Monday, February 6, 2012

Carolina Amari and Casalguidi Embroidery

As I mentioned in a previous post, Ivana Palomba has written her thesis for her degree in History and the Protection of Art Heritage on Carolina Amari and her role in needlework and women's emancipation in the early part of the 20th century. The thesis has been published as the volume: L’Arte ricamata. Uno strumento di emancipazione femminile nell’opera di Carolina Amari [Embroidered Art. An instrument of the emancipation of women in the work of Carolina Amari], Le Arti Tessili, 2011. Text in Italian.

This is an important work for the history of needlework and is well-documented and researched. There are lots of notes to read and bibliography titles to investigate. Last year I started to tell you about Casalguidi Embroidery and the Tuscan town it takes its name from so I asked the author if she would mind if I translated some of the chapter on that for you. She generously granted my request so the following is translated from the chapter: Carolina Amari’s Work in Italy and America, sub-heading The Casalguidi School.

[...] At the end of the 19th century the little town survived daily, sharing the extreme poverty in which most of the population languished with the neighbouring villages, devoted mainly to agriculture, the manufacture of sorghum brooms and the working of straw.

A clear and intense picture of the living conditions of the time, outside of the many historical documents, is given to us by the simplicity of a study done by the grade 5 students of the local elementary school under the guidance of their teacher. If memory, the subject of the study, also takes into consideration the experiences of life some eighty years ago, it could similarly reflect more remote situations, the water which froze in the water jugs of the bedroom washstands in the winter months, the only pair of shoes worn by whoever got up the earliest on Sunday and the doctor, sometimes called too late in order to save on a visit and medications with the risk of paying the priest and for the funeral, while on the poor table bread dominated, its slices were at best flavoured with a piece of herring or lard which hung from the centre of the ceiling.

In contrast to all this, to drown the bitterness of a miserable life for most people, the seasons and anniversaries were an occasion to get together, to sing and dance on the threshing floor to the sound of a hurdy gurdy with a good glass of wine. The woman, between the harshness of the fields and family life, stole the time from the long day to make a braid of straw or netted gloves in order to contribute to the meagre family income besides sewing, darning for all the members of her family, as well as embroidering because embroidery gave value to the poorest furnishing and even made a poor sheet seem valuable.

Scanned image by TuttoRicamo.

This is the reality that still existed at the beginning of the century when Casalguidi sprang to notoriety for the fame of a new and unique embroidery broadcast by the publication of a booklet, the work of Adele della Porta (Ricamo di Casal Guidi [Casal Guidi Embroidery], Sonzogno, Milan, c. 1915) which she describes as follows:  

“Just released - this would be the latest and prettiest display of embroidery - the Casal Guidi stitch, with which you can make the most diverse objects with a new personal touch, [...] taking it’s name from a hamlet near Pistoia, Casal Guidi, where it is made on a large scale and where there is a kind of workforce in a special school that is dedicated to this delicate work.”

Over time it came to be believed that the creation of an embroidery so artistic was owed to the Morelli sisters in whose workshop, primarily managed by Giuseppina, a number of young girls of the area came together to learn embroidery techniques handed down from generation to generation.

Different publications on the embroidery of Casalguidi have ventured along the same lines in the last decades, but the latest research has been able to verify that the mind capable of creating the new, captivating and artistic technique was that of Carolina Amari. One of the most authoritative sources is that of Elisa Ricci who, in her Ricami Italiani antichi e moderni [Ancient and Modern Italian Embroidery] (Le Monnier, Florence, 1925), illustrating a bonnet from the Iklè Collection published as an Italian artifact from the 16th century in the Industrial Art Museum of St. Gallen Catalogue, has this to say:

It certainly seems Italian, if only for the balanced layout of full and empty areas which is very much a quality of ours. And probably the date is also correct [...] Our bonnet is made with stitches which do not go through the fabric, but are wrapped around the basting threads and the filler, in such a way to remain raised in the “air”. Perhaps this stitch, that will then be a lace stitch, is what, among others, Tagliente cited. More than for a design in the books of the first half of the 1500s, it is suited to this style of embroidery. This simple work, that easily creates a raised effect and which is solid and washable, taken by Carolina Amari and adapted with her unerring taste to objects for present day use has made the fortune of, and given fame to, a small Tuscan village whose name it bears. Casalguidi embroidery is now made almost everywhere.” 

It is a declaration then that allows no room for doubt but there is another, previous source, precisely in 1924 in which Emilia Marini illustrating the glorious embroideries of Italy asserts that:

“Almost every region has its own tradition, you could say it’s own stitch, created by some unknown artist who left it as an inheritance to her countrywomen. And yet, there are those who endeavour and seek and try and almost always succeed to augment our artistic heritage. Not many years ago Camilla* Amari invented a beautiful embroidery in Casal Guidi.”
 (*As is easily understood, the baptismal name is incorrectly written.)

And in the Cucirini Cantoni Coats: Manuale di ricamo (Milan, 1978. [Translator’s note: Published in English as the Anchor Manual of Needlework, Batsford Ltd., London, 1958 and reprinted in the U.S. by Interweave Press, Colorado, 1990]), illustrating the uniqueness of Italian embroideries and laces, under the heading of Casalguidi this event is remembered:

“Casalguidi, a small place near Pistoia, gives its name to this type of embroidery that, created by Camilla Amari, is worked in a special school by a training workforce. The embroidery of Casalguidi presents a unique and original contrast between the lightness of an openwork background and the heaviness of an embroidery of raised cords made with a special technique.”
(From the erroneous baptismal name we can trace the quotation to the small manual by Emilia Marini, Le glorie della spola e dell’ago in Italia [The glories of the shuttle and needle in Italy], ibid, Manualetto per i lavori donneschi [Manual for women’s work], R. Bemporad & Figlio, Editori, Florence, 1924.) [Translator’s note: Interesting to note that the English version of the Cucirini, et al. text does not mention the creator at all, mistaken name or otherwise!]

Therefore, it is in light of evidence that leads this embroidery back to Amari which raises the question of why Carolina may have made her creation available to the Morelli sisters. The only plausible hypothesis is that, moved by her extraordinary selflessness, she wished to give the women of those lands a unique tool with which they could improve their own living conditions. Unfortunately however, any trace of this has been obliterated by time or perhaps by certain situations, only the national and international notoriety of the embroidery called Casalguidi endures to this day.

The characteristic of this composite embroidery is given by the lightness of the background which can be drawn-thread or filet and by the almost sculptural relief effect that is made by motifs executed in the stitches: satin, stem, buttonhole, curl and Venetian. The representations recall geometric motifs, sticks inserted into or overlapped by shoots of flowers and leaves, bunches of grapes and by a characteristic six-petaled rosette, everything finished off by precious tassels made with the needle.

“These are real and proper pieces of art, the visual effect, both in terms of plasticity and decidedly iconographic, from up close very much recall 15th century sculptural and painted decorations.”
(Federica Mabellini, Dipinti ad Ago. L’arte del ricamo dalle origini al Punto Pistoia [Painted with the Needle. The art of embroidery from its origins to Pistoia Embroidery], Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, Lucca, 1995).

And Mabellini also indicates in her essay a possible initial source of inspiration for that embroidery in what is called the Pope’s Chapel, located inside the Carabiniere station behind the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence:

“Here you can see the grotesques and the emblem of Pope Leo X which were painted by Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio and which are decorated by a series of painted frames. One of these in particular is made of elliptical motifs which surround six-petaled flowers and are interspersed equally with smaller ellipses in the middle of which are circles: the decoration decidedly recalls a few iconographic themes typical of Casalguidi embroidery.” 

But not only Florence, Pistoia also has sculptural decorations in the San Zeno Cathedral and the Baptistry, the jewels of the churches of Sant’Andrea, San Giovanni Fuorcivitas and San Piero Maggiore were all models for this embroidery.

The work made with this technique had considerable success in various exhibitions and Elisa Ricci, speaking about the works from the various cities of Italy sent to the World’s Fair in Milan in 1906, unfortunately destroyed, besides the well-known names, lists the “many remote villages with names then unknown to all (beautiful Italian names that our works now carry around the whole world!) Pescocostanzo, Anghiari, Pomponesco, Casamassella, Casalguidi,...”, towns which, according to Ricci, in their humility and obscurity all have “in the church or in the city hall or in the old walls, some noble trace in their past.” (Le industrie femminili italiane a Berlino [The Italian Feminine Industries in Berlin] in the magazine, Emporium, Istituto Italiano di arti grafiche, Bergamo, 1909, written under her penname, Aracne).

While Sofia Bisi Albini notes: “Florence sent Berlin Casalguidi embroideries in raised white on silk for ordinary applications and other originals, like those curious dish-covers for keeping off the flies.” (L’Esposizione di lavori popolari a Berlino e le Industrie Femminili Italiane [The Exposition of Popular Art in Berlin and the Italian Feminine Industries], in the magazine, Vita femminile italiana, 1909).

Or also Virginia Colucci, remembering the many works presented at the Exhibition of Feminine Art in Siena in 1912, regrets not being able to admire the important artifacts of the Casalguidi school but stresses that even modest essays submitted by the public would give an idea of “the originality, the freshness and elegance of those same works.” (Mostra D’arte femminile a Siena [Exhibition of Feminine Art in Siena], in the magazine Vita d’Arte, L. Lazzeri, Siena, 1912).


Thank you to Ivana for allowing me to translate this portion of her book.
Any errors in the translation are surely mine.


  1. Grazie a te, Jeanine, che hai permesso ad un numero sempre più grande di appassionate ricamatrici di conoscere la storia di questa bellissima tecnica di ricamo nata dall'amore di Carolina Amari per il ricamo, l’arte e la cultura italiana.
    Ivana Palomba

  2. Bellissimo articolo!
    Grazie, Jeanine!

  3. How absolutely fascinating...I just MUST buy the book. Professionally I am a knitter, but as an AMATEUR I love to embroider, although because of the knitting I don't get much time for it happens, I am also studying Italian, and am interested in crafts and women's it covers all the things I am interested in!!

  4. Er...I an trying to order the book via IBS (Italian Internet Bookshop) but am having some difficulty actually finding it.....any suggestions....?

  5. Leonora,
    As far as I know, the book is only available for purchase from the publisher.

  6. Ciao Jeanine,
    non posso non intervenire, ero presente quando Ivana ha discusso la tesi di laurea, e prima ancora abbiamo avuto molte esperienze comuni per quanto riguarda il puntoCasalguidi, sono felice e faccio a te i complimenti per il bell'articolo.