by Paola Marabelli
Mastro Lisio: a life devoted to the Art of Silk, in Giuseppe Lisio, weaver of every colour, exhibition catalogue (Chieti, 14 November - 8 December 1998), Chieti 1998, pp. 15-23.
Photos and documents are from the Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio Historical Archive, Florence.
Following are his own words illustrating those beginnings:
"Visiting Florence and most interested in everything that could add prestige to the Italian silk production, I was struck by the memory of one of its major arts, perhaps the best, "the Art of Silk"... At the beginning of 1906, enthusiastic about my research on this Art, I decided to move to Florence and enrolled at the local Chamber of Commerce as a silk maker, I started a very intense business on my own, and my main intention, if nothing else, was to remind new generations of the splendour of that very noble Art...
In those years in Florence the art of weaving was completely dead, because, after much research, I was hardly able to find any old ladies who had used the shuttle in their youth, I remember the most skilful, Adele Gambini, who, assisted by another good weaver I had summoned in Florence, managed to teach several young women how to weave on the ancient loom.
The first designs, although classic, were simple and faithfully reproduced, and as it was necessary to make them known immediately, I decided to open a workshop called Arte della Seta.”
Describing his experience in the field, he declared:
"having set up a school in Florence 10 years earlier for weaving brocades, brocatelle and general decorative fabrics, I want to move to Rome, the most propitious place for the renewed expansion of an art that is already ours, since everything given which divides returns to us".
Two aspects of this Roman affair are interesting to note: the first concerns the idea of transferring an already launched activity to Rome, where it would have found more incentives given the presence
“of the Court, the Papacy and the Ambassadors at the Quirinale near the Vatican (whose work of diffusion of Italian works is greater than is commonly believed), a very special and almost exclusive site of museums containing classical fabrics, some of which date back to the earliest antiquity (such as the Vatican and Kircherian Museums)".
The second concerns the fact that, while attentive to the economic-commercial aspect, he emphasised the need for a School, believing firmly in the necessity and value of the rebirth of a very ancient Art that must not be lost in oblivion, and in continuity for a future able to equal the splendours of the past.
He founded these beliefs on studies and research that marked his entire life.
In fact, there are numerous notes on the Silk Art history taken from the publications of the time, some of which had been purchased, forming a small library. In addition to studying texts on textile techniques, he built up an authentic photographic archive of fabrics and general artworks, from which he drew inspiration for his creations.
However, Lisio never carried out his Roman project and
“on returning to Florence, I transferred my workshop to other larger premises and by increasing the number of looms and training new workers, I was even more aware of the need to produce as much as possible to valorise that Art, the traditions of which were so important to me. Success followed my work due to the fact that, never receiving complaints, or rather, avoiding them, my fabrics became more and more widespread, reaching, dare I say, nearly all the European Courts”.
While the clientele gradually increased, as did the commissions, the Florentine workshop became so insufficient that Lisio decided to move the weaving to Milan, where he would be able to boost production more.
Despite receiving important plaudits and orders, Giuseppe Lisio began to be tired and above all, disheartened. The general economic and commercial difficulties and the lack of more reliable collaborators were undermining the vitality and passion that had always sustained him.
The short epistolary with Erminia Favi is enlightening in this regard. On 13 May 1934 he wrote:
"....I'm slowly deciding to withdraw at least from the commercial side and I think I'm ready, so much so that here [in Milan] I'm making the inventory behind closed doors and it's also likely that this closure will be final if for the new season I don't find the right person to carry on ...".
Favi replied with a heart-warming and encouraging letter:
"...True, we are going through sad times, but I wonder how it can be possible for a creation like yours not to possess enough vitality itself to overcome and win! True, you have too much weight on your shoulders and spending your life rushing between Milan - Florence - Rome - Paris is taxing, not to mention that it will not be physically possible to take care of everything...".
In replying to her on May 23, 1934, while expressing appreciation for her comfort and friendship, Lisio declared his diffidence:
“…You have understood me exactly, or at least my situation, as perhaps no one else has. I'm not tired, I'm disheartened. You wonder ‘how a creation’ like mine could perhaps not possess enough vitality to overcome and win’. I still certainly hope so. More vitality, however, than what I am able to instil, I am no longer able to, I’m almost exhausted. But what's the use? I've had six employees working in the warehouse alone for many years, and this month I've had to lay them all off because I cannot be held liable for their lack of cooperation. So how could I last on my own? See what's happening in Florence after my departure, crisis, yes. But there's something else too. And believe me, I'm not hard to please and it's not true that I’m difficult, I only demand what is necessary to demand…”.
That Lisio really intended to retire is confirmed in the "Conventions" and "Assignments" dated 1936 and 1939, which were drafted several times, and which indicate inter alia:
"At the end of this year 1936, the Lisio Company celebrated thirty years of artistic-industrial activity, during which it was able, with the production of its art fabrics, to resume the interrupted ancient "art of silk" of Florence, where the same company originated, establishing itself with a supremacy that it still holds today.
Its Owner, who has decided to withdraw from the commercial part of the company to devote himself exclusively to his own creations, proposes entrusting the headquarters in Milan to a subject capable of running the company according to the criteria and characteristics that have distinguished it until now; initially under autonomous management, before arriving at final closure".
From this documentation it appears that he had made preliminary agreements with F.lli Fumagalli, and later with Cristiano Schmid, and that on 31 March 1939, he had defined the values of the goods in stock as "Stock and Warehouse fabrics" and the methods of payment, up to the sale of the Factory.
But this transfer never took place, Lisio continued to fight for his business, and despite being aware of the need to make a significant change in his activity he drew up a "technical-financial plan" submitted on June 16, 1941 to the Marquis Advocate Giuseppe dè Capitani d'Arzago, Minister of State, who was involved in all works of a national interest. In it Lisio proposed the establishment of a Foundation or Society entitled "Arte della Seta" in order to develop artistic production and export.
The "rebirth" and "continuity” values of the ancient Italian silk art, the true cornerstones of Giuseppe Lisio's existence, dovetailed with the ideas and interests of the widespread national production at this specific time in history.
Especially worth mentioning, Architect Gio Ponti who demonstrated profound esteem for Lisio and really wanted him to participate in the 7th Triennale di Milano. On 7 January 1939 he wrote:
"Illustrious Lisio, at the end of March 1940 XVIII, the VII Triennale opens. Your participation must be organised. Can we meet?"
And on 1 February 1940 he wrote:
“It is extremely important for me that you attend this gathering of the noblest national forces of this era. Your absence would cause me great sadness”.
Their contacts continued with subsequent letters in which Lisio approved Ponti’s "national campaign" undertaken in favour of our art productions that form "the powerful force of export ", while Gio Ponti, on 13 June 1942, proposed establishing the Giuseppe Lisio Prize for fabric designs at the triennial into which prizes offered by art industries flowed.
The Lisio’s vicissitudes in later months can be followed through letters to the “Hermitage” of Rapallo from his nephew Teodoro Olivieri who looked after the “Lisio – Tessuti d’Arte” interests in Milan. On 18 January 1943, Teodoro wrote to his uncle that Corbetta, a newly hired worker, had started using his loom at Silio Italico and that:
“concerning our production, relevant provisions are still in progress and are expected at any moment. I have also appointed a trusted person in Rome who, given his position can, inquire with the competent Ministry, and keep me informed".
Then on 23 January he wrote:
"the permit for closure of the Milan office expires in May, the one in Florence does not expire and can be either closed or reopened whenever you want since the license is only in deposit without a fixed term. The one in Rome was recently renewed for a period of three months. The factory continues its work with the six looms, including Corbetta at S. Italico, where everything is running smoothly".
We are not currently able to define in detail the events relating to the closure of the factories which are mentioned in another two letters. In fact, it is with his friend Gio Ponti that the correspondence of Giuseppe Lisio held by the Fondazione ends.
On 16 March 1943 he wrote to the Milanese architect from Rapallo saying:
"I've thought of you many times, especially after the accident in my house in Piazzale Libia, which is now in need of urgent repair to avoid further damage... Tomorrow I'm going to Rome and when I return I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you here at my "Hermitage" where I'm taking shelter, so we can talk about the disappearing Art.
As we can read, also between the lines, Giuseppe Lisio perhaps appears to be somewhat fatigued, but always active, alert and lively in spirit, devoted to "his Art” up until the very end.
Giuseppe Lisio died on 16 April 1943.