The Silk Roads to Italy
Italy is known for fine silk. Many argue that Italian-made silk garments are the best in the world. While Italy has long produced its silk from the threads of locally maintained silk worms, the laborious process of gathering and weaving the silk thread has left little profit margin in recent years for the major silk mills of Italy. Italians, being Italians, are among the most adaptable people in the world. When faced with lemons, they make lemonade. When silk becomes too cheap to produce in its raw state, buy it abroad and finish it in a way that sets the finished cloth apart in the market place. Sadly, Italy has few silk worms left. However, the good news is that Italian silk remains the most luxurious in the world.
The manufacture of silk originated in China many centuries ago. In its earliest days, silk was regarded as an absolute luxury, fit only for emperors, empresses and the highest of the nobility; but with the development of the industry, it became increasingly accessible to wealthy merchants who started trading it within the country. Later it was brought to others countries along the famous Silk Road. China tried to keep the process of producing and weaving silk a secret for as long as possible. It managed to safe-guard the process from intruders for hundreds of years. Eventually, silkworm eggs were smuggled out of China and the rush of experimentation in other lands began.
The silk industry began a rapid development in Europe at the beginning of the 12th century. Italy soon became one of the most important centers for manufacturing silk, with Genoa, Venice and Florence as the main production areas. In the year 1510, Pietro Boldoni of Bellano was the first to establish the silk industry in Como, Italy and following his initial efforts, the industry in the region boomed, quickly surpassing most of Europe’s leading manufacturing centers.
The region of Como in the north of Italy provides the ideal environment to produce silk, due to its abundance of mulberry trees and crystal clear waters. A considerable water supply is essential at several phases of the silk of production and the quality of mulberry leaves is crucial for producing the raw material – the silk thread. Here is a curious fact – silkworms can eat anything, but they produce the iridescent thread only when fed mulberry leaves. These two factors, coupled with Italian craftsmen’s attention to detail and refined creativity, were the ingredients for success.
After the unification of Italy in 1866, the development of the industry in the area surged. A technical institute to train young professionals in the craft of silk manufacturing was established. From that point onwards, the industry kept expanding, especially after the Second World War.
Como built a worldwide reputation for excellence and reached such a peak that the region became known as the Silk City. In the 1990s, Como was the most important center for silk manufacturing in the world, with all the important fashion houses and major apparel manufacturers ordering silk from the region around Lake Como. The 1990s were indeed Como’s golden years. However, in the two past decades, the silk industry has endured a downturn and a shift in production. The cost of silk produced entirely in Como was considerably higher than that which was mass-produced in the ultra-industrialized regions of China. This eventually led to the closing down of most factories in Como. Today most of the raw material, the natural grey silk yarn, is imported from the Far East and the manufacturers in Como handle exclusively the final stages of the cycle, the dyeing and finishing of the silk. Although the initial stages of the silk production have gone elsewhere, you will still find some of the finest finished silk cloth in the world produced in the region of Como.
If you are fortunate enough to travel to Lake Como, you will find one of the most beautiful areas in all of Europe, if not the world. It offers fantastic hotels, fine dining, beautiful views and extensive shopping. It is a visitor’s paradise. However, the north of Italy is not the only place where you will find exquisite silk.
San Leucio Belvedere and Silk Factory
San Leucio is located in Caserta, in the region of Campania in southern Italy. Just a few miles from the Royal Palace of Caserta, there is a unique example of an inspired imperial socially-integrated town. In 1759, when Charles III was crowned King of Spain, he left the rule of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily largely in the hands of his third surviving son, Ferdinand IV. Among his many ground breaking projects, Ferdinand transformed the Palazzo del Belvedere, at the time used as Royal hunting lodge, into a factory and the small village of San Leucio into a full-scale industrial and social experiment. Thus, in 1778, the town of “Ferdinandopoli” was created – an idealistic and utopian concept of a city constructed around a Royal Silk Factory.
Never before had a King chosen to construct a manufacturing plant, complete with dwellings for the workers so close to his personal sphere. At San Leucio, the production of silk involved the most advanced technologies of the time in all of Europe. The local people were involved in every stage of production, from the farming of the silk worms, to the spinning of the dyed thread. Machines were propelled by water power and the weaving of textiles was performed on sophisticated cherry wood looms.
A new village was built as production expanded and the large community of silk weavers grew into a true industrial town, which in 1789 was deemed the “Real Colonia dei Setaioli” (the Silk Weavers Royal Colony). The Code of Law issued in 1789 was quite revolutionary – men and women who worked in the silk factory enjoyed equal rights and their salaries were set according to merit. Compulsory education was free of charge and part of the workers’ earnings were deposited into a charitable fund for the sick and elderly. The King donated a loom to every family so that the art of silk weaving would continue down through the generations. The fame of the royal silk factory of San Leucio spread throughout the courts of Europe, creating significant demand among the nobility. The French Revolution of 1799 stopped the complete realization of the Ferdinandopoli, but the San Leucio resort had further growth during the French rule from 1806 to 1815. San Leucio continues to produce precious silk and even today the flags of both the White House and Buckingham Palace are made here in Caserta’s Royal Silk Factory.
The restored Royal Silk Factory has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Visits to the site include a tour of the Royal Apartments, to admire the splendid frescoed halls and the sumptuous baths built for Queen Maria Carolina; the Belvedere Gardens, with their view of the Royal Palace and the Weavers’ House, which offers a fascinating insight into how the average worker’s home would have appeared. The Silk Museum contains a number of perfectly functioning looms and replicas of the water powered machines used to spin the thread. Each summer, a festival is held in the historic town, celebrating its status as one of the first industrial towns in the world.