At the Benaki Museum - a repository for Greek decorative arts where one can find some of the world’s greatest treasures - Jamie Sharp examines the history of Greek textiles, discovering stories of civilisation stitched through time.
No one ever hears of a textile being stolen. The prize of the art thief is usually a painting, ideally something like a temptingly luminous Rembrandt - there’s one in the Dulwich Picture Gallery that has been stolen no less than four times.
Textiles fly under the radar in lesser visited wings of museums, overlooked by the general public. Perhaps this is because there is no celebrity artist element, for no matter how impossibly virtuosic their construction, their makers almost always remain anonymous throughout time. One doesn’t make a documentary about the rakish but genius life of the textile artist as they can with say, Caravaggio.
However, in this anonymity extreme beauty can be found. There is space for the imagination to run wild between the stitches of a textile, to think of the many hands that worked on the fabrics, and to see such raw evidence of human interaction. I often think that looking at a textile is akin to looking at a prehistoric hand print on the wall of an ancient cave, one human looking at another across the scale of time, no signature necessary. The Benaki Museum in Athens is a place in which these extraordinary works of art need no championing, a repository for Greek decorative arts where one can find some of the world’s greatest treasures.
Bridal cushion from Ioannina, Benaki Museum 6313, gift of Alexandra Choremi-Benaki
A set of lavishly embroidered bridal bolsters in the Benaki’s collection evidences the power of transportation that textiles hold. They take us 200 years back to the stronghold of the legendary Albanian warlord, Ali Pasha, who Lord Byron aptly described as the ‘man of war and woes’. Ioannina, the capital of the despot ruler’s domain, sits south of the Albanian border in north-west Greece and was a prosperous urban center known for goldsmithing and major trade.
These 18th century Ioannia embroideries are perhaps some of the finest and most fascinating of the textiles in the Museum’s collection. They depict a splendid wedding thrown by a wealthy local family. We see a bride, denoted by a lavish bridal headdress paired with elaborate clothing, surrounded by well wishers, her parents, groomsmen, and attendees mounted on horseback, all dressed in fine Ottoman fashion.
Oversized partridges populate the textile, interspersed between the narrative scenes - in Ioannia symbolism they denote fertility and abundance. Hyacinths, tulips and carnations cascade down and fill the spaces between the figures, giving the textile a feeling of euphoria, something that is hard to convey in paint, let alone with thread. The exotic flowers and motifs seen here were likely inspired by Iznik ceramics, with many Greek textiles from this region having taken inspiration from Ottoman designs.
Bolster embroidered with silk on linen ground, Skyros, Benaki Museum 6388
The influence of Ottoman fashions and motifs on Greek decorative arts can also be seen on Skyros, a small island once occupied by the Ottomans. In mythology it is the place where Achilles set sail for Troy, and in modern history the resting place of the English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died aboard a French hospital ship moored in the port. The island’s embroideries are known for their imaginative motifs, however lesser known are the rich geometric textiles produced on the island (as pictured above).
Skyros’ color palette of rich earth, verdant forests, and the lapis blues of the Aegean have a clear influence on the work of the island’s embroiderers. These geometric embroideries have a restrained palette of warm reds and oranges mixed with cool blues and greens, and their designs recall Islamic geometric motifs.
A gift from George II of Greece to the Benaki Museum tells the story of a microcosm of the Venetian renaissance taking place 1000 miles away from the city state on the island of Crete. This textile, a dress, was created at the end of the Venetian occupation, which began in 1211 after the fourth crusade, and lasted for over 400 years.
Heavily pleated dress with embroidered hem, Crete, Benaki Museum EE872, gift of King George II
Crete’s ports were vital stops on Venice’s trade route to the East, and over the centuries an aristocratic class of Veneto-Cretans was created, alongside a prosperous bourgeoisie. The unlikely combination of two worlds would result in the Cretan Renaissance: Greek artisans now had unprecedented access to Italian culture as well as the new lavish imported materials brought by trade to actualise their ambition.
This dress is constructed of white linen cotton in a tabby weave with a hem heavily embroidered in silk. In the hem there are two instantly recognisable Venetian motifs, vases bursting with flowers alternating with a fork-tailed mermaid. The fork-tailed mermaid was a popular motif with Cretan embroiderers, she clutches the two halves of her tail either side of her creating an anchor-like shape. Sometimes the pattern is adapted and she holds bunches of flowers or branches. This rare object holds some of the only evidence of a Sliding Doors-like accident of history: the conquest of an island for its convenience on a trade route, which resulted in a blossoming new culture.
Hundreds of years stand between us today and the joyous wedding of that Ioannia couple, or the humble embroiderer, bent over her work as in Venetian Crete. The last link to a world disappeared exists in these textiles, which so simply tell the story of real people in the way that no other art form can.
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THE BENAKI COLLECTION
It is no secret that Cabana is continuously inspired by Greece: its rich heritage of decorative arts, ancient history, and cultural traditions. In our first ever collaboration with a public institution, we have partnered with the Benaki Museum to design an exclusive tableware collection inspired by its traditional Greek textiles and motifs. Following many months delving into the museum’s archives, the collection will present three new linen patterns: Ioannina, Creta and Skyros
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