The first documents about the origin of weaving date back to about
2000 BC. They are wall paintings in Egyptian graves representing spinning
We must go back to the 11th (St.Gereon's Cloth, once kept in Cologne
in the church of the same name, now divided between various European
collections) and the 12th centuries (Baldishol's Cloth, Oslo, Kunstindustrimuseet)
to find the first pieces that can really be described as tapestry.
Since the 13th century, tapestry making spread throughout all of
Europe, each country having its own distinctive features, following
the development of the figurative arts and the specific tastes of
courts, nobility and upper middle class families.
France, Belgium and Holland
Since the 13th century the word tapestry has taken on its own meaning,
when tapestry activity is seen in French company statutes.
Tapestry spreads widely in France and in Flanders in the 14th
century, also thanks to the commission by the French royal household
and the Burgundy court for the weaving of the seriess of Apocalypse
tapestries for the Angers cathedral.
From the beginning of the 15th century the most important
centre of production became Arras (giving rise to the Italian
name for tapestry: arazzo), and then Tournai, famous for its
Bernard van Orley
"September Month": seventh piece of Maximilian's 'beating
the hunt' Brussels, about 1528
"Moses saved by the waters": third piece of Old Testament
seriessParis, about 1630
In this period depictions are taken from holy and profane
In the second half of the 15th century other factories start
up in Bruges, Oudenaarde, Antwerp and Brussels, famous for its
tapis d'or, which in the 16th century contributed to the spread
of the Italian Renaissance style in Flanders.
The production of allegorical subjects is also remarkable,
like the famous tapestry collection of the "Lady with the Unicorn"
made in Brussels by Willem de Pennemaker in 1512, depicting
the five senses (this picture represents "the taste"), now kept
in the Cluny Museum.
Willem de Pennemaker
"Signora con l'Unicorno"
In 1531 the Fontainebleau manufactory started up, as wished by Francois
I and inspired by Italian Mannerism themes (classical, mythological
and allegorical scenes, war and hunting scenes, portraits of nobles).
At the end of the 17th century French production centres such as Aubusson
and Beauvais gain European supremacy, surpassing Flemish producers,
who had previously dominated the scene, thanks also to the work and
school of Rubens who left a significantly pictorial and monumental
mark on tapestry.
Landscape from a
François Boucher cartoon
In Paris, under the direction of Charles Le Brun, Colbert
starts the royal manufactory of Gobelins in 1662, which imposed
the French style during the whole of the 18th century.
Taking its name from the Gobelins family, the Gobelin manufactory
moved from Reims to Paris towards the end of the 1400's, becoming
famous thanks to the direction of the painter Charles Le Brun.
The production of tapestry upholstery fabrics in France reaches
its greatest splendour during the 14th and 15th centuries,
the famous production industries of Paris, Valenciennes, Lilles
and Arras flourish. In this period the pastoral and rural
themes, typical of Mannerism, late Baroque and Rococo, prevail.
They are represented by such famous cartoonists as Francois
Boucher (1703-1770) and J. H. Fragonard (1723-1806).
Towards the late 1700's, many production industries were compelled
to close due to the economic crisis which occurred after the French
Revolution. Napoleon strove hard to promote their reopening, and in
the 19th century there were many efforts to keep this art alive, which
only regained its own identity with Art Nouveau.
The production technique underwent important modernization in the
Marie Cuttoli's (1925-30) laboratory which made punch cards, prepared
to translate works of Picasso, Lurçat, Braque, and Rouault into cloth.
The first examples of tapestry in Italy are made by Flemish experts.
Soon important manufactories grew up, like the Florentine, created
by Cosimo I in 1546, the Barberini tapestry manufactory of Rome, founded
by Cardinal Barberini in 1627, and also lesser centres of production
like Mantua, Milan, and Vigevano.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, tapestries were a not
insignificant part of a noble family's possessions, as many historical
documents show. In 1892,Giuseppe Giacosa wrote in his work "The private
life in the Castle ": "On the walls istoriati tapestry or vague thin
fabrics with garlands of flowers… the duty of the mistress of the
castle and the daughters is to care for the upholstery and tapestries,
kept folded on appropriate shelves in the room just called the carpets
wardrobe… here the foot-soldiers spend the whole day opening out,
beating, mending and folding the precious hangings, but their worth
is such, and they are held in such esteem, that mostly the mistress
of the house takes care of them directly".
Pietro Momenti, in the work " Venetian Art of the Renaissance",
wrote: "In 1521 the prince of San Severino was the Compagnia della
Calza's guest of honour in a noble's house. The hall, rooms, and porch
of the palace hung with pictures and tapestries; a precious golden
cloth was laid where the prince sat…".
The craftsman tradition also continued and grew in other Italian regions,
like Tuscany and Veneto. With the coming of Jacquard weaving, a high
quality mechanized production also begins in other areas, like Brianza
In Spain in 1720 Filippo V started up the S. Barbara of Madrid
manufactory, then managed by Mengs, which produced the famous tapestry
seriess of Goya cartoons (1776-91).
Coming up... History and development of weaving technologies