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Italian, ca. 1580–1600

Exquisite in construction and design, this remarkable lace table cover epitomizes the refinement and luxury of sixteenth-century European furnishings. The origins of lace are somewhat obscure; scholarship suggests that the earliest Italian forms of lace—cutwork and needlelace—were derived from fifteenth-century Persian drawn thread work, typically executed in white-on-white. Because of the close trading ties between Venice and merchants in the Near East, it would be reasonable to expect that this type of whitework embroidery served as a model for lacemaking in Europe.

The techniques, patterns and composition of this example hint at an Eastern source of inspiration. Set in a distinctive diagonal checkerboard arrangement—a highly fashionable design for household linens of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—four different ornate needlelace designs alternate with embroidered squares of punto tagliato, the Italian term for cutwork. In total, there are forty-two needlelace squares, thirty cutwork squares and twenty-six partial cutwork squares, representing a staggering amount of labor-intensive handiwork. The intarsia-like array of separate squares joined together with fine stitching bears a striking resemblance to traditional Islamic tilework. Here, the cutwork elements are divided into four quadrants, each with the symmetrical placement of two designs. In these squares, small areas of the woven structure were withdrawn to form open spaces—the edges around the piercings are overcast with buttonhole stitches, and the interstices are accented with needlework bars and delicate fillings. Surface embroidery of single couched threads, secured with regularly spaced stitches, further embellishes the solid linen squares.

In addition, the four repeating design units of needlelace strongly suggest the influence of Near Eastern decorative arts. Interlaced repetitions of star shapes and polygonal ornament may have been borrowed from the Islamic decorative repertoire, but they were sublimated into that of the Italian Renaissance. These intricate, filigreed squares are variations on lacis, a technique which also relies on withdrawing, thread by thread, expanses of warp and weft and then reweaving a pattern with the aid of a needle. Geometric motifs in a lattice or grid arrangement—such as the interlaced knots, stylized flowerheads, starbursts, and spikyedged rosettes in these squares—are not only related to exotic ornament, but also illustrate the limitations of early lace techniques which were based on the intrinsic linear properties of the woven foundation. Accents of buttonhole stitch add extra definition to the lacis; an applied border of serrated bobbin lace is the culminating touch of elegance.

This pristine cover, of the type seen draped over dressing tables in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraits of stylish women at their toilettes, was formerly in the collection of Margaret Simeon, lace scholar and collector; it is illustrated in her book, The History of Lace (1979), plate 6. A comparable example, with a horizontal layout of alternating cutwork and needlelace squares, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (T.116-1959).

61.75” H x 72” W

Linen Cutwork and Needlelace Table Cover
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