20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century continuous new attempts were made on different levels in Sardinia and in Taranto to revive the processing of sea-silk. This has been studied in some detail. I therefore confine myself to a few important points and refer to the numerous publications.


Harvest of the noble pen shell on the Mar Piccolo, Taranto 1927. Mastrocinque 1928
Harvest of the noble pen shell on the Mar Piccolo, Taranto 1927. Mastrocinque 1928
Taranto

In Taranto the Pinna nobilis was collected only as food at the beginning of the 20th century. Per year between 20,000 and 30,000 mollusks were harvested. The collected byssus, each about 1.5 g, gave the amount of around 30 to 40 kg raw material (Mastrocinque 1928).

In 1928, Beniamino Mastrocinque published the illustrated article Bisso e Porpora: per la rinascita delle due grandi industrie in Consiglio Provinciale dell'Economia di Taranto. At that time only few families cultivated the manufacture on a small scale. The paper ends with the request to turn it into an economic activity and thus to create new jobs. This had two preconditions: a regular supply of raw byssus and the possibility of a mechanised processing of sea-silk.

Since 1923 the production of sea-silk was a part of the curriculum at the Scuola Professionale Femminile led by Filomena Martellotta (D'Ippolito 1994, Campi 2005). The teacher, Rita del Bene, experimented with the processing of sea-silk on a mechanical loom. In 1936 she received a patent (Del Bene 1937). In 1938, a Department of sea-silk processing was to be set up, but because of the lack of financial support from the Roman ministry this couldn't be realised. Rita del Bene then founded her own private school for sea-silk processing, which shortly before the war had 22 students.

The Istituto sperimentale talassografico in Taranto conducted studies and breeding experiments with the Pinna nobilis in the 1930's (Cerruti 1938 & 1939).


All of these projects ended after the Second World War and were not pursued further. This important phase in the history of sea-silk in Taranto was thoroughly covered by Lucia D'Ippolito in the catalogue to the first exhibition devoted to the topic, held in Basel in 2004 (D'Ippolito 2004).

In recent years sea-silk has also been discussed in different schools. The Istituto Technico Commerciale Pitagora, the class 2000/2001 of Anna Buso studied the topic: Bisso e Porpora: Il mare e le risorse economiche nel tarantino. At the Scuola Ugo Foscolo, Evangelina Campi promoted several school projects to provide young people with the traditions of their native country. In cooperation with the Liceo Italiano Carlo Levi in Basel, this led to the appearance of their school class at the opening of the exhibition in 2004. The book resulting from these projects shows new local aspects and witnesses, and particularly first publicised photographs (Campi 2005).


Other sources: de Vincentiis 1913, Magno 1913, Ricci 1913, Blandamura 1925, Croce 1927, Petrali Castaldi 1929, Villani 1947/48, Parenzan 1959 & 1984, Congedo & Putignani 1964, Vacca 1966, Ross 1978, Sada 1983, Bino 1987, Scamardi 1987, Dotoli & Fiorino 1989, Peluso 1993, Dierkens et al. 1994, Zacchino 1995, Solito 1998, Girelli Renzulli 2000



Sardinia

Around 1928, according to Mastrocinque, the import of byssus from Sardinia and other places to Taranto was contemplated, because in Sardinia no one would take benefits from it: «…e si potrebbe altresi utilizzare il bisso ricavato da quella pescata in altre spiagge della penisola e delle isole, specie della Sardegna, e da cui oggi non si trae alcun profitto». One can conclude that at this time Mastrocinque knew nothing of the efforts in Sardinia - as opposed to Basso-Arnoux, who also mentioned Mastrocinque.

The photographer brothers Alinari describe the manufacture and processing of sea-silk to waistcoats (sottoveste?) in their report of a trip to Sardinia in 1915. For these apparently woven objects 900 byssus tufts were necessary: «Ma la lavorazione più curiosa è quella che si fa della Pinna nobilis, che viene pescata in grande abbondanza nel golfo e la cui appendice terminale (bisso), formata da filamenti setacei, viene, in prima, ripulita dalle concrezioni calcaree che vi stanno aderenti, quindi filata e tessuta. Ne deriva una stoffa di un bel colore metallico, che si avvicina al rame, con la quale si confezionano delle sottoveste che, guernite di bottoni in filigrana d'oro, pure lavorati nel paese e nel Cagliaritano, producono bellissimo effetto. Per ogni sottoveste occorrono almeno 900 code la cui filatura costa, all'incirca, una lira al cento. Questo non puo riternesi un prezzo esagerato perche non puo filarsene che un centinaio al giorno essendo il fila delicatissimo e facila a strapparsi.» (Alinari 1915)


The history of Basso-Arnoux' foundation Byssus Ichnusa Society for the promotion of sea-silk manufacturing has not been studied yet. Why was its domicile in London and not in Italy?
The history of Basso-Arnoux' foundation Byssus Ichnusa Society for the promotion of sea-silk manufacturing has not been studied yet. Why was its domicile in London and not in Italy?
The physician Giuseppe Basso-Arnoux (1840-1919) had been introduced to sea-silk already as a child. On Sundays his parents wore sea-silk accessories: the father gloves, the mother a headscarf. Only much later, he remembered that once he was offered tufts of byssus from fisherman in Oristano (Addari 1988). From that moment on, he worked tirelessly for the revival of this craft and pursued the possibility of industrialisation of the production and processing of sea-silk with great perseverance. In 1916 his paper Sulla pesca ed utilizzazione della ‚Pinna Nobilis’ e del relativo bisso appeared. Basso-Arnoux speaks of kingly garments and vestments of the priests of Egypt, of ornaments for Greek and Roman ladies made of sea-silk: «manti dei Re, ed i paludamenti dei grandi Sacerdoti dell’Egitto ... I più sontuosi ornamenti delle donne greche e romane erano di bisso». One can conclude that Basso-Arnoux wasn't aware of the ambiguity of the term bisso (byssus) - or did he not want to give his opponents more ammunition?

Italo Diana (1891 - after 1959) was the other important person in the history of sea-silk in Sardinia. In a small studio on Via Magenta in Sant'Antìoco, he not only spun and wove wool, linen, cotton for male costumes and uniforms, and the orbace, the traditional Sardinian coarse woollen fabric. This studio was also famous for its textiles from sea-silk - well-known and sought-after not only in Sardinia. This story has been studied by Bardini Barbafiera 1994 and Flore 2004.

Ginevra Zanetti published a detailed study of mulberry silk and sea-silk in Sardinia in 1964: Un' antica industria sarda: il tessuto d'arte per i paramenti sacri.

At the University of Sassari, Gerolama Carta Mantiglia, professor of Sardinian folklore, worked and published in the context of the Sardinian textile traditions on sea-silk (Carta Mantiglia 1997a & b, 2004).

In recent years several young Sardinian wrote their Tesi di laurea on sea-silk, among them:
  • Flore, Sergio. Il bisso marino. Un antico panno che viene dal mare. Tesi di laurea in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali, Università degli studi di Urbino 'Carlo Bo', anno 2003/04. In addition to the historical survey the restoration needs of sea-silk objects is discussed.
  • Bullega, Cinzia. La lavorazione del bisso a Sant'Antìoco: aspetti etnolinguistico. Tesi di laurea in Lettere, Università degli Studi di Cagliari, anno 2005-06. This is an ethno-linguistic documentation of dialectal terms associated with the production and processing of sea-silk in Sant'Antìoco.


The studio of Italo Diana has still an impact today: For Sant'Antìoco sea-silk is not yet a thing of the past. Since the 1990s the city on the homonymous island does a lot to conserve the knowledge and to communicate it.

The Cooperativa Archeotur, founded in 1984 in Sant'Antìoco, is engaged in the preservation and presentation of the important archaeological sites, ranging from the Arabs, Romans, Carthaginians, Phoenicians back to the prehistoric eras. For many years the cooperative has now been doing an excellent work in passionately communicating the knowledge of the historical, cultural and craft traditions of the island. In the Museo Etnografico, the relevancy of sea-silk from a historical point of view is shown.

The community provides the weaver Chiara Vigo with premises for her Museo e laboratorio del Bisso, where she presents the whole manufacturing process from raw byssus to threads of sea-silk and demonstrates the weaving. Chiara Vigo has invented with an extraordinary imagination her own story of sea-silk and spins it tirelessly and to the delight of all media on and on....


The 100 year old weaver, Efisia Murroni, with a thanks of her last two students, woven in sea-silk
The 100 year old weaver, Efisia Murroni, with a thanks of her last two students, woven in sea-silk
In Sant’Antìoco still several sea-silk weavers live. The oldest is Efisia Murroni, born in 1913. Since the age of 15 years she has learned the processing of wool, linen, and sea-silk in the studio of Italio Diana and passed on her knowledge to many local girls and women. A touching picture - embroidered with sea-silk on linen - testifies:
A EFISIA MURRONI
MAESTRA NELL’ANTICA ARTE DEL BISSO
PER AVECI TRAMANDATO LE SUE CONOSCENZE...
CON INFINITA GRATITUDINE E AMMIRATO RISPETTO
UN GRAZIE DI CUORE
ASSUNTINA E GIUSEPPINA PES - 2008
(For Efisia Murroni, mistress of the ancient craft of sea-silk – for passing on her knowledge to us - in infinite gratitude and great respect - many thanks - Assuntina and Giuseppina Pes 2008)

Thus, Sant'Antioco is probably the last place in the world where still several weavers of sea-silk live.


Further sources: Bellieni 1973, Cherchi Paba 1974, Siddi 1995, Aquaro 1996, Smyth 1998, Flore 2002, 2003/04, 2005 a & b, Meloni 2007



Albany, New York - and Basel, Switzerland


Daniel McKinley, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Albany, NY United States, published an extensive study of the history of sea-silk in 1998: Pinna and her silken beard: a foray into historical misappropriations (McKinley 1998). In the same year, I, Felicitas Maeder, initiated the project sea-silk and was accepted as a honorary employee at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Three years later, thanks to information by the librarian of the Abegg Foundation Riggisberg, I grew aware of McKinley's study. I contacted McKinley, and it turned out that my letter was the first reaction to his book. Until his death in the spring of 2010 we were in a lively and productive exchange. He was an indispensable interlocutor and has become a critical companion. Meanwhile, his entire archive on sea-silk has been transferred to the Natural History Museum Basel, where it will be accessible for future studies.

McKinley's study must be regarded as the decisive turning point in the modern history of sea-silk. It contains over 400 bibliographic references and is to date the largest and best founded study on sea-silk. On the background of a meticulous textual analysis, he solved countless misunderstandings and corrects false attributions. He also ruffled some feathers over beautiful legends with sharp irony and brings them back on the ground of reality (some of them, however, should be revised based on new sources). I would not have found a large part of the items inventoried over the last few years without his instruction. One thing is clear: McKinley's book is an excellent basis for anyone who wants to deal with this subject.



The first showcase on sea-silk in winter 1997/98 at the Museum of Natural History, Basel, Switzerland
The first showcase on sea-silk in winter 1997/98 at the Museum of Natural History, Basel, Switzerland
The project sea-silk

My involvement with the topic of sea-silk began in the fall of 1997 with a display case at the Natural History Museum in Basel. On a museum's family Sunday on mollusks and snails this was meant to draw the attention on the unusual fabric from a marine product. In 1998 the unexpected interest led to the initiation of the Project Sea-silk and the formulation of three project objectives:
  1. Create an inventory of all surviving objects from sea-silk,
  2. Exploring the history of sea-silk and its production and processing,
  3. Documentation of the remaining testimonies of this almost extinct handicraft.
In collaboration with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research EMPA, St. Gallen, an institution of ETH Zurich, a simple analytical method for the identification of the sea-silk fibre was developed.


Poster from the exhibition 2008/2009 in Lugano, Switzerland
Poster from the exhibition 2008/2009 in Lugano, Switzerland
The world's first thematic exhibition took place in 2004 at the Natural History Museum Basel: Muschelseide - Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund / Bisso marino - fili d'oro dal fondo del mare (Sea-silk - Golden threads from the depth of the see), in collaboration with the European Department of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. More than 20 textile objects made of sea-silk from European and U.S. collections were displayed. The exhibition catalogue is the first illustrated monograph and is - like all texts in the exhibition - bilingual, German and Italian.
In 2006 it was shown as a traveling exhibition in Taranto (in collaboration with the Swiss General Consulate in Naples) and in Lecce (Apulia) (in collaboration with the Stazione di Biologia di Porto Cesareo and the University of Lecce). In 2008/2009, an amplified exhibition was shown in the Villa Ciani, Lugano, in collaboration with the Museo cantonale di storia naturale.

Today the inventory consists of more than 60 objects. At various textile conferences and public events in Switzerland and abroad, the project sea-silk was presented and thus attracted the attention of professionals and textile institutions. Several papers in German, French, English and Italian were published.

With the internet new possibilities of research arise, as many books from one of the major project period, the 16th to 19th century, are now available online. For the first time it has become possible to search with key words and phrases, in a constantly growing number of scanned books. Thus, the project sea-silk is a real work in progress. A project website with all the networking opportunities is therefore the most appropriate medium.