Weaving Sea Silk in Sardinia: Preserving an Ancient Art
A popular summer destination, thanks to low cost flights from the main European capitals, Sardinia is increasingly appreciated by in-the-know travelers. Although globalization’s waves have been striking the main cities, the island can still boast a remarkable resistance to the winds of change.
The tangled past of this Italian island makes it a fascinating cluster of heritage sites and ancient traditions, proudly protected by its inhabitants, adults and children alike. The region is imbued with an atmosphere that allows prehistoric spots to blend harmoniously with Moorish culture, Roman settlements and Aragonese architecture.
After witnessing reckless horse races and 2000-year-old propitiatory [appeasing the gods] rituals, I decided to make my way to Sant’Antioco, the tiny island opposite Sardinia’s southernmost coast.
Approaching the bridge connecting the two islands, the unfolding panorama calls to mind a smaller version of Montecarlo: a picturesque hamlet in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, that reflects itself on the calm lagoon dotted with sailing boats.
At first sight, Sant’Antioco appears to be nothing more than a fishing village naturally fated to become a hot tourist spot in the high season. Looking deeper inside the town, however, it’s possible to track the connection with ancient civilizations.
With all this in mind, I was ready to meet Chiara Vigo, the only woman in the world who still works the byssus, better known as the silk of the sea, the same way women in ancient Mesopotamia used to weave it in order to make clothes for their kings.
“Ms. Chiara Vigo?” I approached her outside her workshop.
“Yeah, that one would be me,” she replied, showing off her witty nature.
The first moments were decisive: “I would like to make clear that I’m not an artist, nor an artisan,” she clarified before I even had the time to ask, “I’m a master. Please let’s not mix terms up.”
“Because the three professions are very different...,” I babbled tentatively. “Of course they are,” went on Chiara. “An artist creates over inspiration, an artisan produces and sells, masters pass their art on and cannot sell.”
The lab where Chiara works is also the only Museum of the Byssus in the world, and it sits on top of a little hill in downtown Sant’Antioco. “What do you know about the byssus?” she challenged me loftily, while we motioned to her reign, an eclectic mix of archaic Sardinia and deep sea.
“Nothing,” I confessed, fully aware that there was no way I could lie about it.
“Excellent,” she retorted. “I can’t bear when someone comes here to teach me about the byssus.”
The ice was officially broken, and Chiara began telling me her story, elegantly intertwined with this form of art, born in ancient Middle Eastern lands around 10,000 years ago.
“The Bible itself mentions indirectly the byssus,” explained Chiara. “Remember when it says that King Solomon appeared “shining” in public?
Chiara Vigo has also certified that the controversial St.Veronica’s Veil, also known as the Sudarium, that allegedly reproduces the Christ’s face after being used by St. Veronica to comfort him on his way to crucifixion, is, be it miraculous or not, made of this silk.
The byssus is a fine fabric produced from the velvety strand of the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis, an endangered fan-shaped species of mollusc, native of the Mediterranean Sea bed. Originally, the pen shell used to be fished in order to pull the byssus out, but Chiara has come up with a special cut so that she can take the secreted material without killing the precious animal.
“The pen shell offers us ten centimeters of byssus per year,” explained Chiara, who dives herself on the lookout for the rare silk. “To gather 200 grams of byssus, I need to go on 300 divings,” she revealed, pointing out to me that “it doesn’t grow on the bottom of the shell, like many people think, but right here, on the side.”
After collecting the byssus, the first step is to leave the raw material to soak in a mixture of eight seaweeds. Once dry, Chiara combs it with a wool card and finally twists the fine filaments together with a spindle made of oleander, forming the gilded thread. The yarn is spun quite a few times in order to make it strong enough to be employed in the loom and woven with her slender fingers.
Chiara belongs to a family of artists: she was introduced to this ancient craft by her maternal grandmother, who taught traditional weaving for sixty years to Sant’Antioco’s women. Her other grandmother taught her how to work gold and silver fabrics. Among all crafts she possesses, Chiara chose to devote her life to this legendary art.
Today her unique pieces are displayed in museums in Rome, London, New York and Paris’ Louvre and donated to presidents and popes. Their worth is estimated in the hundreds of thousands of euros. But Chiara lives out of the donations left by those who visit her workshop in Sant’Antioco.
Due to the scarcity of this type of silk, the difficulty in finding and working it, the byssus has always been too expensive to be quotable, and in ancient times only pharaohs, Roman emperors, kings or high priests could afford such luxury.
“Why don’t you sell some of your work?” I asked her, artlessly.
“Because some things are more important than money, and one of these is the perpetuation of an art,” she retorted promptly, almost waiting for my question.
But as our chat became more engaging, it came out that this is not the only reason why she cannot sell her pieces. More importantly, there is the Sea Oath that Chiara, and all generations before her, took: the byssus cannot be used for personal advantage; it belongs to everybody, like the sea, and things need to stay this way.
“What I do,” said Chiara “belongs to all Sant’Antioco’s townspeople.”
“Why do you think art dealers don’t like me?” she insisted, in a burst of vigor, quintessential of Sardinians’ character. “Because they want to trade my art: they haven’t understood yet that my jewels are heritage of Sardinian land.”
All throughout our chat, Chiara didn’t stop spinning, and at the end she revealed why: “This byssus thread is for you,” she told me, “because I’ve created it today, Sunday, and when byssus is worked on a festive day, it must be given to the youngest visitor. Keep it safe and three months before you get married, bring it back to me: I will embroider it for you in your wedding ring pillow.”
I left Chiara’s otherworldly museum with a sense of belonging a little to her mission. I now have my piece of byssus and, like ancient queens, will take care of it until, if ever, it will be time to dispose of it according to tradition.
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