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Towel

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1400-1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Woven linen and cotton

  • Credit Line:

    Given by W.B. Chamberlin through The Art Fund

  • Museum number:

    T.12-1916

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, The Fran├žoise and Georges Selz Gallery, case 3

The name usually given in English to textiles like these is 'Perugia towels', deriving from tovaglie perugine. Tovaglia is usually translated as tablecloth, and tovagliolo as napkin, but their use was in both ecclesiastical and secular contexts. Their function included napkin and table cover, as well as altar cloth and sacristy hand towel. They were woven in mixed twill, ofter diaper, with white linen warp and weft, and had the characteristic feature of bands of pattern created with a supplementary weft of cotton, almost always dyed blue with indigo or woad, though occasionally in red or brown.
An inventory of 1482 describes two napkins being '...in the style of Perugia' (banbagia a la perugina)so the association of such blue-banded textiles with this region may date back to at least the 15th century.

The widest band on this towel has two rows of confronted wyverns (mythical winged dragons) and the band at the top has shields with a 'vol', or pair of wings.

Physical description

The towel has three bands of varying width woven with blue cotton supplementary wefts; they are separated by single and double blue stripes.They depict :
1.shield shapes with vols (paired wings)
2. wyverns affronted
3. chevron pattern
The linen ground is a small lozenge diaper weave.

Place of Origin

Italy (probably, made)

Date

1400-1500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Woven linen and cotton

Dimensions

Length: 175 cm, Width: 97 cm

Object history note

The towel came to the museum with a mixed group of other textiles from W B Chamberlin. There is no further provenance for it.

Historical significance: The wyverns on this example are very similar to those depicted on a cloth laid on the table at the Last Supper - painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), in the Cenacolo di Ognissanti in Florence. In the painting the way the pattern repeat works appears to show that two of the 'towels' have been laid side by side, slightly overlapping, as a cover for the table.

Historical context note

The name usually given in English to textiles like these is 'Perugia towels', deriving from tovaglie perugine. Tovaglia would usually be translated as tablecloth, and tovagliolo as napkin, so towel is not necessarily the best defining term for them; their use was in both ecclesiastical and secular contexts, and their function also included napkin and table cover, as well as altar cloth and sacristy hand towel. (In a painting by Antonio da Fabriano in the Museo Piersanti, Matelica, one is depicted as a loincloth for Christ).They were woven in mixed twill, ofter diaper, with white linen warp and weft, and had the characteristic feature of bands of pattern created with a supplementary weft of cotton, almost always dyed blue with indigo or woad, though occasionally in red or brown. Endrei (see bibliography) speculates that they were woven by fustian weavers, who were prohibited by statute from weaving in pure linen, or in plain weave. He thinks it plausible that as cotton takes indigo dye much more successfully than linen, fustian weavers were motivated to produce these textiles with strongly coloured bands of cotton decoration which linen weavers could not achieve.

Antonino Santangelo in The Development of Italian Textile Design(1964) quotes from an inventory of 1482, which describes two napkins being '...in the style of Perugia' (banbagia a la perugina); if we infer that these are the blue banded towels under discussion, the association of them with this region appears to date back to at least the 15th century. However, Peter Thornton (The Italian Renaissance Interior 1991), while mentioning a reference to tovallie alla perugina in a 1574 inventory for Vasari's house in Venice, cautions that transcribers of inventories might misread alla parigina, meaning 'in the Parisian fashion', which he thinks likely to mean simply diaper-patterned; the finest table linen was produced in northern France, particularly Paris. Endrei suggests that the towels' origin, influenced by designs from silks woven in Lucca, could go back to the 14th or even 13th century.

A gradual simplification in design of the pattern bands may be related to the growing sophistication of linen damask weaving from the 15th century, and its replacement of the blue-patterned 'towels' in dining use in wealthier households, and in the Church. The simplification in design apparent in extant examples may also be related to the diffusion of the technique. Similar woven cloths can be found in Friuli and Carnia, the Tyrol, Southern Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, and were woven at least until the 18th century.

Descriptive line

towel, natural linen with patterned bands of blue, Italian, 15th - 16th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Endrei, Walter. Les etoffes dites de Perouse, leurs antecedents et leur descendance. CIETA Bulletin 65, 1987 : 61-68.

Production Note

These textiles are usually attributed to Perugia

Materials

Linen; Cotton

Techniques

Weaving

Categories

Textiles

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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