Italy has a long history of exquisite textiles, so when my husband, Marty, suggested Italy as a vacation destination in 2018, I immediately started researching weaving-related excursions. A Facebook post by Venetian atelier Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, which specializes in handwoven velvet, caught my eye. Destiny! I contacted the studio, arranged a tour, and recruited Marty as my photographer.
Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua’s main entrance is on the Grand Canal in Venice and accessible only by water taxi. Per their directions, we took the vaporetto (water bus) to the Riva de Biasio stop and wound our way on foot to the back entrance into the weaving studio. “Streets” in Venice are narrow walkways winding between the closely packed buildings. After missing our last turn and backtracking, we found the unassuming entrance tucked into a tiny courtyard.
The door was locked so we rang the bell. A young woman came to the door. In English and as much Italian as I could muster, I said we were there for a tour, and she replied in rapid Italian. Apparently, my blank expression made it obvious I was in over my head linguistically, and she said, “Maddalena?” “Si!” I replied. She said, “Uno momento;” and promptly closed the door. A moment later we were warmly greeted in excellent English (phew) by Maddalena Vianello, communications marketing coordinator for Luigi Bevilacqua. We stepped through the doorway and traveled back in time.
A Brief History
The Bevilacqua family established its first tessitura (weaving studio) around 1700, but family members have been weaving velvet for much longer. In 1499, Giovanni Mansueti painted The Arrest of Saint Mark from the Synagogue, which includes a scroll with the notation “Giacomo Bevilacqua, weaver.” Nearly 300 years later, Luigi Bevilacqua founded the tessitura at its current location, where today, it’s still run by the Bevilacqua family.
The building was once the home of the Silk Weaving School for the Republic of Venice, which was closed in 1806 when Napoleon decreed that all of Venice’s craft guilds be shut down. The building’s history was significant to Luigi Bevilacqua, but more importantly, the building contained the Jacquard looms and equipment used by the Silk Weaving School. At one time, all three floors of the building were dedicated to weaving velvet by hand. Today, 18 of the original Jacquard looms, dating to 1801 to 1804, are in use on the first floor of the building.
In its early days, the workshop wove for private individuals, government entities, and the Catholic Church. In fact, well into the 1930s, the Catholic Church commissioned Bevilacqua velvet for curtains, altar cloths, vestments, and ornamentation in cathedrals across Europe. Many palaces, villas, and castles around Europe still contain rooms that have wall coverings and furniture upholstered in Bevilacqua handwoven velvet.
The Studio Today
Massive shelves line the walls of the studio from floor to (very high) ceiling, holding what looks like stacks of gray cardboard. The upper shelves hold the dobby card archives for the 3,500 patterns woven over the centuries by Tessitura Bevilacqua, although today the cards are used only for reference. The lower shelves hold stacks of newer dobby cards used in the weaving line.
Next to the wall is a large vertical warping reel from the 1700s, and mounted on the shelves is a rather incongruous flat-screen television. Past meets present as the tour starts with a video showing the weavers demonstrating the process of winding the base-cloth and pile warps, beaming warps, setting up the bobbins for the pile, threading the looms, and weaving.
Today, the studio employs eight weavers and two apprentices, keeping them busy weaving new yardage for restoration work as they copy both Bevilacqua velvets and other historic fabrics. Of significance is a sample of very old velvet preserved under Plexiglas and mounted on the studio wall. The velvet came from the Kremlin in Moscow and was the subject of a rather complex commission. The original pattern for the velvet had been lost; it took a lot of study to properly re-create it for the Jacquard looms. The design wasn’t symmetrical, so the entire 28-inch width of the fabric had to be re-created, thread by thread, translating to 16,000 warp ends. It took the weavers six months to set up the loom.
Two warps are required to weave velvet: one for the base cloth and a second supplemental warp that is pulled up into loops for the pile. Because the take-up on the pile warp is greater than the take-up on the base-cloth warp, the pile warp is longer and must be beamed separately. For selvedge-to-selvedge solid-colored velvet, the supplemental warp is wound on a separate back beam mounted above the base-cloth warp beam. For voided velvet, in which pile is pulled up in patterns, the threads are wound separately on individual bobbins under the loom to compensate for the different amounts of take-up.
Most of the velvets woven by Bevilacqua weavers are 24 to 30 inches wide and, depending on the design, contain between 3,000 and 6,000 warp ends. Each warp is typically 22 to 33 yards long. While the base-cloth warp is usually cotton woven with linen weft, the pile warps are 20/22 silk custom-spun for Bevilacqua. The plies of the silk yarn bloom into a dense, plush velvet when cut into pile. One weaver can produce about ½ meter of plain velvet and 8 inches of the more complex voided velvet in any given day. The largest order the workshop ever filled was 740 yards for the Royal Palace in Dresden, Germany, that took three years to weave.
Bringing it All Home
After touring the workshop, we walked into the front showroom. Samples and bolts of fabrics woven by the workshop line the walls. The plush velvets range in price per meter from €1,500 to €2,000, while the more complex voided velvets average €5,000. In the tiny gift shop, I contemplated buying an 8-inch square of velvet woven in the Bevilacqua “Leoni” logo, but then I spied a book on the history and fabrics of Tessitura Bevilacqua, which I purchased.
Visiting Tessitura Bevilacqua was the highlight of my trip to Italy. Maddalena and the weavers were generous with their time, and patient as they answered my many, many questions. Now that I’m back home, when I flip through the pages of my souvenir book, it transports me back to an unassuming old building housing a small, crowded, dusty workshop in Venice filled with treasure.