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Sharing Silk

An Interview with Elena Baistrocchi General Director, Arte della Seta Lisio Foundation

Romantic velvet, Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio Firenze

by Linda Falcone

At Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio Firenze, a team of (mostly women) weavers work on manually-operated Jacquard looms, constructed in the nineteenth century, to develop some of the loveliest velvets and brocades of the Florentine tradition. A 20-minute car ride from downtown Florence, this historic workshop, library, archive and study centre provides fundamental support to textile restoration laboratories associated with museums worldwide.

Yet, restoration is just one of the many (silk) hats they wear at the ‘Fondazione Lisio’, whose statuary mission is the preservation of artistic silk production. It teaches the art of silk-making as well as a plethora of other fabric-based courses that range from ‘Lace Analysis’ to the ‘Recognition of Textiles. Furthermore, the foundation’s production department works to create made-to-order fabrics inspired by traditional designs, but its showroom also boasts a surprising array of modern motifs where ancients technique meet the shapes and colours of modernity. The company was established in 1906 by Giuseppe Lisio, who moved to Florence from his native Abruzzo, after a stint in Milan. The original headquarters was the centrally located via de’ Fossi, where he set up shop, after registering at the local chamber of commerce, as a professionalsetaiolo or silk-maker.

Giuseppe’s daughter Fidalma Lisio, who would take over the company in 1954, nearly a decade after the founder’s death, purchasing the property which hosts the foundation’s present-day complex at Via Benedetto Fortini 143, near Ponte d’Ema. Fidalma is remembered as being a battagliera – a fighter – and a woman profoundly driven by her faith which was centred in Christian principles and a quest for the common good. Of practical mind and giving spirit, she created not only a factory on a hill, but an entire village, in which her labourers could live, work and access resources serving their entire family. Hence, she designed and constructed the factory, its canteen, a church, a kindergarten, an exhibition centre and a textiles school, not to mention employee housing. Currently, most of the complex’s buildings are currently used for education, production and exhibition purposes, but Fidalma’s creation is the last ‘workers’ village of its kind in the whole of Italy. Fidalma Lisio died in 2001, a woman rooted in tradition and ahead of her time.

Inspired by the EU-funded project ‘Shemakes’ which held its consortium seminar in Florence this autumn, with the aim of addressing the gender gap in the textile industry and the importance of leadership roles for women, we interviewed Fondazione Lisio General Director Elena Baistrocchi, a former biologist, whose ‘scientific past’ gives her unique perspective on the ins and outs of craftsmanship and its fascinating phases.

“Artisanship is unifying force. In the apprentice phase, trainees learn to build relationships with someone who teaches them skills and shares their same values. This phase is one’s first approach, but as training continues, apprentices chose their masters well. No one ever choses a master who does not reflect the values they seek. Therefore, choosing one’s master is a powerful, democratic process. Young artisans chose the context of their first encounter. By ‘young’, I am not referring to one’s age. I am referring to experience level. I am 57 years old, and yet I am young as far as textiles are concerned.

An interview with Elena Baistrocchi, Director General, Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio

Interestingly enough, my field is not textiles, but Biology. I first came to the Foundation as manager of the textiles school, and was hired as director in 2019. I have experience in management and training, but I am an ‘apprentice’, in the sense that I am in the process of examining the art of textile-making in depth. Our weavers share their challenges with me, introduce me to the beauty of their technique – the strength of their gestures and the importance of their work at the loom.

I do not find Biology a far cry from the study of textiles, no matter how strange that may seem. Biology is the study of life, and in the three phases of artisanship, I see many of the same processes characterising zoological development!

In the artisans’ second phase, their self-awareness grows, and artisans begin experimenting with personal creativity. An emergent artisans strives to gain experiences, and severs the ‘umbilical cord’. They learn to craft their own philosophy, just as they craft their own product – based, of course, on age-old knowledge, and painstaking technique. Phase two is a moment of huge growth, and it is the time in which an artisan truly forges their own path, perfecting and expanding upon their skills. Of course, as one’s skills grow, an artisan gains the freedom to discover their own potential – and even more than that – they discover their individuality. This is the true power of craftsmanship: the ability to respect a standard, to uphold an age-old process, and all the while, to create a piece that is unique and unlike any other, simply because it was made in that moment, by that person, with its excellent ‘imperfections’, thanks to which one’s finished product can be considered virtually perfect!

In phrase three, an artisan becomes an elder. In primates, the ‘grandmother’ is tasked with taking care of orphaned young, and she is the one in charge of resolving conflicts within the group. The importance of her role cannot be underestimated. The same goes for humans! The ‘grandmother’ is the master artisan who wants to pass on her knowledge, because that is the only way her work can become part of our universal heritage, otherwise, her expertise – and the craft from whence it came – is lost. In life, we’d compare it to the generational process that plays out amongst daughter, mother and grandmother.

Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio Firenze

In life, we’d compare phrase three to the generational process that plays out amongst daughter, mother and grandmother. The artisan is struck by the desire to share all that she herself has learned. This is a vital phase. Italians laws complicate the traditional process of apprenticeship, making it difficult to hire the newest generations, so that they can learn from master artisans while they are still active. Without this opportunity, craftsmanship is lost, and we cannot allow this to happen. ‘The grandmother’ must be allowed to share her wisdom, and despite the generalised indifference that Western culture shows towards its elders, the mind, heart and hands of the aging artisan must be regarded as our greatest asset, deserving of our utmost respect.”

An excerpt of this interview was published in The Florentine, October 2022.

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