Date of this Version
Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium,October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
Nearly two dozen centuries-old, corded quilts and fragments made of jewel-toned silks rest in North American and European collections. Expertly designed, they are variously stitched with imagery of ships sailing over waters that teem with fish, musicians who play amidst animals that gambol and prance to their music, armed hunters and their dogs in pursuit of boar, wolf, and even lion, and arcaded galleries where half-dressed women pose beneath the arches. Double-headed eagles, a symbol of both political and religious significance, and roundels featuring profiles of men wearing turbans or crowns, are also common motifs.
Each quilt is completely reversible; one backs gold silk with coral silk, other works pair gold silk with blue or red, and some in green silk reverse to cream or pink. The designs stitched into each quilt are readily legible, created by quarter-inch rolls of cotton laid between the silk layers, raising the patterns in high relief.
The quilts’ origins are obscure. Their imagery apparently draws from European sources combined with western Asian art from 1550 to 1700, yet previous attributions to production in India and Portugal (inspired by Indian textiles) do not pass expert scrutiny. Moreover, although some of the imagery may originate from Middle Eastern models, there is scant evidence the quilts traveled other than to western Europe. Current thought points to possible production within the Mediterranean basin: perhaps on the island of Chios, in southern France, or Italy. Our research adds the Syrian port town of Tripoli as another possibility.
The surviving twenty-three works may represent various areas and/or periods of production. Our examination of where each piece surfaced before museum acquisition supports some possible provenances more than others. For example, two museum pieces trace to Cornwall, where shiploads of tin have departed for Mediterranean ports for centuries, and perhaps returned with these opulent quilts.