As I recently entered the gate leading into the cloister of the 11th-century Church of San Giacomo de Muro Rupto (St. James in the Broken Wall), I noted the sign indicating the Laboratorio di San Francesco.
I thought about those summer days decades ago when I brought our Giulia to that laboratorio (w0rkshop) here for the programs offered to the young assisani by the Franciscan sisters there. Giulia might have been seven or eight then. About twelve other children – of elementary school and early middle-school age – gathered all together for the morning summer programs that included theater workshop, play time in the lovely garden up above the cloister, snack time in the shade of the trees – and Assisi-stitch embroidery lessons from one of the nuns.
For more than two centuries, young assisani had learned the punto Assisi (the Assisi embroidery stitch) from mothers, grandmothers and in Franciscan convents.
And in this spot in 1902, a center to provide young woman with skills for future work and home-making opened. The center was called the Laboratorio San Francesco e ricreatorio festivo per le povere figlie del popolo residenti in Assisi (“San Francesco Laboratory – ie., workshop – both recreational and festive for the poor daughters of Assisi residents”). Initiated by an English gentleman, Harold E. Goad, some Assisi ladies, a local count and the pastor of the Cathedral of San Rufino sustained the initiative, aimed at teaching skills to the local young women to render them independent in their choice of work. The Cathedral of San Rufino conceded the locale adjacent to the Church of San Giacomo de Muro Rupto.
That locale is now seat of the Accademia Punto Assisi. I was there recently to meet with Tiziana Borsellini, presidente of this association founded in 1998. With a big smile, she was unloading her car as I arrived, eager to show me the Assisi-stitch treasures in the boxes and bags.
As she set out the embroidered pieces for me, she told me about the founding of this association dedicated to the preservation and diffusion of the punto Assisi, the Assisi stitch. “We founded it in 1998, the year after the Assisi earthquake ( N.B. Sept. 26, 1997) as those of us who loved our city and its historic traditions wished to keep one of our most prized artisanal traditions – il punto Assisi – appreciated and alive, increasing diffusion of the knowledge of the stitch.” Tiziana started to embroider when she was five years old, taught by her mother and grandmother. “My grandmother even exported her embroidered textiles to the U.S. and Japan with many orders from convent and monasteries for liturgical linens.”
And in more than one convent in Assisi, young women – including groups of orphans- were trained in sewing, knitting, crochet and embroidery. In the chapel sacristies of all the convents, sacred linen treasures filled cupboards, their stitchery done in the silent cloisters. The tapestries, tablecloths, runners, wall hangings in the punto Assisi reproduce scenes of medieval frescoes as well as details of Renaissance inlaid wood choir stalls and the sculpting framing church entryways.
Tiziana showed me a lampshade motif taken from the 12th-century sculpted doorway of Assisi’s 12th-centuryCathedral of San Rufino, two peacocks drinking from a vase:
In the over five hundred Punto Assisi designs which the Accademia has preserved, many are taken from the medieval bestiaries, compendia of beasts originating the the ancient world and popular in the Middle Ages.
When telling me about her embroidery designs, she said, “I can see an object I like and design it – but always respecting the medieval bestiaries.”
She is one of ten teachers of the Accademia which offers courses in all the embroidery stitches used in Umbria, not just the Punto Assisi. Some of their courses are taught on a volunteer basis in the schools and also in special education classes.
The Accademia has also been invited to Arizona and to San Francisco, California to offer courses – and Tiziana showed me the design of the tapestry given to the mayor of San Francisco on their visit there some years ago:
She also showed me with pride a photo of the tablecloth and bedspread made as wedding gifts for the princess Giovanna di Savoia who married Boris di Bulgaria in Assisi in October 1930:
Tiziana told me that the embroidery for the royal couple took a week and was done round-the-clock non-stop by alternating groups of twelve young women, very skilled in the art of the Assisi stitch.
I asked her where those textiles are now. Tiziana replied with a sigh, “Oh, how we would like to know! We have looked for those treasures – but without luck. We have no idea where those linens ended up.”
According to oral tradition, St. Clare of Assisi who embraced poverty on the model of St.Francis, had embroidered. Another tradition tells us that the Roman noblewoman, Jacopa dei Settesoli, very devoted to San Francesco, embroidered a mantle for San Francesco just before his death. Tiziana showed me a tablecloth for 12 embroidered with a pattern called “Settesoli” – after Jacopa:
Hanging behind her on a wall was an embroidered depiction of the Basilica di San Francesco
Tiziana told me that the design was done by Antonio Menzolini, a local artist and then showed me the collection of other Antonio designs which have been reproduced on many an Assisi embroidered textile.
Antonio’s embroidery designs also reproduce other Franciscan sites, including San Damiano…
…and the Basilica di Santa Chiara:
He also designed for embroidery the 14th-century Papal fortress, the Rocca Maggiore:
Walking through Assisi with tour guests, I’d often stop at Antonio’s bottega (workshop) to introduce them to an Assisi artista. I’ve known Antonio for years – and certainly as of 1978, for Antonio did a pen-and-ink drawing of our farmhouse to use for our wedding invitations.
A plumber when just out of middle school, Antonio soon left that trade behind to pick up pen, ink and paint brush. But I’d had no idea that he also created numerous drawings for use in embroidery.
As Tiziana had told me, the punto Assisi unites all in the creation of splendors.