Valencia

Grandeur and Splendor

 

valencia

 

autumn-winter 17/18

Stepping inside the room is exhilarating. Eleven large wooden looms, centuries old, arranged in a row, tower up as high as the ceiling. Thousands of strands of yarn extend from each one, forming the warp. Around them, spools with hundreds of radiantly colored thread are arranged by shade. The only sound is the rhythmic noise of the weaver operating the pedals, threading the shuttles that will form the weft, creating the design at the same time as the fabric. The silk is woven using the same techniques, to the same quality, and with the same intricate motifs that made Valencia famous during the Baroque period, and before that, during the Renaissance. This was the city we had hoped to discover. The Valencia of artisans, of silk, heir to the thousands of master silk makers of the fifteenth century, whose work was the foundation of a cosmopolitan, seductive and dynamic trading port, situated right in the center of Spain’s eastern coastline. The city’s intense commercial activity was comparable to that of Venice, Genoa or Marseille, and gave rise to splendid buildings such as the Silk Exchange. One of the hubs on the ancient Silk Road, it was a crossroads of cultures, which coexisted in harmony, shaping the open, hospitable character the city has retained to this day.

Smooth as silk

Have you ever imagined what your life might have been like in the refined, decadent, Baroque eighteenth century? If you were an aristocrat, you would belong to the new urban elite, and would fritter away a large portion of your income on luxury spending, in a public demonstration of your status. You would dress in the French style, like the rest of Europe, in bright colors or the new, oh-so-fashionable pastel shades. Skirts supported by hoops made of reeds; brocade coats with ruffles and frills; white wigs with ringlets cascading over the shoulders, and handkerchiefs in the new Indian cloth, imported by the English, known as muslin. You would regale your guests with hot chocolate. Your linens would be Maltese; your cotton, English; the fabric of your dresses with their bows and ribbons would come from France; your lace from Venice, and, naturally, all your silk — damask, taffeta, velvet, espolín and moire — would be from Valencia.In the eighteenth century, anyone who claimed to appreciate the finer things in life knew about the skill of Valencia’s silk makers, and the quality of their raw materials. Their silks were unrivaled. Half the city’s population lived from the silk trade, and practically the whole province was involved in its production. It was Genoese velvet makers who had introduced its manufacture, and the Valencian artisans had even made the name their own. The Italian velluto became Valencian vellut, and those who made it, velluters, a term that spread to refer to all silk makers, not only those who made velvet, and became the name of the district in which their workshops were concentrated. There, looms were numbered in their thousands, and their activity was so frenetic that it helped define the appearance of Valencia, its history and its society. Today, only two remnants of the artisanal splendor of that age survive.

A few kilometers from the city, at the Garín factory in the town of Moncada, eleven wooden looms with Jacquard mechanisms, made in 1801, are still used to produce the most highly sought-after and exclusive of silk fabrics, one used to line the walls of many a palace, but worn by very few people. Flowers, bouquets, garlands, plant motifs, ribbons, bows, borders and sinuous lines gradually take shape as the silk is hand-woven with small shuttles. Work progresses slowly. In an eight hour day, a skilled worker produces around 20 cm of fabric. The numbers are unsustainable for any kind of business, which is why the seventh generation of this family firm, which has been manufacturing silk for almost 200 years, agreed to transfer ownership of its premises and its valuable collection of over 3000 pieces to the town council, to create a museum. In exchange, the factory will continue to operate under family management. In 2018, Garín will become the only living textile museum in Spain.Another recently created exhibition center, the Valencia Silk Museum, housed in the Gothic building that was once the headquarters of the silk makers’ guild, is almost a second home to Don Vicente Enguídanos, a venerable velluter, the descendant of four generations of weavers, and the final heir to the secrets of the velvet weaver’s trade. Charming and intelligent, he knows that it is too late to pass on his knowledge, but also that Valencia should not forget the work of the innumerable master craftsmen who turned the city into a capital of the Silk Road, necessitating the construction of the imposing Silk Exchange to accommodate the frenzied commercial activity that they generated. And so he has set up his old loom inside the Museum. “You don’t need to know how to work a machine you see in a museum,” he tells us, “but it is important for it to be there, as a testimony to what it gave to you.”

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Valencia shining in all its splendor. During the 15th century, Valencia’s writers, artists, humanists and scientists were the driving force behind the city’s Golden Age, a flourishing cultural movement during a time of prosperous craft guilds and economic expansion. With the new mentality of the Renaissance, Valencian life and fashions were characterized by casual opulence, nobles and wealthy townspeople celebrating endless festivities, the streets bustling with activity at night.
It was a cosmopolitan city, one the busiest trading ports on the Mediterranean, and attracted numerous Italian, French and German merchant houses. The textile industry was the city’s lifeblood, and its importance was made clear by the construction of the Silk Exchange, a spectacular trading hall and an exceptional example of the European civic Gothic style, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site: it is an iconic affirmation of the social standing of those involved in the trade.
Designed as a temple to commerce, the Silk Exchange had a decidedly symbolic character. In the picture, the vaulted ceiling of the Contract Hall and two of its eight soaring, helical columns: these originally represented palm trees supporting the celestial firmament, as the vaults were painted blue with golden stars.

En suite

Wealth, ostentation and excess. Untrammeled opulence and fine filigree, on jewelry made from the noblest metals and set with the most precious stones the buyer can afford, decorated with tiny pearls, and encrusted with coral or mother-of-pearl. As excessive as it might at first appear, this matching set of jewelry is an indispensable part of the official folk costume for Valencian women. Known as an aderezo, it is a Baroque invention of the eighteenth century, the period in which Valencia’s fortunes were at their height thanks to the silk industry, and it is a unique piece of heritage that artisans have kept alive right down to the 21st century. Independently of its sumptuousness, an aderezo must include certain items of jewelry. Elisa Peris Roca, who runs the gold and silver workshop founded by her grandfather in 1918, described them to us. There are the pinchos, decorated hairpins that hold elaborate buns and chignons in place.
Of the huge variety of earrings, all of them pendants, the French girandoles shown in the photo are the most elaborate, although barquillo earrings with their triple pendants of pearls, are made exclusively in Valencia. The large brooch worn on the chest, known simply as la joya — “the jewel” — or those worn on the neck, are also traditional elements, although the decorative comb or peineta is “the only one that can be considered truly indigenous,” Elisa explains. The practical origins of the peineta are obvious: it was a comb of wrought silver, which became an ornament when left in the gathered-up hair. “They are made by hand,” Elisa tells us, “from sheets of silver or tin, which are embossed on a surface of steel, lead or resin. Depending on the hardness of the base, you get a different depth of relief.” During the Enlightenment, it was not enough to be of noble birth: you had to look the part.

straight from the pan

It is such an international icon that in 2016 it was assigned its own Unicode emoji — and Valencians, who consider it part of their cultural identity, even travelled to Japan and Silicon Valley to make sure the design included the traditional ingredients. Paella – like the French cassoulet or the North African tagine – takes its name from the pot in which it is cooked. A frying pan, whose long handle has been replaced by two on opposite sides, making it easier to cope with the contents, it comes in a surprising range of diameters, some designed to feed hundreds of people. Paella, a simple rice dish made with produce from the surrounding area — the Huerta de Valencia and the Albufera lagoon — was originally cooked in a conventional earthenware casserole, which gradually evolved into the paella pan we know today. It is shallow with a flat base, and is made of cast iron or carbon steel, able to cook larger quantities of rice more evenly, so that when done each grain is dry and separates easily, as the recipe requires. Paella was originally cooked over a wood fire and eaten directly from the pan with a wooden spoon, the rice first, leaving the rest for last, in the center of the pan. Today it has become the ultimate dish for special occasions: the perfect excuse for large gatherings of family and friends.
orange whisper
It symbolizes wisdom, augurs good fortune, and they say its delicate perfume has a soothing effect, and can even calm a nervous bride-to-be — which is why, in Spain, orange blossom is traditionally included in wedding bouquets. In spring, the fragrance of orange blossom, or azahar — a word of Arabic origin that means “white flower” — suffuses the fields of the Huerta de Valencia and some of the streets of the city. The orange, which arrived in the West via the Silk Road, was brought to Valencia by the Arabs as an ornamental tree. Cultivation techniques evolved over the centuries, and the trees were planted in large, prosperous orchards, fenced by palm trees and decorative plants, transforming the landscape and establishing the orange as a symbol of Valencia. Today, it is a product of exceptional quality with a deep-rooted tradition, with its own protected geographical indication certificate, the “Cítricos Valencianos” seal. The orange tree produces abundant flowers, and petals that fall as they bloom form a white carpet that is gathered and distilled to make agua de azahar, the orange blossom water used to flavor so many Mediterranean desserts — French gibassier, Spanish roscón de reyes, Tunisian samsa — or to make the essential oil known as Neroli.
more is more
They’ll be impressed. They might be the best-travelled of visitors — they may even have seen pictures of the vaulted ceiling in its entirety — but when they cross the threshold of number 35, on the narrow Calle Caballeros, and step inside San Nicolás, the spectacularly refurbished church in Valencia’s historic city center, they will be dazzled by the overwhelming, all-enveloping Baroque ornamentation of its frescoes. This same visual impact has made an impression on thousands of people since the completion, in February 2016, of a thorough architectural and art restoration project that began four years earlier, reviving the design conceived by painter Antonio Palomino in all its original polychromatic splendor. The kaleidoscopic Baroque mural decorating the austere Gothic architecture makes the church of San Nicolás Valencia’s most outstanding example of the two styles in harmonious coexistence. “Valencia’s Sistine Chapel,” as it is popularly known, is the city’s latest must-see.
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