A brief history of Venetian Lace, because of Reasons

There are almost no jokes you can make about Venetian Lace. But here goes.

Three weeks ago, I didn’t know what a “writing date” was. But thanks to the almost inexplicable popularity of my Toughpad piece, I was asked out on a writing date by one of my Twitter followers – the fantastically-named Anna Cushion – which, I was told, would resolve itself as a sort of write-off. I was to pick an obscure topic, which she would blog about, and then she would pick one for me.

(I haven’t been on a lot of dates but I don’t think this is how they normally go, usually there’s wine and awkward conversation right)

It all sounded pretty easy, really. I’ve lost enough dance-offs in my time to have a rough idea of the concept, and I am quite literally a professional writer, somehow.

I asked her to pick her three favourite archaic polearm weapons, because I’m a nice guy and there’s plenty of humour in that. Also, pretty much everyone has at least three favourite polearms. (Mine are, in reverse order, the Pike, the Halberd, and the Bil Bec de Guisarme. Obviously) Anna wrote a piece on hers – a piece which I’m told involved actual research in a University library – and then asked me to write about Venetian Lace.

There are almost no jokes you can make about Venetian Lace. But here goes.

AN ESSAY ABOUT VENETIAN LACE BY GRANT HOWITT BECAUSE OF REASONS

Okay, so, picture the scene. You’re in Italy. But not the Italy of today with the scooters and scarves and jackets over the shoulder and the harassing women at traffic lights, but OLD Italy. Awesome Italy. Italy wasn’t a nation so much as it was a loose bag of individual nation states, all vying for supremacy like cats in a sack in a way that makes for really good TV.

(Crossover writing date fact: I believe mercenary pikemen were very popular at the time, and would travel the country in packs selling their skills to the highest bidder – their skills which largely involved knowing where to shove a big stick in the ground so that rich guys in horses would run into it and die. But then again I’m basing much of my knowledge here off the Dogs of War supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, so pinch of salt, eh guys)

VENICE.

Picture this, but in the past and probably with fewer motorboats

Anyway, Italy is pretty baller at this point. Covered in these walled city states, each would feverishly create their own traditions, culture, customs and exports. Venice, the one with all the canals, was the centre of fashion for the whole bloody world around the 1600’s. Imagine Paris wearing London at a rakish angle on it’s head and holding a tote bag made out of New York. That’s how important it was when it came to telling rich folk how to cover their shame. One of the islands under control of Venice produced LACE.

Now you’re probably all “Pfft, whatever Grant, who gives a toss about lace why don’t you tell us more about those imaginary pikemen, they sounded pretty cool” but steady on, big horse, because this wasn’t just any lace. This was Burano lace.

Look at the caption! Genuine lace! It's almost like I did RESEARCH

PEEP DIS SHIT.

BURANO MOTHERFUCKIN’ LACE Y’ALL

Burano is a lagoon island under control of Venice. These Buranonians (probably Buranese, actually, though this isn’t something I’m about to check) made the finest lace in all of Christendom. Actually, they made the finest lace in all the world. They were so good at making lace that the techniques and materials which they used died with the last generation of laciers back in the 1800’s, and we haven’t a fucking clue how to make them again. We are very much past peak lace, it seems.

The Buranese (yeah, that sounds better) used a technique called Punto in Aria, which translates as “Stitching in the air” because they just freestyled that shit out in the middle of the table. Rival – and inferior – lace-producing islands were known to use the tombolo method, which involved making lace on a cushion like some kind of loser.

Here’s the kicker, right – the shoddy produce of the inferior islands is the best stuff we can get hold of today. Venetian lace is a cheap knock-off imitation of Buranese lace, jammed out on a bobbin by some filthy canal-dweller drunk on shoddy red wine.

Buranese lace, though – oh, gosh. Their lace formed a major part of the Venetian economy, because literally no-one else was as good at lace as they were. The Punto in Aria technique created works of such staggering beauty that the Kings and Queens of Europe would spend vast amounts of gold just to have a trim on their sleeves or a ruff round their neck made of the stuff.

And who can blame them right, these are some pretty boss sleeves

And who can blame them right, these are some pretty boss sleeves

THEY MIGHT AS WELL HAVE JUST BEEN STITCHING BANKNOTES

The core idea behind Venetian lace is basically the same as Inception but with flowers instead of dreams and needles instead of Leonardo DiCaprio. Using high-quality Florencian thread, you’d stitch a spiralling floral design together, and then say – “No. We have to go deeper.” And stitch more flowers inside that. And more flowers inside that. And so on until you run out of a) space b) thread or c) fingers. It is one of the most complex and beautiful pieces of technical artistry that mankind has ever created, and rich folks would wipe their fucking mouths on the stuff.

In 1638 an English nobleman spent 250 Hungarian Denars to have enough lace to make him a lace collar beautiful enough to impress Louis XIV at his coronation; I have no idea how much money that is, or why an Englishman was paying for Italian goods with Hungarian money, but I’m going to assume it’s a whole bunch. Like, multiple salaries.

This wasn’t a massive endeavour, either, like the great glass workshops of Murano (also a Venetian island) – each lace-making family was bound to a house, and often did large amounts of private work for local nobles in their residences. Yeah, that’s right, like assassins. At least, how I picture assassins being, anyway, a fractious lot of internecine factions all scheming new ways to come out on top and land the best clients.

Turns out there aren't a lot of exciting pictures of lace on the internet

Turns out there aren’t a lot of exciting pictures of lace on the internet

A BRIEF DISCLAIMER

(What we’re learning here, aside from a few facts about Venetian lace, is how little I care for historical accuracy and why my A-Level Cold War history paper came back Ungraded, which is significantly worse than receiving an F. It contained a short essay about the post-war Asian Tiger Economies which failed to mention the names of any of the countries involved, which I guess was an oversight on my part)

Seriously. I got Three A's and a U. No-one fucking gets that.

A tiger, for illustrative purposes

STUPID FRENCH, ALWAYS RUINING SHIT FOR EVERYONE

So things were going great for the Buranese, and the Venetians, with their fancy cuffs and gondolas and wide, wide range of pasta options come dinnertime. But then the French went and fucked it up for everyone in the 1800’s by pulling off two categorically dick moves:

ONE. They devised a means of producing cheap lace which flooded the market with easily-affordable fashion, which of course meant it wasn’t really fashionable anymore and nobles had to resort to Puffiest Sleeve or Stupidest Trouser contests to determine who was coolest

TWO. They had that whole revolution thing shortly after, which meant that associating yourself with the trappings of nobility was generally viewed as a bad idea. The lace-producing workshops wound down and gradually lost steam as, well, you wouldn’t want to be producing bourgeois hankies if it meant you’d get your head chopped off

Look, I'm bored of lace too at this point. Here's something to take your mind off it

Look, I’m bored of lace too at this point. Here’s something to take your mind off it

SOMEONE CALL INDIANA JONES (IF HE’S STILL ALIVE, WHICH HE PROBABLY ISN’T)

Also for reasons that I can’t quite discern an official act passed in 1616 (and twice after) by the Superintendents of the Pumps – a governmental body? I have no idea – banned the wearing of lace made using the Punto in Aria method. Maybe it was worth more to export it, or something. Maybe they grew tired of everyone swanning around looking like doilies. I dunno.

So ultra-fine lace fell out circulation. A brief resurgence in the trade saw Venice take it up again in the late 1800’s, but it’s just not the same as it was. For all we try, some of the techniques have been lost forever.

Venetian lace – true Venetian lace, from the island of Burano, stitched in the Ponto in Aria method – is basically sartorial Atlantis.

ESSAY ENDS

So! I hope you’ve learned something about Venetian lace. I certainly have. I’d love to cite my sources but they’re embarrassingly few, and you might realise that I’ve just cobbled together a loose array of nonsense from a couple of badly laid-out fansites and re-written it to have more swearing and an a stronger, if perhaps less true, narrative.

Anna, I’ve enjoyed our date. If you feel like doing it again – or if anyone else feels like taking me out on the metaphorical literary blog town – then drop me a line.