As you wander around the historic workshops of Emilia-Romagna it is not uncommon to come across canvases printed with bright colours or very fine antique-style embroidery. These products by local artisans are experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to the recovery of past traditions, particularly rooted in Romagna and in the province of Reggio Emilia.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, embroidery was a thriving and profitable activity in some parts of Romagna. In the Ravenna valley of the River Lamone and, in particular, at Brisighella and Fognano, hand and hoop embroidery were commonplace, on tulle and velvet, with multi-coloured or single-colour threads.
For decades this art went through a period of decline. However, in the past few years, in no small part thanks to the “C’era una volta il ricamo” [Once upon a time there was embroidery] Association, founded in 1989, traditional embroidery has been revived in the skilful hands of enthusiasts who dedicate themselves to the decoration of bedspreads, sheets, towels, curtains, pillows and even formal wear.
Associations and embroidery groups have also spread to Rimini, Riccione, Bellaria and to the small towns of Montescudo and Coriano in the Rimini hinterland. In these places, various types of embroidery are produced, such as macramé, bobbin lace and tatting, following in the footsteps of the school of Anita Sangiorgi, founded in Rimini in 1897.
The history of embroidery in Ravenna is deeply intertwined with that of the city itself. Byzantine embroidery came from the East at the time of the Exarchate of Ravenna (sixth-eighth centuries), as an art used to embellish the robes of the exarches and their courtiers. Over the centuries, the techniques used to achieve these extraordinary works of embroidery were connected to monastic life, and have thus managed to survive to the present day.
Today in Ravenna, Byzantine needlework techniques are handed down thanks to the courses held at the Italian Women’s Centre, while nearby, Russi, the school of Irma Scudellari Melandri, aims to keep this ancient form of craftsmanship alive. The artisans of the Byzantina Ars work with linen fabrics on which they embroider using gold, silver and silk threads, using the grass stitch and the mat stitch.
Another type of embroidery with historical inspiration, linked to the region, is the Ars Canusina. This can be found in Reggio Emilia and in the towns of Casina and San Polo, where an ancient technique is still used today to decorate linen and silk re-creating the decorative style that was typical of the era of Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115), that is, inspired by the ornamentation and decorative elements from the monuments in the area.
The Reggio Ricama Association is credited with having recovered this ancient art form, which creates works in rust and brown tones using various types of stitching, such as the grass stitch and the box stitch. The association also organises embroidery courses and practical demonstrations.
We return to Romagna, finally, to learn about a technique that has been in use in this region since the eighteenth century – printing on canvas, a peasant tradition that has flourished in the areas of Forlì-Cesena, Ravenna and Rimini after a long period of oblivion.
To make a traditional Romagna canvas, firstly, you need a natural fabric, like linen or hemp, and pear-wood blocks carved by the same craftsmen who will use them to print onto the canvas. The next step is the preparation of the dye, in which all the blocks are soaked: the most typical is a rust colour, but yellow ochre, blue and red are also used. The resulting material is turned into tablecloths, napkins, aprons, bedspreads and many other household textiles embellished with traditional designs such as ivy leaves, ears of wheat, cockerels, grapevines, bunches of grapes and rustic tankards.
For those wishing to discover all the secrets of the Romagna canvas, many printing works in the region open their doors to visitors for guided tours and other events.