Who ? Sea Silk Where?

Sant'Antioco

Four kilometres north of Sant'Antioco city, near the picturesque harbour of Calasetta (Silk Creek), there is a small laguna called Stann'e Cirdu (Laguna of Cirdu).
The name "cirdu" refers to the fishing technique once used in this place :
it probably derives from the Greek term "cirtos", meaning basket. Also, "cirdu" is a corruption of the Sardinian term "cestus", name of the round basket used for collecting purple-producing shells (murex) which, as it is, abound in the ring shaped Stann'e Cirdu where they have been fished for at least 3000 years.
Such naming of place gives an idea of how evocative and precise the Sardinian speech can be : the term for both fishing-place and tool connotes their likeness.
Under Mediterranean sunshine, Stann'e Cirdu is an natural incubator not only for the purple-shell but also for the giant mussel Pinna nobilis which finds here its ideal life conditions : temperature above 28C and salt content below 40%.
Unfortunately, the biological balance of the environment is now tilted :
- during the 1940s, development programs have reduced the water flow; hence algae multiplied and some species of fishes have disappeared from the place;
- during the 60s, waste from the metallurgy plants at nearby Porto Vesme were added to the refuses from housing development on the coastline;
- the 80s were marked by an aqua farming boom, meaning daily immersion of tons of feeding and, eventually, antibiotics ;
- lately, the water-way through the isthmus of Sant'Antioco was enlarged, and a new one arched bridge was built over it. The flow of water has become powerful enough to cause drastic drainage of the laguna floor, an obvious threat to the underwater environment.
Roman Bridge(rebuilt a few step away from the modern one, the old Roman bridge shows two narrow arches that served better the natural flow)
.
In short, the laguna is no longer the prodigious life pond it used to be.

In Sardinia,
until the beginnings of the 20th century, the production of Sea-Silk continued on a small scale in coastal cities : Alghero, Cagliari, La Maddalena and Sant'Antioco. An enterprising man named Giuseppe Basso Arnoux took a fancy for the antic sea-cloth and thought of promoting it to the world of modern industry. Thus, he sent kilos of cleaned fibbers to a spinning-mill in Northern Italy. The results proved disastrous : the up-to-date machinery could not manage to thread the material which, as if retaliating to the attempt, damaged the delicate mechanics.

The island of Sant'Antioco is the ultimate place in Sardinia - and, in fact, on the Mediterranean coasts - where the secrets of the sea-cloth are kept alive and ready to be passed onto a new, if hypothetical, generation of weavers. Stann 'e CirduUntil the 40s, thanks to relatively unpolluted shoal waters and to a sturdy cloth-weaving tradition, the production of sea-silk was sufficiently sustained. This is attested by pieces which, if lacking in practical functionality, must now be considered works of art (decorative panels, gloves, caps, etc...).
The working of sea-silk in Sant'Antioco dates back to high antiquity and is a remnant of middle-eastern contributions which are easily explained by the position of the island, midway on the prime sea routes, and by the coexistence here of two shells : Pinna nobilis and murex.

Phoenicians traders certainly brought the sea-silk technique here and, later, the activity was continued by other Semitic people, as attested by archaeological remnants of an Hebrew community which settled on the island from the 1st century AC onward.
TanitEmperor Tiberius ordered that a great many Hebrews be transported to South-Sardinia, on the official reason that these might oppose Sardinian bandits and also provide cheap manpower for the local lead and silver mines. Possibly, there was an undisclosed reason to this transport : get a trouble making community out of Roma and hope that it would not survived the harshness of the "Silent Island".
Lady batherIf such was the intention of the imperial government, it was to be deceived : not only did the convicts survive, but they settled and prospered. In the catacombs of Sant'Antioco, a few steps away from the basilica, modern visitors are shown ancient Hebrew tombs. Engraved on the vaulted entrance of one of these, the name of the departed one can still be read : "Beronice".
Now, could it be that the tragic destiny of Bernice, lady of legend and history, found a happy end in
Sant'Antioco ? If such was the case, did she have a part in the saga of Sea-Silk ?

UpBernice,
was the sister of Marco Giulio Agrippa, King of Palestine and vassal to Roma. The events of her life were first written by PegasusSeneca to be retold centuries later by various authors and poets : when chief-commander of the Roman forces for the Judean Wars, Titus met Bernice. He felt in love and so did she.
The Phoenician people named Sant'Antioco SLK or Sulki.
The Greeks called it Molibodes Nesos and the Romans Insula Plumbea, both meaning Lead Island with regard to local mining industry and the interest of the conqueror. Nowadays the whole south-western Sardinian district is referred to as Sulcis.
After the war, the couple went to Roma where Titus was to ascend the imperial throne, at this point, reason of state opposed their union and they both had to renounce their promises. Bernice had to leave the City and return to Palestine.
This is the end of Bernice's "official" drama but, possibly, the princess found it embarrassing to go back home and decided instead to start a new life in the Hebrew community at Sant-Antioco where, as local tradition suggests, she would have taken part in the continuing of sea-silk industry.
However, contemporary historians speak of the infatuation of Roman courtesans or ladies of rank for the cloth said to be "made of wind". Also, storyteller, writer and philosopher Apuleus in his version of the Metamorphosis describes the goddess Isis wearing "a robe of sea-silk, light and iridescent".

UpReturn to our island :
during the ensuing centuries, plagued by various pirates (Vandals, Saracens, Moors, etc...) as soon as the Roman and then Byzantine protection weakens, its population dwindles to near zero.
Traditional doorOf the great Carthaginian city, remains only the huge necropolis, its thousands of tombs dug into the rock turned shelters and home for the few who survived the murderous, slave baring raids. From the 7th century onward, the basilica of Sant'Antioco, standing on the hill overlooking the derelict town and harbour, was an isolated but vital survival centre where clerics governed by feudal rights the land, forest, vineyards and people bond to them. They also safeguarded the traditionnal know-how of sea-silk weaving, which reappeared whenever security was comforted. Thus, during the 11th century, when the Sardinian church rallied the Roman Holly-Seat, the Pope dispatched a group of Benedictine monks to renovate the basilica of Sant'Antioco. Festa of Sant'AntiocoHelped by the monks, the local economy flourished once more, and so did the production of sea-silk.
After Spanish colonisation and series of plague epidemics, repopulation of the island was organised by the new Piedmont's rulers, and it became effective in the 18th century. Farming was resumed under armed protection : the frightful Moorish raids continued until 1815, date of the a peace-treaty agreed by the Bey of Algiers after the British navy shelled his city.
In 1914, Vittorio Alinari, photographer and publisher from Florence (Italy), while touring Sardinia attests of the vitality of textile based economy in Sant'Antioco. He counted 200 looms that produced various cloth, the most remarkable one being made of the silky threads collected on the Sea-silk school Pinna nobilis shell !
Among the many evocative photos shot by Alinari in Sant'Antioco, we see young ladies who spin the sea-silk : one holds a basket full of tufts ready for spinning while the others, working with small spindles, show different stages of production of the thread.
Italo DianaAt the time, spinning and weaving of most cloth - wool, linen, cotton and, of course, sea-silk - was still largely a home industry, mostly in the hand of ladies. The techniques were handed from one generation to the other, yet the girls could also be sent to the school of a proper weaver-master where they would acquire a broader technical know-how with a coherent understanding of the complete line of production and, also, develop their own creative sensibility. The sea-silk school of Italo Diana (photographed by Vittorio Alinari when playing the ancient three pipe flute) was one of the last to operate in Sant'Antioco.
Italo Diana employed and taught 10 young women, among which Maria Maddalena Rosina Mereu who later opened her own sea-silk school. She was also the grand-mother of Chiara Vigo,
she who accompanies us on this wonderful journey.

 

 

Flamingos on the laguna
Up
Home
Bibliography