The eye of the collector by Jean-luc Ferrand

Mezzaro "a vacchette", Maison Speich, Gênes, circa 1850

Thursday 15 June 2017, by Barbara Cogollos

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The Italian MEZZARO is inspired by the palampores from India. They arrived in Genoa through the East India Companies of the greatest naval powers in Europe or by the eastern trade routes. Strong demand from customers led to the opening of numerous factories throughout the continent: in the south of France, in Alsace, in Switzerland, where Giovanni and Michele Speich were born. They opened a manufactory of printed fabrics near Genoa. Luigi Testori, son-in-law of Giovanni Speich, highly skilled in colours chemistry, opened a few years later his factory, which continued to produce MEZZARI until 1872.

The «mezzaro» or «mésere» or even «mesero» (probably from the old Arabic mizar, meaning «to cover») is a large cotton canvas, varying in size between 252 and 275 cm in length and 230 and 256 cm in width, engraved in Genoese factories with pear, walnut or linden wooden molds. These could even exceed the number of eighty to decorate a single MEZZARO.

Many studies published over the last 80 years define the categories and the dating on the basis of the motif in the lower left corner of the canvas: «mezzaro of the old tree», «mezzaro of the boat», «mezzaro of the minaret», etc., dated between the end of the 18th and the 19th century. The posters and writings of this period furnish proof that it was fashionable: «Women who go on foot in summer and winter cover their heads, shoulders and arms with a veil called ., which does not allow them to be recognized» (Giuseppe Maria Galanti, Historical and Geographical Description of the Republics of Genoa and Lucca, 1795, p.64). Its use gradually disappears until the end of the 19th century, when the MEZZARO is characteristic of the popular custom only, or is used in home decoration or, cut out, to create different clothes.

The MEZZARO presented here belongs to the «small cows» («a vacchette») type, characteristic of the Speich manufacture production and dated to the mid-nineteenth century. At the centre of the composition is the tree of life emerging from a hill. A symbol already used in ancient Mesopotamia, the tree was conceived as a link of the three parts of the universe: the subsoil, dominated by magic forces, where its roots descend; the surface of the earth, the kingdom of men, where the stem grows and develops; the sky, the place of the divine, towards which the foliage surpasses. At the base of the tree is a squirrel (symbol of foresight and attention) and a peacock (symbol of immortality) which rests on a branch of vine curved by the clusters and the flowers. On the sides a stag, goats and cows. All kinds of birds and butterflies fly among the flowering branches of peonies, daisies and roses. The whole in a freshness of tones and colours still very well preserved. Its very good condition and its perfect wholeness, makes our MEZZARO a remarkable piece.

An important collection of MEZZARI is preserved in the Palazzo Bianco of the Musei di Strada Nuova in Genoa. Many exhibitions have taken place in recent years: Arte e lusso della seta a Genova dal 500 al 700, Genoa in 2001, Cotone a Genova: mezzari e pezzotti, Genoa in 2002; Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Ministry of Cultural Activities, Mezzari and the Cotton Route, United Arab Emirates in 2007; I piaceri del velo. Dal mézzaro genovese al foulard, Palazzo Bianco, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genoa in 2016.

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