by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Composite Portrait of Grand Duke Ivan III, Vasily Ivanovich, Ivan the Terrible and their ambassadors

Czarist Russia's Fascination With Italian Textiles

By Roderick Conway Morris
PRATO, ITALY 10 October 2009


The Russia of the czars was profoundly suspicious of Western influences, but there was one temptation this xenophobic and autocratic society could not resist - Italian fabrics and fashions.

The centuries-long pursuit of the finest Italian silk weaves by the Russian court and church and the prodigious sums they spent on them have left Russia, despite losses during war and revolution, with an immense patrimony of rich and rare Italian textiles, only a fraction of which have ever been put on general public view.

Between them the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Kremlin Museum in Moscow have well over 5,000 examples of historic Italian textiles. These two institutions have joined forces with the Hermitage Italia Foundation and Prato's Textile Museum to lay out some of these fabulous wares, and relate the story of how they found their way east to the centers of Russian political and ecclesiastical power, in 'The Style of the Czar: Art and Fashion between Italy and Russia from the 14th to the 18th Century.'

This exhibition of 130 robes, vestments, paintings, documents and other pieces is at the Textile Museum. There are illuminating parallel shows nearby at the Museo Casa Francesco Datini, the house-museum of the celebrated 14th-century Prato merchant, and the adjacent archive, which conserves his wealth of papers and letters (including ones containing cloth samples and drawings of textile designs); and at the Duomo and its museum, highlighting the representation and symbolism of contemporary textiles in the frescoes and paintings of Filippo Lippi.

The first section of the main exhibition reveals the extraordinary sophistication of the patterned silk cloths and embroideries being produced in Italy - principally in Venice, Genoa, Florence and Lucca - by the 14th century. Paintings from the era show the great care artists took in depicting these textiles in the drapery and backdrops of their works, and there are some amazing matches of actual pieces of textiles (from the Hermitage, from collections in Florence, Orvieto, Assisi and from Prato's own museum) with those in the paintings on display here.

The second section unfolds the story of how these sought-after Italian textiles began to be exported to Russia. Until 1475, when the Ottomans conquered the Crimea, the Genoese had their own trading station at Caffa, and the Venetians had theirs to the east, at Tana on the Sea of Azov. From there the silks were carried northward along the river routes to Moscow.

The Russians then had virtually no manufacturing industries of their own. However, apart from wax and timber, they had one commodity for which there was rising demand in Europe: furs. So in the reverse direction, in large part handled by Italian merchants, came increasing quantities of pelts, from sable, ermine, lynx and squirrel to marten, beaver and fox. Sable and ermine were the most widely prized, but the rarest of all was black fox - the fur used to trim the czar's crown.

The Russian push eastwards into Siberia was crucially driven by the search for new hunting grounds, as species in lands closer at hand were exploited to extinction. When the Khan of Sibir tried to placate Ivan the Terrible with a gift of 2,400 sables, 800 black foxes and 2,000 beavers, far from buying off the czar, it convinced him that a territory so rich in furs must be conquered at all costs.

The subsequent sections of the exhibition offer a gorgeous array of velvets, brocades, court dress and church vestments, well illustrated with European and Russian paintings from the 16th to the 18th century.

During the first half of this period the Russians were little influenced by the cut of Western clothes, but showed a marked preference for particular types of Italian silk fabrics, preferring brocades with large patterns that could be displayed uninterrupted in all their glory in their ankle-length robes. They also favored bright colors. As one Italian merchant, quoted in the exhibition, noted of his Russian clients in the 1560s: 'In all things they want the color to be beautiful and vivid, refusing white and black.'

Thus, at a time when black velvet, or at least dark robes, and plain white undergarments were fashionable among the aristocratic and merchant classes in the West, the czar's court was a riot of color.

The silks demanded by the Russians - and there seems no doubt that some were manufactured expressly for the Russian market - were no less striking for the high proportion of gold and silver thread, rendering them heavy and stiff. This, combined with elaborate, dense embroideries of river pearls and precious stones, made some of these robes, particularly ecclesiastical ones, in the words of the excellent catalog, edited by Daniela Degl'Innocenti and Tatiana Lekhovich,'almost masterpieces of the goldsmith's art.'

In the 15th and 16th century, the Russian and Turkish practice of lining and adorning clothes with fur became common among the moneyed classes in Europe. This fashion seems to have been particularly popular for women's robes that were worn informally in the bedchamber - tellingly illustrated here by canvases of voluptuous semi-nude models thus attired by Titian and his studio.

But men's informal wear also followed the trend, sometimes making even more ostentatious display of luxury furs, as in Paris Bordon's 'Portrait of a Man,' whose sober black velvet robe is dramatically enlivened by a wide, waist-length collar of lynx.

The demand for Russian furs was augmented by the fashion for muffs - ideally, for those who could afford it, of sable - and stoles made of whole, head-to-tail pelts of foxes and other animals, with gold and jeweled clasps. Fur was also used to line gloves and shoes.

Although consistently favoring Italian silks, the cut of Russian court clothing remained conservative until the 17th century. Peter the Great was not the first to adopt Western dress - Czar Feodor III, who came to the throne in 1676, had a penchant for 'Polish-style' outfits but he issued a decree in 1680 forbidding his subjects from emulating him by dressing in the European manner.

The colorful patterns of Italian 'bizarre' silks of the late 17th and early 18th century, in which the dominant pattern was typically woven with gold or silver thread, appealed enormously to the Russians, as we can see from a green and gold informal robe from Peter's wardrobe. And even the examples of his ceremonial dress in the European style on display here manifest an abiding Russian love of abundant quantities of silver and gold, in these cases taking the form of dense silver braiding.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023