Massa, an exhibition on ancient textiles and liturgical vestments at the Diocesan Museum

Through Dec. 31, 2021, the Diocesan Museum in Massa is hosting the exhibition "Stories of Clothes and Devotion. Precious Gifts from Palaces to Sacristies," dedicated to precious ancient textiles transformed into liturgical vestments.

Through Dec. 31, 2021, the Diocesan Museum in Massa is hosting the exhibition Stories of Clothes and Devotion. Precious Gifts from Palaces to Sacristies, curated by Luca Franceschini, Barbara Sisti, Elena Scaravella, Sonia Lazzari and Isabella Botti. This is an exhibition that leads the visitor into the fascinating world of clothing and textiles, through a selection of precious fabrics from noble residences, donated to churches and transformed into liturgical robes. The sacristies of the territory have in fact kept important treasures over time, handing them down to the present day: each dress carries with it the memory of the person who chose it, wore it and donated it as a sign of faith, testifying to his or her taste, social status, cultural inclinations and thus restoring the image of a society in which textiles had a role quite different from the one that is recognized today. The preciousness of the raw materials and the complexity of the execution techniques made it the most sought-after and appreciated luxury good over the centuries.

The exhibition begins with a room that aims to recreate the suggestion of the places where clothes and textiles were kept: whether they were in the “guardarobes” of aristocratic residences or in the sacristies of churches, special care was given to the preservation of textiles, partly because of their high economic value. The “guardarobes” were the rooms within the palaces that kept I most precious possessions: furnishings, objets d’art, tapestries, textiles, silverware and robes or “robe.” Of the rich textile trousseaus, accurately described in the inventories of these rooms, unfortunately little has been preserved in its original form. Over the centuries, however, many robes, particularly the more luxurious ones, were donated to churches to be “disassembled” and later used to make liturgical vestments. The donations always had a devotional purpose, as a vow for a grace received or as tangible proof of one’s faith. The transformation of civic garments into sacred vestments has enabled the preservation of numerous textile artifacts, extraordinary witnesses to the evolution of technical and decorative types over the centuries. Donations of clothing or precious textiles that went to enrich the trousseaus of churches were meticulously recorded in account books (also on display in the room is a Register of Inventories of the ancient parish church of San Pietro in which the donation of a fine damask vestment at the behest of Brigida Spinola, wife of Carlo I Cybo Malaspina, is recorded).

Next, the exhibition addresses the theme ofportrait dress: the dress to be used for a portrait was never the result of a superficial choice because it had to convey precise messages. Through the dress, jewelry, hairstyle and other details the portrait in fact communicated, in a clear and direct way, the social status, economic situation, political, religious, professional position of the effigy. This is the reason that always prompted artists, painters or sculptors, to represent these elements with special care and attention. Precisely for this reason, iconographic evidence such as portraits and sculpted monuments constitute a valuable source for the reconstruction of the history of fashion and costume. The exhibition includes some interesting portraits such as that of Maria Beatrice Ricciarda d’Este by Carlo Prayer, a female portrait (possibly Ricciarda Gonzaga Cybo) attributed to Pietro Nelli, and a portrait of a gentleman in a chamber robe of Tuscan ambit.

The following section, Luxury and Extravagance in the Sacristy, is devoted to the textile trousseaux of churches, which have been enriched over the centuries thanks to important donations of textiles, not only made for specific liturgical use but especially coming from the clothing of the nobility. Provenance from secular contexts justifies the presence in sacristies of vestments with secular decorative motifs, often far removed from the sacred repertoire and symbolism. A significant example of this is the chasuble from the church of San Giovanni di Villafranca in Lunigiana, where the decorative motif draws inspiration from the Western world, as evidenced by the presence of the two exotic animals (a leopard and a monitor lizard). The arrival in Europe of luxury goods produced in distant countries influenced, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all arts and especially applied arts. The iconographic repertoire, shared for example by textiles and porcelain, was enriched with extravagant and fascinating elements of exotic taste that aroused wonder and satisfied the curiosity and desire for novelty of contemporaries.

Instead, we discuss Crimson Red Vel vet in the following room: velvet played a leading role in Italian textile production. Its making required sophisticated technical skills, specific looms and significantly more silk yarn than other textile types. In all its technical variations, velvet is distinguished by having its surface covered, in whole or in part, by dense tufts of silk pile. The richness of the yarn, the complexity of its workmanship, and the aesthetic qualities derived from the iridescent luminosity of its surface made it an expression of power and wealth, chosen to make sacred vestments and fashionable clothes of the higher social classes. Among the most prized velvet cloths were those dyed with chermes, a pigment obtained by macerating dried cochineal, which gave silk a particular shade of red known as “crimson.” The high cost of this dye material sanctioned its use for high civil and ecclesiastical offices. A liturgical color intended for glorification functions, red represents the glory of the Church and is prescribed for the feasts of Pentecost, apostles and martyrs. While velvet’s most successful season was the Renaissance, its production continued throughout the centuries, eventually making a comeback in Italy in the 19th century as a leading product of local manufactures.

The last section, Dressing the Statues, talks precisely about the dressing of statues, which was not only a way to increase the realism of the image: having them wear the most beautiful clothes symbolized on the one hand the majesty of the object by elevating it to the sacredness of the place, and on the other it testified to the devotion and even economic commitment of the faithful. The robes often concealed sketchy, dummy-like structures, evidently designed from the time they were made to remain hidden, more rarely statues carved entirely of wood, plaster or marble. Bridal gowns or dresses of particular value were offered in thanksgiving for a grace received or to plead for Our Lady’s intercession in case of illness or danger. Often the donated garments were repurposed, but some times, precisely because of their preciousness, it was the statues that were altered to suit the shape and size of the dress. When a simulacrum became a true object of popular veneration, complex trousseaus were constituted, with clothing in colors matching the liturgical season but also in accordance with the fashion of the time. Accompanied by linens, the statues’ nudity was disguised by petticoats, bodices and stockings, often made of fabric and worked yarns. The dressing of statues is a Catholic tradition that has its roots in the Middle Ages and reached its peak in the 18th century, reaching, with mixed fortunes, to the present day.

The exhibition is open Tuesday through Sunday from 3-7 pm. Guided tours Tuesday, Dec. 7, 14 and 28 at 4 p.m. Reservations are required at - 0585 499241. The museum is closed on Dec. 8, 24, 25, 26 and 31.

Massa, an exhibition on ancient textiles and liturgical vestments at the Diocesan Museum
Massa, an exhibition on ancient textiles and liturgical vestments at the Diocesan Museum

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