Cotton during the Italian Renaissance

The North Italian Cotton Industry 1200-1800

by Maureen Fennell Mazzaoui

For information on 1300-1600 see the entire paper here.

You can read a summary of the information in the article “Cotton is Period, Really?” here.

A) 1100-1300

The silk and cotton industries of medieval Italy were transplanted industries based on technological transfers and raw materials from the Islamic world. In contrast to silks which found ready purchasers among traditional European elites long accustomed to luxury cloth, cotton goods from the outset were geared toward mass consumption. The success of the cotton industry required the opening of markets and the creation of consumer demand for a new line of affordable fabrics. This in turn required cost-effective solutions to the transport and processing of large quantities of cotton fiber.

While the northward migration of some varieties of the cotton plant (gossypium herbaceum) from the tropical zone can be traced from an early date, a sustained expansion of Old World cotton cultivation occurred between 700 and 1600 when the acreage devoted to this crop reached its maximum historical extension stretching from southern Spain to South-east Asia.

The application of sophisticated weaving and dyeing techniques allowed the creation of a novel line of plain and patterned fabrics ranging from sheer muslins and lawns to hybrid fabrics in which cotton was mixed with linen, silk and wool. Islamic sumptuary laws favored the use of cotton garments among adherents to the faith. The versatility of cotton and its adaptability to a wide range of climatic conditions ensured a steady demand among urban and rural consumers linked by extensive commercial networks. In the early Islamic empire, cotton was transformed from a luxury commodity into an ordinary article of daily use.

The reception of these techniques in southern Europe in the wake of the Islamic conquests gave rise to new centers of cotton weaving based on imitations of Islamic fabrics. In Barcelona, Marseilles and several Italian ports, artisans specialized in coarse fabrics and sailcloth. In zones of cotton cultivation such as Sicily, Calabria and Apulia, local weavers produced inexpensive fabrics, apparel and household goods for domestic or regional markets and, in some cases, for export to Spain and France. In this region the consumption of cotton and linen cloth appears to have overshadowed woolens.

 

However, a large-scale, export-oriented industry first took firm root in northern Italy in the populous towns of the Po Valley, which were already important centers of woolen cloth production. The ports of Venice and Genoa, the Po and its tributaries, and the Alpine passes constituted vital commercial arteries for an industry of mass production which was dependent upon imported supplies of raw materials and international outlets for manufactured goods.

Underpinning the success of the Italian, and indeed the entire emerging cotton industry of late medieval Europe was a highly evolved maritime traffic in raw cotton that linked the major areas of supply to major and minor ports in the Mediterranean and eventually the Atlantic and North Sea. Northern Italy was at the epicenter of a burgeoning Mediterranean trade in crude cotton, dominated by Venetian and Genoese merchants. The provisioning of raw materials required a high level of capital investment and innovative solutions to the logistical challenges of transporting large quantities of a voluminous, lightweight commodity at a contained cost. A prime example is the regulated convoys of cargo ships and coordinated sailing dates of the Venetian muda gothonorum. However, large volumes of cotton were also carried on unregulated cogs of Genoa, Pisa, Ancona, Barcelona, Marseilles and Ragusa and other maritime cities which were linked to a system of cabotage serving minor ports.

In the face of intense western demand, commercial cultivation expanded in the principal cotton growing zones of the Mediterranean. While the prime grades of Syria, Armenia and Cyprus were heavily represented in cargoes of Venetian and other ships, lesser qualities of cotton from Greece, Turkey, and southern Italy (Apulia, Malta, Calabria and Sicily) as well as Egypt and North Africa figured prominently in an ever widening radius of traffic. The various grades of cotton were never mixed but were employed separately for distinct types of fabric.

Italian merchants successfully launched a broad array of cotton fabrics modeled on well- known Islamic prototypes, often preserving the original Arabic name, into European and Mediterranean trading channels. Cotton goods competed in price with linens and light woolens. Cottons also complemented linens and woolens by offering consumers of all means the widest possible choice of fabrics for a variety of applications in apparel and household furnishings. The low cost and versatility of cottons, available in a series of pure and mixed fabrics (with warps of wool, silk, linen and hemp), ranging from sheer veils to buckram, heavy denim, canvas and quilted materials, help to explain the great elasticity of demand for cotton cloth. Especially popular were fustians (from the Arabic fushtan) which combined a linen warp with a cotton weft in various combinations. Plain and dyed fustians, some with napped surfaces, were prized for their durability, variety of colors and woven designs which included stripes, ribs, checks and other geometric patterns.

Consumers were offered quality products at affordable prices through a dense distribution network that extended from international dealers to urban retailers and itinerant vendors in country fairs and weekly markets. The quality and provenance of recognized “brands” was guaranteed by registered trademarks and guild seals.

From the early twelfth century the cotton industry was established alongside woolen manufacture as one of the most important sectors of the urban economy. Its presence can be noted in virtually every town of significance and even some of minor importance: Genoa, Venice, Milan, Cremona, Piacenza, Pavia, Brescia, Monza, Bergamo, Parma, Mantua, Verona, Padua and Bologna.

The availability of yarn and prepared linen warps allowed the spread of fustian weaving to smaller centers, including many located within non-flax-producing areas in northern and central Italy. In some cases output was limited. Cotton workers in Mantua, for example, produced a mere 300 pieces of fustian a year for the domestic market.12 In contrast, cotton weaving assumed considerable importance in Tuscany and Central Italy where artisans concentrated on niche products for export such as sheer veils, sailcloth, articles of apparel and decorative household goods, utilizing Lombard linen warps and cotton imported through Venice, Pisa and Ancona. Cloth from this area was well represented in the cargos of ships destined for France and Spain. Fustian workers organized into minor guilds or affiliated with woolen corporations can be identified in a wide swath of territory including many ports and interior cities such as Florence, Arezzo, Siena, Lucca, Pisa, Cortona, Poggibonsi, Pontremoli, Città di Castello, Sansepulcro, Perugia, Forlì, Cesena, Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto, Terni, Narni, Foligno, Todi, Ancona, Ascoli Piceno, Fano, Civitanova and Rome. 13 Specialty fabrics from the Kingdom of Naples, where cotton production had an early and independent development, also achieved visibility in commercial channels.

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