Sea silk in the new millennium (2000 to 2020)
In the technical textile literature between 1950 and 2000, sea silk was hardly a topic. If it was mentioned at all, it appeared under “rare” or “other” textile fibers. This changed shortly before the turn of the millennium. Daniel McKinley (1924-2010), professor emeritus of biology at the University of Albany, N.Y. USA, published an extensive study on the history of sea silk: Pinna and her silken beard: a foray into historical misappropriations in 1998 in the Canadian journal Ars Textrina – A Journal of Textiles and Costume, hardly known in Europe. McKinley’s study must be regarded as the decisive turning point in the reception history of sea silk. With more than 400 bibliographical references, it is still the most comprehensive and well-founded work on the subject today. On the background of meticulous analysis of texts from antiquity to the end of the 20th century, he resolves countless misunderstandings and corrects misattributions. But he also disenchants many a beautiful legend with biting irony and brings the subject back down to earth. A large part of the objects inventoried in recent years could not have been found without his information. One thing is clear: McKinley’s book is an indispensable working tool for anyone who wants to cover the subject of sea silk in the future. Since the publication is extremely difficult to find in European libraries, it is available to all interested parties, with the consent of the author’s heirs, as a pdf file in the chapter Bibliography → Monographs.
Daniel McKinley (1924-2010), author of the first sea silk monography
Showcase about sea silk at the Natural History Museum Basel in 1997
First sea silk exhibition at the Natural History Museum Basel in 2004
Exhibition catalogue 2004
Leaflet and programme of the accompanying events
Leaflet and programme of the accompanying events
Leaflet and programme of the accompanying events
In Switzerland, the Sea silk project began in 1998 at the Natural History Museum in Basel. In 1997, a thematic showcase on the occasion of a family Sunday about mussels and snails, two sea silk textile objects had already been displayed: gloves from Berlin and Rostock. Thanks to the publication by Daniel McKinley, further objects were soon added, so that in 2004 more than 20 sea silk objects from European and American collections could already be shown at the world’s first thematic exhibition. The exhibition Muschelseide – Goldene vom Fäden vom Seebrund / Bisso Marino – fili d’oro dal fondo del mare took place from March 19 to June 27, 2004 at the Naturhistorisches Museum Basel, in collaboration with the Museum der Kulturen Basel. The exhibition catalogue is the first illustrated monograph and, like all the texts in the exhibition, is completely bilingual, written in German and Italian.
Lucia D’Ippolito, co-author of the catalogue, hoped that this first exhibition on the forgotten Italian cultural heritage would also have an impact on southern Italy: “Speriamo che l’interesse registrato oggi su questo argomento non sia un fatto momentaneo, destinato a spegnersi nel giro di pochi mesi per mancanza di riscontro da parte delle Istituzioni locali, le quali potrebbero avere un ruolo determinante in questa iniziativa, per esempio, ‘prenotando’, il trasferimento di parte della mostra di Basilea a Taranto, permettendo così ai cittadini di riappropriarsi di una fetta del proprio passato e alla città intera di candidarsi ad un ruolo di primo piano nell’ambito delle molte iniziative previste in altri Paesi europei sul tema bisso marino.” (in English: We hope that today’s interest in this topic is not a momentary event, destined to die out in a few months due to a lack of response from local institutions, which could play a decisive role in this initiative, for example, by ‘booking’ the transfer of part of the Basel exhibition to Taranto, thus allowing citizens to regain possession of a slice of their past and the entire city to stand as a candidate for a leading role in the many initiatives planned in other European countries on the subject of sea-silk.)
At the vernissage of the exhibition, Evangelina Campi, a school teacher of a school class from Taranto who had covered sea silk in lessons, presented with her class Italian songs. She subsequently published a book on the importance of sea silk in Taranto, containing many historical photographs.
Sea silk exhibiton in Lugano 2008
Donatella Balia and Ignazio Marrocu of Sant’Antioco and Felicitas Maeder at the opening of the exhibition in Lugano 2008
In collaboration with the Swiss General Consulate in Naples, the (reduced) Basel travelling exhibition was actually shown in Taranto in 2006 and subsequently in collaboration with the Stazione di biologia di Porto Cesareo and the Università del Salento in Lecce. Finally, in 2008-2009 an extended exhibition was shown in collaboration with the Museo cantonale di storia naturale at Villa Ciani in Lugano. For the first time, previously unknown textile objects from Sant’Antioco were exhibited, and Ignazio Marrocu and Donatella Balia represented the Museo Etnografico of the Cooperativa Archeotur in Sant’Antioco in Switzerland.
Ulivo e Bisso Marino. Il mediterraneo che unisce, Exhibition at the Archivio di Stato di Taranto, 2018
In September 2018, an exhibition called Ulivo e Bisso Marino. Il mediterraneo che unisce was held at the Archivio di Stato in Taranto, then under the direction of Dr. Lucia D’Ippolito. This was the first time that sea silk objects from private collections, all made by local weavers from the first half of the 20th century, were shown to the public. It became clear that even before Rita del Bene, whose importance is relatively well established, the sisters Cesira and Filomena Martellotto and Filomena Pavone played a major role. Written documents and photographs were also on display, which complemented the history of sea silk in Taranto (see chapter Inventory).
The Pes sisters with Efisia Murroni, 2009
Efisia Murroni with the dedication from the Pes sisters
Sardinia was the destination of my first study trip in 1998. In 2001 and the following years, I was able to have longer stays. An encounter in 2009 with Efisia Murroni (1913-2013) and her daughter Emma Baghino will remain unforgotten. At the age of 15, she had already learned how to work with wool, linen and sea silk in Italo Diana’s studio. After the death of Jolanda Sitzia, she was the last surviving student of Italo Diana. She passed on her knowledge to many girls and women, including Assuntina and Giuseppina Pes (https://www.facebook.com/sorellepes/). A touching picture of the two sisters together with Efisia Murroni and a textile, embroidered with sea silk on linen, speaks about it: A EFISIA MURRONI . MAESTRA NELL’ANTICA ARTE DEL BISSO . PER AVERCI TRAMANDATO LE SUE CONOSCENZE … CON INFINITA GRATITUDINE E AMMIRATO RISPETTO . UN GRAZIE DI CUORE . ASSUNTINA E GIUSEPPINA PES – 2008 (in English: For Efisia Murroni, master of the ancient handicraft of sea silk – for having passed on her knowledge to us – in infinite gratitude and admiring respect – a heartfelt thank you – Assuntina and Giuseppina Pes 2008). The Pes sisters had learned the traditional Sardinian weaving techniques (a punto, a pibiones, da mustrra de licciu) from Leonilde Mereu. A large tapestry in the bakery Calabrò in Sant’Antioco, in which no sea silk was used, testifies to their excellent abilities as weavers. In 1984 they had already founded the Cooperativa Sant’Antioco Martire, where they gave weaving courses. They learned the production and processing of sea silk at the end of the 1990s from Efisia Murroni. With the few byssus available, they passed on their knowledge to the students in their Cooperativa, in part on behalf of the region of Sardinia. Today they show their great talent for craftsmanship in their work with sea silk and other materials in their rooms in Sant’Antioco.
Tapestry made by the Pes sisters for the bakery Calabrò in Sant’Antioco (no sea silk)
Altar cloth, linen-cotton fabric, embroidered with gold and red thread, and sea silk (IHS), 1960, Pes sisters
Sant’Antioco a cavallo, sea silk of 1920 on linen-cotton fabric, Pes sisters 2019
Weaving piece in progress, 2017
Sant’Antioco plays an ambivalent role in the subject of sea silk. Si scoprono nuovi maestri della tessitura del bisso was the title of the first article in a series by the Sardinian writer and journalist Claudia Moica in the Gazzetta del Sulcis, a weekly Sardinian magazine. The aim of the 2014 series of articles was to bring the forgotten witnesses of the sea silk processing in Sant’Antioco to light: “La cosa che stupisce è che l’amministrazione comunale di Sant’Antioco non tuteli la professionalità di Maestri come le sorelle Pes che potrebbero essere un valore aggiunto per la città lagunare; infatti avvalendosi delle loro idee si potrebbe dare una connotazione specifica e duratura.” (in English: What is surprising is that the municipal administration of Sant’Antioco does not protect the professionalism of Masters like the Pes sisters who could be an added value for the lagoon city; in fact, using their ideas could give a specific and durable connotation). An interview with Emma Diana Foscaliano, Italo’s daughter, ends with the following words, ”Forse è arrivato il momento che le istituzioni valorizzino la figura di un loro concittadino che ha dato lustro alla Sardegna, lasciando traccia della sua vita con degli studi approfonditi o, perlomeno, dedicandogli una via visto che da morti le onorificenze non vengono più concesse.” (in English: Perhaps the time has come for the institutions to give value to one of their fellow citizens, who has given Sardinia splendour, by leaving a trace of his life with in-depth studies, or at least dedicate a street name to him. Honors are no longer given to a dead person). Another article about Efisia Murroni directly addresses the community leaders: “Considerato che le cose preziose devono essere custodite adeguatamente ma anche rese pubbliche, perché non raccogliere tutte le opere e conservarle a futura memoria presso il museo etnografico del paese? All’amministrazione comunale l’arduo compito!” (in English: Considering that the precious things must be kept properly but also made public, why not collect all the works and keep them for future memory in the local ethnographic museum? A task for the municipal administration!) In the last article of Claudio Moica’s series, Rosanna and Giovannino Cossu remember their mother Jolanda Sitzia, who was also a student of Italo Diana. This article again ends with a public appeal to the local authority: “All’amministrazione comunale di Sant’Antioco il dovere di risposta, meglio se con atti pubblici!”
In the same year, thanks to the commitment of Antonella Senis and her comrades, the web page La vera storia del bisso marino a Sant’Antioco went online and constantly tries to clear up new inventions and falsehoods so that the true history of its unique cultural heritage is not lost.
Memorial plaque for Italo Diana near the City Hall in Sant’Antioco, 2015
The great importance of Italo Diana in the history of sea silk in Sardinia was concealed for too long. Sant’Antioco owes him much, because without Italo Diana, the knowledge about sea silk and its extraction and processing would have been lost. In 2015, Claudio Moica was finally heard. In front of the town hall, Italo Diana was to be honored with the Piazza Italo Diana, as stated in the resolution n. 44 of the municipal council of March 31, 2015: Sig. Italo Diana maestro d’arte e artigiano del bisso. Unfortunately, the honoring table shows “only” a Maestro di Arti Tessili. Why does it not mention his commitment to sea silk?
Invitation to the exhibition “Italo Diana – Ordito e trama di un’arte antica” at the Museo Archologico Comunale Ferrucio Barreca in Sant’Antioco
Four years later, on May 3, 2019, thanks to the renewed commitment of Antonella Senis, a unique exhibition was inaugurated at the Museo Archeologico Comunale Ferruccio Barreca in Sant’Antioco: ITALO DIANA, Ordito e trama di un’arte antica. This was the first time that this most important person for the surving to the knowledge of sea silk in Sant’Antioco was honored. This is thanks to Diana’s grandchildren who were willing to show their private textile treasures to the public. Unfortunately the exhibition had to be closed after only one month. Some tourists who come to Sant’Antioco because of the sea silk would have otherwise been able to gain a broader, more correct and new insight into history.
Emma Foscaliano with a basket full of sea silk of 1920 for the Pes sisters
The exhibition has brought to light another person who worked with sea silk to light: Emma Diana Foscaliano, one of the daughters of Italo Diana. She too has quietly and without fuss made countless embroideries and textile accessories with her father’s sea silk. There is more about this in the chapter Handicraft aspects → Applications and in the inventory. It was also Emma who donated a large basket of cleaned fiber beards from the early days of Italo Diana’s studio to the Pes sisters, trusting that they would use it in the spirit of their father.
Arianna Pintus, sea silk weaver in her atelier in Tratalias, near Carbonia
“Trame del tempo”, sea silk embroidery on home grown linen, Arianna Pintus
“L’albero della vita e delle madri”, sea silk embroidery on home grown linen, Arianna Pintus, 2017/18
Arianna Pintus (https://www.facebook.com/arianna.pintus) had also acquired the knowledge of the processing of sea silk in Sant’Antioco. Today she shows her craft in her beautiful little studio in Tratalias, near the Romanesque church of Santa Maria from the 13th century. She has taken seriously the specifications of Italo Diana in another area seriously: “Italo Diana arrivò a piantare i semi del lino affinché potesse insegnare alle sue allieve tutta la procedura della tessitura: dalla semina, alla seccatura, alla macerazione, fino all’estrazione delle fibre” (Moica 18.9.14). She grows, processes, and spins linen herself and weaves it together with sea silk and gold thread, with old motifs from Tratalias: “da un antico ricamo proveniente da Tratalias, realizzato con la tecnica del filet: uccelli, melograni, cuori, alberi, fiori e pavoni si uniscono in un simbolismo che racchiude speranza e augurio di vita, di rigenerazione.” A short video shows her in her studio.
Unfortunately, if the term “sea silk” is googled today, a term appears: Museo del bisso in Sant’Antioco. Its protagonist, Chiara Vigo, claims to be the last and only true weaver of sea silk and shows the way of processing from raw byssus to sea silk in her rooms. But beyond that, she invents her very own eight-thousand-year old history of sea silk with remarkable boldness and audacity and a lively imagination, far away from any historical facts, spinning tales tirelessly and to the delight of all the media. Unfortunately, the Vatican has also played a peculiar role since our protagonist declared in 2005 that the Volto Santo of Manoppello, venerated by believers as a “photo of Jesus,” to be sea silk (however, it is byssus in the ancient sense: so most probably finest linen) (Maeder 2016). One could laugh about this if these new legends had not soon been reflected in scientific literature. Who has the power of definition?
I once read: “We no longer recognize reality, and at some point we forget it.” (NZZ 22.3.2018) How true.The effects are beyond local. Two examples include the following: Why could the travelling exhibition from Basel not be shown in Sardinia of all places, neither in Sant’Antioco nor anywhere else on the island? And why is the Sardinian tradition of processing sea silk not mentioned in the most important ethnographic museum in Sardinia, the Museo del Costume in Nuoro, which shows a great variety of traditional costumes and textile products? It would be, in marketing jargon, the USP, or the unique selling proposition. No island, no country, no continent can boast of this cultural heritage.
For those who want to know more about sea silk in Sant’Antioco, I recommend the following books:
“Spirals in Time: the Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, Scales 2015
Helen Scales: “Spirali nel tempo – Le conchiglie e noi” 2017
The English marine biologist Helen Scales researched the production and processing of sea silk in Sant’Antioco and published her findings in 1915 in the chapter Spinning Shell Stories in her book Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells (Bloomsbury 2015, 145-171). The great success of the book led to an Italian translation: Spirali nel tempo – le conchiglie e noi with chapter VI on sea silk: Le conchiglie che filano (Beit Scienza 2017, 127-152).
„Harvest – The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects, Posnett 2019
Die Kunst der Ernte: Sieben kleine Naturwunder und ihre Geschichten (Posnett 2020)
Edward Posnett: “La vita segreta di sette oggetti naturali”, 2021
The fascination with sea silk also led the English writer Edward Posnett to Sardinia. In his book Harvest – The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects, published in 2019, one chapter shows his irritation at the contradictory stories about the sea silk in Sant’Antioco. The result is an excellent analysis of the situation (Chapter Sea Silk, The Bodley Head, London 2019, 123-170). This highly successful book has also been translated in German and published in 2019 under the title Die Kunst der Ernte: Sieben kleine Naturwunder und ihre Geschichten (Edward Posnett and Sabine Hübner, Hanser 2020). An Italian version is in preparation.
A lot has happened on the scientific level. Since the first congress in Athens in 2005, I have attended 15 congresses (Cork 2005, Belfast 2007, Troyes 2009, Castelen bei Basel 2012, Lecce 2013, Copenhagen 2014, Vienna and Toronto 2015, Milan, Antibes and Padua 2016, London and Oxford 2017). In this way, I was hopefully able to impart knowledge about sea silk to archaeologists and textile historians, to archivists, to collection and museum experts. This has resulted in 16 publications in English, German, French and Italian. I have also been able to pass on the pleasure of sea silk to countless people interested in textiles from various clubs and professional associations. There is more about this in the chapter Bibliography → Project Publications.
Since 2010 the project has had extensive websites (www.muschelseide.ch, www.sea-silk.ch, www.bisso-marino.ch) in German, English and Italian, with a comprehensive bibliography and a continuously updated inventory of all existing objects made from sea silk – till 2021 nearly 100!
In 2012, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Basel awarded me an honoris causa doctorate for my work on sea silk.
The Pes sisters and Felicitas Maeder at the first sea silk congress in Lecce, 2013
In 2013, the Department of Cultural Heritage of the University of Salento and the Centre for Textile Research of the University of Copenhagen jointly organized a first congress on sea silk (together with purple) in Lecce: Treasures of the Sea – Sea silk and purple dye in Antiquity. Assuntina and Giuseppina from Sant’Antioco demonstrated sea silk processing, and Inge Boesken-Kabold showed how a real purple coloring bath is made. Sea silk could not be dyed. My keynote speech and the other contributions are part of the proceedings published in Ancient Textiles Series 30 (Maeder 2017b). There is more about this in the chapter Handicraft aspects → Extraction and purification of the raw material.
In 2014, the Congress Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD was held at the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen. In my keynote lecture, Irritating Byssus – Etymological Problems, Material facts, and the Impact of Mass Media, I addressed the questionable way the media deal with the topic of sea silk, especially in Sardinia for the first time (Maeder 2017a).
In 2015, the conference Spuren vom Heiligen Antlitz: Sindon, Sudarium, Mandylion, Veronica, Volto Santo took place at the Catholic Academy in Vienna. I spoke with reference to the Volto Santo of Manoppello on the topic Byssus or sea silk? Myths, legends and etymological facts (Maeder 2016).
A lot has also happened in recent years with regard to a broader culturally interested public. We could pass on the joy of sea silk to many members of clubs and professional associations in the textile sector, and journalists are increasingly taking up the subject.
A very beautifully illustrated article about the Sardinian sea silk weavers Assuntina and Giuseppina Pes and Arianna Pintus appeared in 2018 in the noble journal of the watch company PATEK PHILIPPE – in German (pdf), Italian (pdf), French (pdf), Spanish (pdf), English (pdf), Japanese (pdf), Mandarin (pdf), and simple Chinese (pdf).
In 1999, my first article about sea silk was published in the German magazine MARE (13, 1999). 20 years later, in 2019, “Marina – the nautical magazine of Switzerland” reported about the project, in a German (pdf) and a French (pdf) version (marina.ch 127, 2019).