by Roderick Conway Morris

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Miraculous Fragments of the Past

By Roderick Conway Morris
COMO, Italy 13 July 1996
Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Como
Dancing Dionysian Figures, 4th-6th century AD



The habit of textile manufacturers to amass large stocks of samples and pattern scraps must be about as old as weaving itself. The impetus behind these often haphazard collections was overwhelmingly practical in that they provided reference material and inspiration for new designs. In modern times, however, a new phenomenon has emerged: the industrialist-connoisseur who becomes so absorbed in his own samples reference library that it is transformed into an end in itself.

One such is the now 80-year-old silk magnate Antonio Ratti, the fruits of whose lifetime of acquisitions are now housed in the Fondazione Ratti on the lakefront in Como.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has also benefited from entrepreneur's largesse, and the 25,000 square-foot Antonio Ratti Textile Center on the museum's ground floor which he endowed, the most advanced of its kind for the study, conservation and repair of fabrics, was inaugurated in mid-December last year.

Ratti's own collection at the Fondazione in Como has long been readily accessible to designers, art historians, students and professionals in the field, but the Foundation has now embarked on a series of annual special shows to make different aspects of its holdings available to a wider public.

This year's exhibition is: 'Qibti: Coptic Textiles', a fascinating display of some 70 pieces from the 3rd to the 13th century, with some beautiful additional ones from the collection of the wool manufacturer Alvigini di Biella (till 30 July), revealingly and expertly presented by Dr. Franca Angonoa, an Egyptologist and authority on early dress and fashion.

Thanks to Egypt's hot, dry climate ancient textiles have been preserved there as nowhere else on earth. The earliest fragments of linen go back 5,000 years, samples of historical textiles to the tombs of 18th dynasty kings (1450-1417 BC), and substantial examples to the epoch of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (1361-1365 BC).

These extraordinarily ancient survivals of normally perishable materials confirm that Egyptian weaving enjoyed an unbroken tradition from those times through the Hellenistic, Roman and Christian eras and well beyond into the Islamic centuries.

Our word 'Copt' comes from the Arabic 'Qibti', which in turn derives from 'Aigyptioi' - what the Greeks, who ruled the country for more than 250 years after its conquest by Alexander the Great, called the native Egyptians.

Thus, in the area of textiles at least, 'Coptic' no longer narrowly designates (as it did a century ago) manufactures thought to come from Egypt's predominantly Christian period alone, but covers a broad span of productions by Egyptian weavers from Late Antiquity to Islam.

Carbon dating is too blunt an instrument to assign accurately these miraculously-preserved materials even to a given century.

And only once in a blue moon do archeologists find associated evidence for dating: such as in the tomb at Fayyum where textiles turned up with a coin of 340 AD, or a piece of wool that came to light in the Cairo Museum with the date and place of manufacture conveniently woven into the material in the form of a Kufic inscription (Kais, in Upper Egypt, 784-785 AD).

Consequently modern dating has become reliant on the careful analysis of style and content. This has greatly enhanced our appreciation not only of the artistic merit of these early textiles, but also of how much they can tell us about material realities, social life and religion during the first 1,000 years of the Christian era.

Because we now know we are looking at a continuous tradition in weaving, despite the wars, invasions, persecutions and other cataclismic events, we can see how burgeoning faiths took time to gain acceptance, and new and established beliefs subsisted side by side for long periods. So even in the Christian era, classical imagery such as dancing Dionysian figures and winged cupids (which indeed were eventually given allegorical meaning and adopted as Christian images) still abounded.

Curiously, many decorative motifs of this kind, used to adorn the typical tunics of the times (short for men, longer for women) worn by pagans, Jews, and later Christians alike (the form of these garments changed very little over the centuries), seem to have been inspired by famous sculptures, friezes and mosaics - these sometimes amazingly skilfull renderings in cloth of their originals conjuring up a vision of the ancient equivalent of today's souvenir T-shirts with images of, say, the Tower of London, Trevi Fountain or Mona Lisa.

Linen was and remained the Egyptian fabric par excellence, though wool and silk were also used. Cotton, imported from India, appears only intermittently.

But whilst weaving techniques were passed down directly from Pharaonic times, comparatively few ancient Egyptian motifs survived beyond the Hellenistic era - though Nilotic landscapes, certain plants, fish, birds and animals, such as long-eared hares, do continue to figure.

The most intriguing general trend traced by the show is the inexorable tendency for forms to become more and more stylized and abstracted. This makes figures take on an almost cartoon-like quality, with simple, impressionistic facial features, often depicted in dynamic, frozen, action poses.

This evolution, manifested itself well in advance of the influence of Islam, and eventually culminates in the disintegration of corporeal forms into pure shapes and patterns, anticipating much later developments in modern abstract art.

By this time the sheer quality, sophistication and vibrancy of color of Egyptian textiles had assured them universal fame and, as Franca Angonoa suggests in the handsome catalogue that accompanies the show, this stylization and stereotyping of motifs may well have contained a commercial element, since it rendered Coptic products (now devoid of clearly-discernable, locally-rooted religious symbolism) all the more acceptable to a 'world-wide' market.

The luxuriousness and preeminence of these Egyptian fabrics made the finest of them highly sought-after in both east and west. And it is an index of their exoticism and prestige in Europe that the so-called Veil of St Anne in Vaucluse, for example, an object of veneration and pilgrimage, was in reality a fragment of a silk robe with profane sphinx motifs and Arabic lettering, made in Damietta on the Nile Delta in the Fatimid period (10th-12th century). In fact, opulent Islamic silks became in the middle ages a favorite wrapping for holy Christian relics.

The Seventh Crusade, launched in 1248, was an unmitigated failure for Christendom, leading to the capture in Egypt of its leader the French King Louis IX and many of his surviving followers.

During the campaign, however, the town of Tanis, which had 5,000 looms, was put to the torch to prevent it falling into the Crusaders' hands, and Damietta was similarly destroyed - disasters from which the Coptic textile industry, already suffering competition from other centers, never fully recovered.

(A shorter verion of this article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024