In the backstreets of Perugia, a medieval church houses artisanal wonders.
Very eager to visit the Perugia laboratorio/museo of the Brozzetti textiles, never had I imagined that the textile looms would line a church nave!
Marta, great-grandaughter of founder, Giuditta Brozzetti, told me that her father had purchased a de-consecrated church in the 1950’s. Called “San Francesco delle Donne, ” (“St. Francis of the Women”), the name links to the convent hosting Benedictine nuns in the mid-13th-century.
The church originated in 1212 as one of the first Franciscan edifices in Umbria and was certamente, the oldest Franciscan site in Perugia, probably built by San Francesco as a hermitage for himself and first followers: a place to stay during their Perugia preaching missions.
The name “Saint Francis of the Women” derives from the transfer of the convent in 1252 to the Benedictine nuns by the Franciscan monks. The monastery was abandoned many times throughout the centuries as a result of its dangerous location in close proximity to the protective city walls.
It was for the same reason that the monastery was closed in 1810 and was then transformed into an educational institute for poor young girls.
Another secular use followed in the early years of the 19th century when the edifice became a spinning mill owned by Count Zeffirino Faina where the high quality raw silk of the mill was often awarded prizes in national and international exhibitions.
The mill was also very important in providing employment for up to 300 young women in the city of Perugia.
The site, therefore, was always connected to le donne – and to the female work force.
And this link to women remains in the heavenly and unique setting of the Church of Saint Francis of the Women where the ancient techniques of weaving are faithfully preserved. The imeless textiles created here carry with them the history of art and of the region of Umbria
The Museo Atelier Giuditta Brozzetti is one of the last surviving hand weaving workshops in Italy showcasing original working looms from the 18th and 19th centuries, rich in history.
A history not just of techniques, but also of the decorative textile motifs that can be found in the works of Giotto and school (late 13th-very early 14th-c., Assisi, Basilica di San Francesco)…
Simone Martini (early 14th-c, Basilica of St.Francis, Assisi)…
Ghirlandaio (San Marco, Florence, mid-15th-c.)
…and Leonardo da Vinci: an ancient history that has been preserved thanks to the work of women in general and in particular, Giuditta Brozzetti who, at the beginning of the 20th century, founded the workshop/school with the intention of giving new life to the glorious tradition of Umbrian textiles.
Giuditta sparked the resurrection of the art of hand-weaving as an art form in 1921, giving birth to a new breed of women entrepreneurs with a veritable laboratorio diffuso (literally, °diffused workshop,° i.e, not in a single place) uniting 35 women working on looms in their homes – as was the local custom.
Their weavings previously had been for their dowries – or traded for family needs. Ancient legal dowry documents mention the textiles brought by the bride to her spouse. When Caterina de’ Medici married the French king, Henry II in the 16th-century, her dowry included woven Perugia tablecloths.
I wonder if the famous griffin pattern might have been on one of her tablecloths?
Part eagle, part lion (king of the sky, king of the land), the griffin is the symbol of Perugia and is immortalized in many Perugia textiles. In the Brozzetti, design, prancing griffins alternate with images of a fountain…..
….for the late 13th-century Great Fountain (la Fontana Maggiore), centerpiece of the main square, is Perugia’s most precious monument:
I asked Marta Cucchia, great-granddaughter of Giuditta Brozzetti, if the 16th-century dowry of a nobile italiana about to become a French queen, might have included Perugia tablecloths with the griffin.
“Certamente,” she replied.
Marta, interior designer, is bringing new ideas to the textile traditions nurtured by her great-grandmother, Giuditta, her grandmother Eleonora and mother, Clara.
And Marta is the first of the women to actually work on the looms herself.
Giuditta economically launched the marketing of the weavings of about 35 women, with daughter Eleonora continuing and designing clothes as well with woven textiles. Eleonora’s daughter, Clara – mother of Marta – carried on the business inspite of a period of economic crisis (1970’s).
As we toured the laboratorio/museo, Marta pointed out with pride some of the most prized – and ancient designs: the hare (in deep brown) – symbol of innocence – and the prancing unicorns (in white on a dark gray background)….
….and the lion (symbol of strength):
Her young weavers (both French), Aurelie and Sophie, smiled proudly near a weaving of lions. ..
Sophie talked to me as she worked, telling me with a big smile – hidden behind the obligatory mask, but her eyes lit up – “It took me a long time to decide that yes, I could do weaving. I love the calm pace, feeling no pressure here and working in harmony with my colleagues. What joy the quality of handwork done well.”
Sophie was working on a pattern called “il leone a medaglione” (“lion on a medallion”), a design inspired by a detail on a Foligno medieval church.
Beaming – just look at those eyes! – Sophie showed me with pride one of the workshop’s most famous designs, Settesoli.
The name derives from Jacopo de’ Settesoli, a wealthy Roman woman, devoted to San Francesco. The design derives from a 13th-century silk textile woven with silver thread conserved in Assisi which according to tradition, was given to San Francesco by Madama Jacopa.
We now know, however, that the textile – of Byzantine motif – was given to the Franciscans (possibly by the king of Jerusalem) in the mid-13th century after the death of San Francesco:
I passed other stunning textiles as I walked up and down the former nave of the medieval St. Francis of the Women church…
…including the pomegranate (symbol of fertility)….
….as well as other wonders:
La fiamma (“the flame”), a most prized Perugia textile design but no longer in production, hangs on the loom once used for the very complicated production technique of this textile. I noted the very contemporary spirit of this ancient design and in fact Marta asked me with a twinkle in her eye (above her black mask), “….a feel of Missoni in that one, isn’t there?”
At the end of the nave, I noted clothes made of woven textiles. Marta told me that her designer and seamstress grandmother, Eleonora, had designed many incorporating weavings.
The only jacket hanging there caught my eye, but not for sale. The clothes are not being made any longer. Perhaps that jacket remains as a tribute to designer and seamstress and entrepreneur, Martha’s nonna Eleonora?
As Marta and I talked before I left, Aurelie, companion weaver with Sophie, was giving a guided tour of this laboratorio/museo to visitors.
Only Aurelie and Sophie work with Marta on the looms: three weavers only create the textile marvels at Giuditta Brozzetti.
Marta would like to lure in other young artisans but “no one wishes to do this work. We can’t seek new markets and so we simply sell here what we produce.”
I asked Marta about her outlook for the future. She told me thoughtfully, “This is my role I hope to continue to be one of many women artisans, although I am always fearful of being the last. I have mostly moments of a positive outlook, looking forward to the rewards of the future while knowing that our past heritage and traditions are the foundation of the future.
It is so important to see people here visiting our workshop/museum. They charge and motivate us and their approbation is our moral support. It counts so very much.”
On your next visit to Perugia, do take in the Giuditta Brozzetti workshop where you’ll certainly be showing that desired appreciation to the three weavers.
Impossible not to do so as you watch their skillful hands at work – and view the wonders they produce.
In a medieval Franciscan church “of the Women,” talented women artisans keep alive treasured ancient artisanal traditions.
(Mille grazie, Marta, for sharing your knowledge – and some photos from your website, also.)
See the video of my visit to the Museo Atelier Giuditta Brozzetti
See stupendous photos of the Giuditta Brozzetti textiles, also “in-the-making”
Read about another not-to-miss artisan workshop in Perugia