Venice can boast a story of textile production which is almost one thousand years old. But the city hasn’t always been producing velvets: before of the most famous Venetian fabrics, there was a textile with different features, though nonetheless refined.
Samites, or the first Venetian fabrics
Venice’s turning point was in the 12th century, when the city ceased to merely import luxury fabrics from the East and started to produce them itself, instead. And the first fabrics to be woven here were samites.
A samite is a “six-threads fabric”, as its Greek name, hexamitos, says, and during the Middle Ages it could be seen on vestments and sumptuous clothes. It is made up of heavy velvet silk, making it look satin-like and shiny. And, just like many other textiles – damask, just to name one – it comes from the East, better still from the Middle East: from Iran and Syria, through Byzantium and the Arab rule, this fabric spread to the whole Mediterranean area.
But it reaches Venice thanks to the goods a well-known family brought back to its homeland, the Polos, and especially Marco Polo. The Polos let Venice discover a fabric with a small amount of decorative patterns, because samites mainly show wheels containing symbolic animals, like lions and parrots.
From a technical point of view, a samite consists in two warps, a ground warp – building the pattern – and a binding warp, and in at least two wefts, woven so as to follow diagonal lines.
Samites are connected to the story of Venice’s patron. Before Saint Mark, whose Venetian veneration only began in the 13th century, the city’s patron saint was indeed Saint Theodore of Amasea, maybe even since the 6th century.
But in the 13th century, probably due to the marriage between Frederick II and Yolande of Jerusalem, held in Brindisi, the saint’s mortal remains were brought to Brindisi, wrapped in a precious samite, indeed. And if, on the one hand, this “kidnapping” led to the end of the veneration for this saint, on the other hand it provided a scope for Saint Mark to come to Venice. Together with his symbol, which now is the symbol of Venice, and the city’s basilica.