20th century

The majority of the written testimonies and objects inventoried date from between 1750 and 1900. At the beginning of the 20th century there were efforts at various levels and new attempts to revive the processing of sea silk in Sardinia and Taranto. This development has been relatively well documented. I will therefore limit myself to a few important persons and events and refer to numerous publications.


“…ai primi del Novecento, in Sardegna, la raccolta e la lavorazione del bisso per ricavarne capi d’abbigliamento non estistevano più,” wrote Chiarella Addari in 1988. No more processing of sea silk at the beginning of the 19th century? This cannot be true, or Admiral Nelson would not have been able to send his mistress Emma Hamilton gloves made of sea silk during the siege of Toulon on March 18, 1804, as documented by the following: “I send you the comb… and a pair of curious gloves, they are made only in Sardinia of the beards of mussels. I have ordered a muff; they tell me they are very scarce, and for that reason I wish you to have them” (Hamilton 1893). It is not clear how widespread production was in the 19th century. We learned that it existed in the chapters on fairs and exhibitions and production and trade. It is connected with two names, without which we would probably not know anything more about sea silk in Sardinia.

The Sardinian military doctor Giuseppe Basso-Arnoux (1840-1919) was already familiar with sea silk as a child. His parents wore accessories made of sea silk on holidays: his father, an architect at the royal court, wore gloves, and his mother wore a headscarf. He only remembered this much later, however, when once fishermen in Oristano offered to sell him fiber beards of the Pinna nobilis (Addari 1988). From that moment on, he worked tirelessly for the revival of the craft and persistently pursued the possibility of industrializing the production and processing of sea silk. After his retirement, Basso-Arnoux moved from Alghero to Carloforte, which he wanted to make the industrial center of the sea silk processing industry. This failed due to a lack of support from the fishermen and, as he writes, because the women there were not suitable for such delicate work. Nevertheless, Basso-Arnoux exhibited Sardinian sea silk items at the Esposizione dei lavori femminili in Turin in 1908. But here also lies disappointment; the public had remained indifferent. He had participated in exhibitions in Milan, Berlin, Cettigne (Montenegro) and Genoa (Basso-Arnoux 1916). In 1910, for the inauguration of the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, he brokered several objects he had made himself for 400 francs: a cap, a ladies’ purse and several posamenterie. These still belong to the museum.

In 1908, Giuseppe Basso-Arnoux founded the Byssus Ichnusa Society, based in London

It is still largely unclear what the Byssus Ichnusa Society, founded in 1908 to promote the processing of sea silk, was. Why was its seat in London and not in Italy? A search of the commercial register office in London was unsuccessful; the name is not known.

In 1916, Basso-Arnoux published Sulla pesca ed utilizzazione della ‘Pinna Nobilis’ e del relativo bisso. From this, it is clear that he knew about a sea silk production in Taranto, where he also learned about the process a pelliccia. This was probably the trigger for his own studies. After the plans for a mechanical fabric production had broken down, they led to another method of fur production. Basso-Arnoux must have employed several people to make textile objects, mostly experienced old countrywomen, because the handspinning was most difficult. In a letter dated October 21, 1917 to Giuseppe Lisio, founder of a textile factory in Florence, he lists all the places where he sold or gave away sea silk objects: Buenos Aires, Bucarest, Arad, Budapest, Atene, Torino, Roma, Napoli, Genova, Firenze (Bardini Barbafieri 1994). In the same letter he mentions a weave of sea silk 4 meters long, which is hardly imaginable.

Three years before his death, he summed up in very sorrowful and personal words his years of efforts, and his failure, to revive the processing of sea silk in Sardinia: “Ho fatto quanto ho potuto per riuscire ad attirare l’attenzione sui tanti poveri pescatori, che giacciono nella più sqallida miseria, ho sacrificato tempo e denaro, mi rimarrà la soddisfazione d’aver impiegato gradevolmente il tempo, lasciandoche altri profittino dei miei insegnamenti, e che riesca a concretare qualche cosa, che valga sempre più a fare pronunziare il nome d’Italia.” (in English: I have done all I could to succeed in drawing attention to the many poor fishermen, who live in the most squalid misery, I have sacrificed time and money, I will be left with the satisfaction of having spent my time pleasantly, leaving others to take advantage of my teachings, and to succeed in realizing something that is worth more and more to honour the name of Italy.) Basso-Arnoux died in 1919 on the island of San Pietro, in Carloforte, which he had once chosen as the future center of sea silk production. His grave can still be seen there today.

A few years later, another Sardinian took the lead. Italo Diana (1890-1967) had grown up in a women’s household in Sant’Antioco and was interested early in everything to do with spinning and weaving. Therefore, it is quite possible that he had heard of Basso-Arnoux. Perhaps he had even known him and had taken over the knowledge about sea silk from him, as from Sant’Antioco to Carloforte it is only a few kilometers of road and a short boat trip. Diana was 29 when Basso-Arnoux died.

Italo Diana (right) with women in traditional costume

Vittorio Alinari, who ran a photographic studio in Florence, described the production and processing of sea silk into obviously woven waistcoats, for which 900 fiber beards were used, in a report on his second trip to Sardinia from April 5-22, 1914: “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 filo delicatissimo e facila a strapparsi.” (in English: But the most curious process is that of the Pinna nobilis, which is fished in great abundance in the gulf and whose terminal appendage (byssus), formed of silky filaments, is first cleaned of the calcareous concretions adhering to it, then spun and woven. The result is a fabric of a beautiful metallic colour, close to copper, which is used to make waistcoats which, decorated with gold filigree buttons, also worked in the town and in the Cagliaritan area, produce a beautiful effect. Each waistcoat requires at least 900 tails, the spinning of which costs about one lira per hundred. This cannot be considered an exaggerated price because only a hundred or so can be spun per day, as the thread is very delicate and easily torn). From the report, we know that Alinari was a guest of Italo Diana in Sant’Antioco, and he had apparently already met him on his first trip to Sardinia in 1913. All around Cagliari, and in the paese these fabrics are said to have been produced “of a beautiful, metallic color.”

Assunta Cabras, Emanuela Vacca, Raffaela Schirru, Raffaela Lusci (left to right), four students of Italo Diana in front of his studio

In 1923, Italo Diana’s studio, where wool, linen and cotton were spun and woven, was established on Via Magenta in Sant’Antioco. The studio became famous beyond the island for its textiles made of sea silk.

Tapestry for Mussolini

Tapestry for Mussolini in its original state

Perhaps the most amazing object is a tapestry that was made for Mussolini, the Duce, on the occasion of the inauguration of the newly founded mining town of Carbonia. In the center is the bundle of lictors and the writing WW IL DUCE – Evviva il Duce. The weaver Assunta Cabras of the Atelier Diana is mentioned with her initials AC at the bottom right, next to Italo Diana ID. However, it was never presented to the Duce. There was much speculation about the reason for this. In the biography about her father, Emma Diana writes in 2010: “Si sono formulate diverse ipotesi sulla mancata consegna dell’arazzo al Duce, prevista in occasione della visita a Carbonia e nel Sulcis. La verità è che non si raggiunse un accordo per la consegna e l’arazzo restò a casa Diana.” Italo Diana and the community could not agree on how to hand over the tapestry to the Duce. So, it finally remained in the atelier in Sant’Antioco. It survived the war unscathed and sometime later it was returned to the public. Now, however, it is slightly altered by Italo Diana himself: Around the former bundle of lictors various indefinable ornaments entwine themselves, and the fascist homage is embroidered with politically unsuspicious patterns.

Mostra dell’artigianata sarda in Cagliari, 1929, with objects of Yolanda Sitzia

List of objects of Italo Diana for the exhibition in Sassari 1939

A photograph made by Jolanda Sitzia, also a student of Italo Diana, has survived from an exhibition in Cagliari in 1930, Mostra dell’artiganato. All textile objects from the Italo Diana atelier that are still known today can be admired in the inventory. Diana’s two daughters, Mariangela and Emma, knew of the value of these objects and guarded them well. After the death of the two sisters, their descendants took over the responsibility for this unique cultural asset.

Probably the last exhibition in which sea silk was shown as a commercial object took place in Sassari from August 15 to September 2, 1950: Mostra regionale dell’artigianato delle piccole industrie e delle materie prime della Sardegna. It is not known whether objects from the atelier of Italo Diana were also shown here (anon. 1950). At that time, he was already director of the textile department of the Istituto Statale d’Arte per la Sardegna in Sassari.

This was the end of the history of sea silk as a commercial commodity. The nylon age had dawned. In Sardinia, the lawyer Ginevra Zanetti (1906-1991) was the first to study the subject of sea silk again, in addition to her professorship at the University of Sassari. As part of her research on the ecclesiastical heritage of Sardinia, a detailed study on sea silk and liturgical textiles was published in 1964: Un’ antica industria sarda: il tessuto d’arte per i paramenti sacri. At the same university, Gerolama Carta Mantiglia († 2013) was professor of Sardinian ethnology. She had known Leonilde Mereu from Sant’Antioco and her textile works, and she also studied sea silk in the context of Sardinian textile traditions. Carta Mantiglia was also co-author of the exhibition catalogue, Basel 2004.

Sea silk exhibition in the Museo Etnografico in Sant’Antioco, founded in 1984

Giuseppina Pes, Ignazio Marrocu, Assuntina Pes and Donatella Balia, 2014

The Cooperativa Archeotur was founded in 1984 in Sant’Antioco. It is in charge of the important archaeological sites on the island, which date back to prehistoric times, and it has for many years passionately made a great contribution to the knowledge of the cultural and artisan traditions of the island. In the Museo Etnografico of the Cooperativa Archeotur, the local sea silk production is also shown.


Other sources on this topic include the following:
Zanetti 1964, Addari Rapallo 1993, Bellieni 1973, Cherchi Paba 1974, Siddi 1995, Acquaro 1996, Carta Mantiglia 1997, 2004, 2006, Smyth 1998, and Meloni 2007.


At the beginning of the 20th century, between 20,000 and 30,000 fan shells per year of the Pinna nobilis were harvested in Taranto as food. The raw byssus (the byssus of a fan shelll weighs 1-3 grams) obtained from it was 30 to 40 kg. In 1928 the Consiglio Provinciale dell’Economia di Taranto published the illustrated paper Bisso e Porpora: per la rinascita delle due grandi industrie by Beniamino Mastrocinque. It ends with the request to turn the small-scale craft of sea silk processing, which was still practiced in only a few families, into an economic activity with jobs. Two conditions had to be met: a regular supply of byssus and the possibility of a mechanized processing of the sea silk. If we believe Mastrocinque, then around 1928 the import of byssus from Sardinia to Taranto was also considered, since nobody in Sardinia would benefit 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.” It can be concluded that Mastrocinque was not aware of the efforts being made in Sardinia at the time, unlike Basso-Arnoux, who mentions Mastrocinque.

Sea silk processing in Taranto, Mastrocinque 1928

Sea silk objects at the Mostra Internazionale di Economia Domestica, Rom, 21.12.1927

The marine biologist Attilio Cerruti (1878-1956) carried out studies and breeding experiments with the Pinna nobilis at the Istituto sperimentale talassografico in Taranto in the 1930s (Cerruti 1938 & 1939). Filomena Martellotta (1894-1927) founded the first Scuola privata di Avviamento Professionale per la Donna (today’s Istituto I.I.S. Principessa Maria Pia) in 1923 (the same year in which Italo Diana founded his studio in Sant’Antioco), and the processing of sea silk was a subject for teaching (D’Ippolito 1994, Campi 2004). The sisters Cesira and Filomena Martellota probably played a more important role than previously thought. This is also shown by the new objects that came to light in 2019, almost all of which date back to them and their descendants. The teacher Rita del Bene (1909-1998) experimented with the processing of sea silk on a mechanical loom, which finally led to a patent in 1936 (Del Bene, 1937). She was a fervent fascist who saw a contribution to the self-sufficiency of luxury textile manufacture in sea silk: “I filamenti serici della pinna nobilis (…) servono benissimo nel settore die tessuti a dare un notevole decisive contributo all’autonomia economica della nostra Grande Italia.” In 1938, a chair for sea silk processing was to be established, but this did not come about due to lack of financial support from the Roman Ministry. Del Bene then founded her own private school to teach the processing of sea silk, which was attended by 22 students shortly before the Second World War.

Rita del Bene (1909-1998)

Patent for the mechanical processing of sea silk, 1936

Letter of Rita del Bene at the Ministry of Economy in Rome, 1942

In December 1942, she addressed a letter to the Ministry of Economy in Rome, in which she demanded the exclusive rights to all Pinna nobilis, in all seas of the Empire, its colonies and all occupied territories: “… l’esclusività della raccolta della pinna nobilis ovunque e comunque essa venga prodotta, sia naturalmente che arficialmente, in tutti i fondali marittimi compresi nei mari del Regno, delle sue Colonie e dei territori di occupazione.”

All of these projects ended with the Second World War and were not continued afterwards. In Taranto, sea silk was mentioned in connection with literature about travelers on grand tours in the 18th and 19th  centuries. In the 1990s, the local history magazine Cenacolo published several publications by Giacinto Peluso, teacher, writer and local historian, and by Lucia D’Ippolito, the director of the Archivio statale of Taranto until 2019, both without much echo. In 1999, the director of the Biblioteca comunale Acclavio was most surprised when I mentioned that sea silk would be the subject of my research during my first stay in Taranto. “Come mai una Svizzera, di un paese interno, arriva a portarci le radici della nostra storia” (in English: How is it that a Swiss woman, from a landlocked country, comes to us to bring us the roots of our history)? Lucia D’Ippolito has covered this important phase in the history of sea silk in Taranto in the catalogue for the first exhibition dedicated to this subject, which took place in Basel in 2004 (D’Ippolito 2004).


Other sources on this topic include the following: de Vincentiis 1913, Magno 1913, Ricci 1913, Blandamura 1925, Croce 1927, Petrali Castaldi 1929, Villani 1947/48, Parenzan 1959 und 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, and Girelli Renzulli 2000.