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Block-Printed Cotton Mezzaro (detail)

Italian, ca. 1832

Made in Genoa in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mezzari—large squares of block-printed cotton—were often worn by Italian women as shawls or voluminous head-coverings, fastened to the crown with silver hairpins or clasps. A variety of media from the period, including hand-colored engravings, oil paintings and ceramic figurines, confirm that such oversized textiles which would seem more appropriately suited to wall hangings were in fact draped over the head and gathered around the body. Hinting at an exotic origin for this use, the word itself is likely derived from the Arabic mizar, meaning “to cover.” This luxuriant mezzaro combines the charm of a rustic, hillside scene with the elegance of a flourishing tree. Referred to as mezzaro delle rose (of the roses) or, alternately, mezzaro dell’albero dei funghi (tree of mushrooms, so-called because of a tiny grouping of toadstools which sprout discretely at the lower left corner of the hill), the richly colored design features a naturalistic tree bearing a profusion of rose blossoms, its trunk entwined with ripe bunches of grapes. Other lush blooms—hydrangea, dahlias and chrysanthemums—grow from the rocky mound, populated with diminutive cattle and goats. The abundantly flowering tree and saturated color palette of reds, purples, green, ochre yellow, azure blue, golden browns, and black take their inspiration from the East. The Tree of Life motif, derived from Indian and Persian sources, was a popular theme in decorative European textile traditions because of its beauty and symbolic associations.

Block-Printed Cotton Mezzaro  

Though eighteenth-century Genoese mezzari were without doubt based on Indian palampores, nineteenth-century examples were less oriental in their overall aesthetics. The centralized composition and enclosing borders of this mezzaro suggest an Indian prototype, yet the rendering of the flowers, the pastoral details, the craggy outcropping supported by a mound of tulips and cabbage roses, and the opulent grape clusters seem distinctly Italian. Although various sources have attributed this particular mezzaro design to Manifattura Fratelli Speich, one of the leading mezzaro producers, it may have been printed by Luigi Testori at Sampierdarena, an industrial port city in the region of Genoa. A preparatory drawing for the mezzaro delle rose was amongst several in a folder donated to the Civic Collection of Genoa by Edoardo Testori, an heir to the business, in 1927. A drawing for the border seen here—a single repeating motif of a twisting, knobby tree with a perching parrot and floral festoons—is dated 1832 and is in the Prints and Drawings collection of the Palazzo Rosso, a Genovese historic palace museum.

Examples of the mezzaro delle rose and its border are illustrated in Margherita Bellezza Rosina and Marzia Cataldi Gallo, Cotoni Stampati e Mezzari dalle Indie all’Europa (1993), p. 46, fig. 34 and p. 139, fig. 126; it is also illustrated in I Mezzari tra Oriente e Occidente (1988), p. 67, pl. VII and p. 96, figs. 63 and 64.

104” H x 104” W

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