March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global initiative that celebrates the social, economic and political achievements of women past, present and future. On this day the world joins hands together to support, raise, inspire and motivate women across all fields of work. In Italy the day is celebrated as Festa della Donna and fragrant bouquets of bright yellow mimosa are found everywhere as a symbol of support and appreciation for women and all they do.
Over the centuries there have been many notable Italian women who have served as inspiring examples to all. Women dedicated to their families, their parents, husbands and children with talents that have extended within and beyond their communities and enriched the common culture of our world. One such woman was Giuditta Brozzetti whose name remains attached to the weaving cooperative she founded in the Northern Italian city of Perugia.
Her story begins in the middle of the First World War. As director of elementary schools for the city of Perugia she traveled the region visiting the village schools and passing farmhouses where women working in the fields tended to the animals and harvested crops to provide for themselves and their families as their husbands, brothers and fathers were at war. Brozzetti also noted that women in the villages were skilled weavers working on antique wooden looms hand-weaving textiles in the traditional way producing fabrics and ancient patterns of great beauty. Impressed by what she saw and recognizing the value in the quality and craftsmanship of their work, Brozzetti began bringing the textiles to markets in Perugia, helping to create another form of income for the rural women.
In 1921 Brozetti founded a workshop and school in Perugia to showcase the handwork of the village women and teach the traditional hand-weaving ways and heritage patterns that dated back to Umbria’s Medieval and Renaissance textile traditions.
Today in Perugia’s San Francesco delle Donne, a deconsecrated 13th-century church, the entrepreneurial spirit of Giuditta Brozzetti lives on as a community based women’s cooperative continuing the tradition of hand-weaving following the same intricate patterns as the originals, many created on antique pedal looms. Kept alive by generations of talented, committed, entrepreneurial women creating brilliant textiles that connect modern Perugia to its rich and invaluable heritage and past.
The tablescapes of the Italian tavola can be as rustic as a rural casa colonica or a refined as a Renaissance villa. Known for both functionality and beauty the evocative colors of Umbrian linens reflect the beauty of the Italian landscape, the allure of ancient patterns and the skill of the weaver. The palette of colors used to create the designs are symbols of the cultural life of Umbria. Green for the olive groves, pink and cream the colors of the stones of the cities, garnet symbolizes the local wines, Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino; russet, yellow and marrone, the fields of wheat and tobacco and cielo, the color of the blue sky.
The designs themselves are classic patterns from the Middle Ages and Renaissance; scrolls, leaves, flowers, amphora jugs. Ornate and stylized patters and mythological characters like the griffin (symbol of Perugia, the capital of the region) were influenced by eastern designs from China when 17th century Italian potters began copying Chinese ceramics. The api pattern (bee in Italian), said to bring luck and good fortune, was a symbol of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (later elected as Pope Urban VIII) who had been the Bishop of Spoleto from 1608-17. Three bees were his coat of arms and can be followed all the way to Rome.
Italian majolica is filled with symbols of pomegranates. Ceramic shops throughout Tuscany and Umbria “ceramiche artistiche vendenta” sell vases, urns, jars and pitchers featuring pomegranates paired with flowers, fruits and stylized dragons. Pomegranates are one of the oldest fruits known to man. King Tut took a pomegranate vase into the afterlife with him and the pillars of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem were decorated with pomegranates. Italian painters of the Renaissance frequently used the pomegranate as a symbol of plenitude, hope and spiritual fruitfulness. In Botticelli’s painting of the Virgin and Child with Seven Angels the Holy Child is pictured holding a pomegranate. The pomegranate plays such a prominent role in the painting that it has become known as the Madonna of the Pomegranate.
Throughout world history pomegranates have been used as a source of traditional remedies and modern research supports their role as an antioxidant-rich fruit. Throughout gastro-history the pomegranate has been a favored ingredient in most cultural cuisines including Italy where it is called il melograno. It pairs well with Mediterranean foods including radicchio, the red-lined lettuce of the Veneto that our family loved to sauté simply with olive oil and garlic.
Focus on the pomegranate as a theme for an Italian inspired Mother’s Day dinner. Begin with an Italian tablescape of Umbrian linens and a centerpiece of flowers and pomegranates. Start the meal with a Tintoretto , an aperitivo made with chilled pomegranate juice and sparkling Prosecco. Use the juice to make a radicchio salad and as a glaze for a wood-grilled pork tenderloin and end the meal with Panna Cotta di Melograno (Pomegranate Panna Cotta ).
Pomegranate Radicchio Salad
Trim the radicchio, discard the outer leaves. Wash inner leaves, dry well and coarsely tear into pieces. Combine with a dressing made from the juice of 2 pomegranates (or use POM Juice), 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 t green peppercorns in brine, rinsed.
I was looking for an inexpensive work of art to hang in my guest bathroom when I glanced over to the towel bar next to the sink. Hanging there was a linen towel that was given to me by my friends from Perugia. With patterns and styles from Umbrian folklore or Renaissance designs, they complement any setting from the most formal to casual and are used on a daily basis in the kitchens and baths of my Italian family and friends as well as in many of Italy’s most refined hotels and country houses. This particular towel was designed with l’ape, the little bee, said to bring good luck and fortune. It was a beautiful sage green and brought a wash of color to the space, understated yet elegant, the perfect combination for a work of art.
The weaving of textiles has been done in Umbria since the 12th century by the tessitori or weavers guild. Among the most famous traditional centers of looming and linens in Italy is the town of Montefalco in Umbria. Just as with any artist’s brush, the warp and weft of the linen fibers and fabric dyes evocative of the Italian landscape were used by the tessitori to create designs that rival a Renaissance painting. So I started looking on-line for linen tea towels that I could frame starting with the exquisite towels by Tessitura Pardi sold at CosituttiMarketPlace. There were other interesting sites that sold tea towels with styles and colors to inspire your creativity. Some even had directions for framing including this one from Toronto design studio Bookhou simply displaying the towel on a hanger – instant art.