The art of weaving
Venice manufacturers were at the height of their importance for the city’s economy between the 15th and 16th century. In particular, those of luxury goods, which required skills and knowledge so specific as to make them an essential asset for the city.
Many professional organisations formed at that time, with workers specialised in the production of gold objects, furs, glass, crystal and textiles, especially in silk and gold. These valuable and desired products spread in European markets, influenced by Venetian taste.
Between 1575 and 1585, Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, celebrated the textile art in a painting representing the myth of Athena and Arachne but seen as an allegory of Industry, hard and meticulous work.
The artist himself is Venetian and already carries some of this tradition in his name. The father is, in fact, a dyer of silk fabrics, a “tintor” in Venetian dialect, from which “Tintoretto” comes.
The myth of Athena and Arachne
Ovid tells this myth in his “Metamorphoses”, a sort of encyclopedia of classical mythology.
Arachne is a very skilled weaver, so proud of her work that she sets up a weaving contest with Athena, goddess of the art of weaving.
She first tries to dissuade the girl but then agrees to compete in the creation of the most beautiful tapestry. The goddess chooses as her subject the gods punishing men with their power. Arachne also decides to represent the gods in her beautiful work but ridiculing them, showing their weaknesses and whims in their love for mortals.
When Athena realises that Arachne’s tapestry not only insults the gods but is also of unsurpassed beauty and perfection, she is enraged. She cannot accept being defeated by a mortal and, livid with rage and envy, unleashes her anger on Arachne, ripping her work to shreds and hitting her on the head with the shuttle of her loom.
Terrified and ashamed, the girl hangs herself, but Athena is moved with compassion and saves her. However, the goddess inflicts her a terrible punishment for the arrogance shown. She transforms her into a spider and condemns her to weave her web for eternity.
The spider, the weaving and consequently the spider web, are symbols of meticulous work, that is, of Industry.
The piece, which can be admired in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was originally octagonal, probably to decorate a ceiling, given the peculiar perspective from bottom to top.
Usually, the representations of this myth refer to the moment when Athena, disguised as an old lady, tries to dissuade Arachne from challenging the gods or when both contenders are weaving.
In Tintoretto’s painting, Athena is not weaving but is observing pensively, almost in admiration, Arachne’s work. The girl, on the other hand, is working on her loom, unconcerned about the presence of the goddess.
Athena is, therefore, admiring the diligent work of the mortal, in a symbolic image of the celebration of Industry, especially textiles.