in the late Gothic style altarpiece (1420-1430) by Antonio Alberti, preserved in the Pinacoteca of Città di Castello, also San Benedetto and San Bartolomeo on the right and left of the Virgin, have very sought after with floral decorations in gold. San Nicola instead, of the Polittico Guidalotti (1437), a famous work by Giovanni da Fisiesole, known as Beato Angelico, is absorbed in reading. In his clothes, gold is not an overlapping element but is woven together with the canvas. The precious brocade of the cope is investigated with a Flemish view of light. The same treatment is used for the white and red dress that emerges from the cope.

 

Madonna dell’Orchestra di Giovanni Boccati

 

Is painted in a monumental way the Madonna dell’Orchestra (1448-1458) by Giovanni Boccati. What is most striking is the Virgin’s dark blue brocade dress with gold floral motifs. A type of Madonna very represented in Umbria is the Madonna della Misericordia, that is the Virgin who welcomes the faithful under her own mantle. The beautiful Virgin of a follower of Niccolò di Liberatore (XV century), now kept in the Civic Museum of Trevi, wears a red amaranth dress decorated with floral motifs and a sumptuous cloak drapes over her shoulders. Very similar is another Madonna della Misericordia (1482) by Bartolomeo Caporali, preserved in the Municipal Museum of Montone: a gold tunic with flowers is the protagonist of the whole scene. Finally worthy of mention, are the Madonna in trono e Santi (1462) by Matteo da Gualdo, now preserved in the Municipal Museum of Gualdo Tadino and the Madonna del Soccorso (XV century) by Francesco Melanzio, in the Municipal Museum of S. Francesco in Montefalco, recently restored.

 

Madonna in trono e Santi di Matteo da Gualdo

 

Finally, beautiful elegantly dressed women are depicted in pump plates, typical of Deruta pottery: the ladies remember, for delicacy of the features and for physiognomy, the type of Virgin painted by Pinturicchio. One of them, housed in the Civic Museum of Ceramics in Deruta (XVI century), is depicted with a blue dress embroidered in gold.
In Deruta also Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, of more recent epoch to the previous noblewomen, is dressed with a long and refined dress with a blue and gold decoration. The Saint, protector of Deruta potters, frames the ancient art of fabrics, lace and decorations, not embroidered on the fabric but rather paintings on canvas, in Umbrian works of art.

 

Francesco Melanzio. Madonna del soccorso