The Georgia Museum of Art recently hosted two exhibitions featuring Italian textiles, historic and modern. Preserving these textiles for the future is an important concern. The historic exhibition, The Material of Culture: Renaissance Medals and Textiles from the Ulrich A. Middeldorf Collection, ran October 26, 2013-January 12, 2014. It included a selection of luxurious Italian Renaissance gold-brocades and silk velvets, on loan from the University of Indiana Art Museum, while the other exhibition dealt with recent history, Emilio Pucci in America, which not only celebrated the designer’s100th birthday anniversary, but also marked his start as a designer in the USA. It closed February 1, 2015.
Ulrich Middeldorf, 1901-1983, was a professor at the University of Chicago from 1935 to 1953 and subsequently director of the German Institute in Florence. Professor Perri Lee Roberts of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, guest curated the Middeldorf exhibition after studying the Ulrich Middeldorf archives at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
During the Renaissance, Italian bankers traded their expen- sive gold-brocades and silk velvets on a worldwide scale. The gold Florin was the currency for international exchange. These magnificent liturgical vestments, royal robes, and costly fashions acquired only by the richer bourgeoisie connoted “prestige” and “nobility”. Now many of these fabrics are mere fragments of a glorious past. Religious wars and political upheavals in subsequent periods caused the destruction of many of these objects; the solid gold or gilded threads were melted down for the valuable metal.
Ulrich and Gloria Middeldorf built their textile collection often with “finds” on the international antique market. A fact to remember—and this goes also for many museum collections—is that many dealers were notorious for refurbishing, re-assembling or “restoring” textile objects. Hence the “origi- nal” provenance can often remain a mystery. Remnants, too, were pasted onto cardboard with various organic glues. Thus their future is in the hands of the current restorers.
Emilio Pucci in America sheds light on a lesser-known detail in the Emilo Pucci (1914-1992) biography. Mary Koon, independent curator, has uncovered a reference to Pucci’s 1935 agricultural and horticultural studies at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. Pucci’s father, Orazio Pucci di Barsento, sent him to study in Georgia because the family’s Italian agricultural lands and vineyards needed better administration. The family had had to sell some of their precious paintings, the Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci paintings are now in major international museums, to cover taxes and land maintenance.
In Georgia, Pucci would have appreciated the beauty and bright colors of Georgia’s botanical gardens—a suggestion for his vividly stylized floral patterns. He transferred in 1936 to Reed College in Oregon to join the ski team. Skiing was a special sport for him. Pucci designed the ski uniforms for the college team, launching his career.
Emilio Pucci was always interested in furthering technological fibers and fabrics. He once said to me in a personal interview that the form in movement needs supple materials. In fact, the vividly patterned stretch silk jerseys; Emilioform, the stretch fabrics for the 1960’s Braniff Airlines flight-attendant uniforms (before Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”); and even the NASA Apollo XV space-suit logo were all designed with carefully researched hi-tech materials. Incidentally, Gloria Middeldorf wore Pucci eveningwear! In fact she and Ulrich were friends of Cristina and Emilio Pucci.
For these textiles to remain for future generations, the synthetic materials and fibers need scientifically trained conservators and restorers to preserve them.
Rosalia Bonito Fanelli, is an Italo-American resident in Florence and a textile historian/curator. She has taught textile history and fabric science at FIT-Polimoda and written books on textiles in costumes, fashions, and interiors. Ulrich Middeldorf guided her graduate studies in Florence on Italian Renaissance textiles.