A few kilometers from Foligno, in the heart of the green heart of Italy, Umbria, a small village named after the river that runs through it, the Topino, and of which Dante in his Comedy already praised the beauty of its flowing through the valley, a Museum of Embroidery and Textiles was born a few years ago. In Valtopina, in fact, a group of passionate, motivated and courageous embroiderers first opened a School, then a Museum and finally set up last year an international contemporary art exhibition with works exclusively of embroidery art. We interviewed the Museum’s manager, Maria Mancini, who has been investing her energies in this project for years and has made dynamism the flagship of this small museum, projecting it from the distant past to the earlier future. Here is what she told us.
How did the permanent collection of the Embroidery and Textile Museum come about and develop?
The Museum of Embroidery and Textiles of Valtopina was born thanks to the embroidery school and the Textile Exhibition. Around 1996, at the suggestion of an embroidery expert, the Pro Loco, which I then chaired, organized weekly embroidery workshops on the premises of the municipality. Several students joined them, taking advantage of experienced embroiderers to learn notions of embroidery and make domestic linens. In the course of the meetings, they began to exchange information and details regarding the embroideries of their respective trousseaux or those inherited from their grandmothers. From time to time, someone would bring an embroidered garment, and others made available to the School sample books and various handicrafts already made. One item at a time, we found ourselves with a number of works that served mostly as patterns and therefore needed to be preserved. As an Association, we took custody of the donated garments, which formed the first nucleus of the permanent museum collection that has subsequently expanded and increased over time.
The “Corpus” of these early pieces donated to the School of Embroidery since the official establishment of the Museum in 2017 has been significantly enriched. Donations initially were mainly the work of local supporters and many Umbrian families who entrusted the Museum with personal and household linens, clothing and childhood trousseaux inherited from previous generations. Today the Museum boasts an interesting collection of artifacts from different parts of the peninsula that tell a cross-section of fashion and costume between the 19th and 20th centuries. Through the personal trousseaus and linens, dresses and accessories, blank embroideries, the lace profusion of busts and bust covers, petticoats, pantyhose stockings and handkerchiefs, the changes in fashions, styles, tastes and fashions over time are captured.
How is the museum routing organized?
The museum itinerary runs through five interconnected halls. The first Hall is an exhibition venue but also a classroom for embroidery courses and workshops, as well as a space that not infrequently hosts temporary exhibitions including contemporary fiber art and embroidery art.
This is followed by the room dedicated to personal linens, a third for household linens, and in succession the large double room dedicated to adult and children’s fashion. Custom-made showcases and large cylinders have been made to allow the best possible use of all the garments in the collection.
What management difficulties does a museum of your size face?
The Embroidery Museum is a Municipal Museum entrusted for management to the local Pro Loco and governed by an agreement between the two entities that establishes specific roles and responsibilities. A small scientific committee provides annual programming of events, organizes exhibitions and cultural meetings. Thus, the management of the Museum is entrusted to the President of the Pro Loco, who aided and abetted by volunteers ensures the opening and presence for the Museum’s various activities, the organization of events, and the cataloging and preservation of new donations. From this it is clear that much of the effort is made on a free and voluntary basis. Economic resources in a small municipality are limited and therefore it is complex to both maintain the spaces and restore the artifacts that need it as well as to organize the events.
Who is the visitor to the Museum? And what relationship has been established between the Museum and the area?
The audience of visitors is heterogeneous, from simple enthusiasts and connoisseurs of textile art, to scholars, school groups, specialized embroidery schools or tourists staying in our area or neighboring areas.
The Valtopina Museum of Embroidery has a close connection with the local and regional territory: because of its specificity and partly also because of the various initiatives it promotes, it is known and appreciated.
Embroidery has thus become almost an identity element of Valtopina. Here you also organize a Market Exhibition that has national and international participation, with important side events…
That’s right. Over the years, the School has structured courses attended by embroiderers from Valtopina and neighboring areas to the point of receiving requests to organize courses in other municipalities as well. The growing interest in this ancient art has led to the birth of the Annual Exhibition of Embroidery and Handicraft Textiles in which the best Italian and foreign Embroidery Schools participate, as well as professional lace makers, weavers and weavers. The Exhibition has grown year by year-we have now passed the 20th edition-becoming a great showcase of artistic and creative textile craftsmanship where tradition opens to innovation and in the fusion of old and new knowledge promotes the recovery of the manual skills and creativity of women and men of the new millennium.
In this regard, for the past few years the Museum has opened its doors to contemporary art, particularly fiber art, including with exhibitions of international scope. How has this experience evolved and with what results?
The opening of the Museum to contemporary art has marked a moment of important enhancement.
For years we have proposed Temporary Exhibitions of ancient artifacts in dialogue with those made today and that are an expression of the creativity of the women of our time: among these are Trame d’aria, a comparison of collectible fans from different eras, or Textile idea, a focus on ancient and contemporary tapestries, and, again, IMperfezione focused on lace. From these early beginnings in 2022, we arrived at an appointment with international contemporary Embroidery Art with Notes on This Time in which we exhibited the works of twenty-five artists from fifteen countries around the world. We were rewarded by an extraordinary turnout of visitors, not only insiders, but many young (and even not so young) people who showed great interest in this form of expression. The initial fear for us, the organizers, that Fiber Art would not be appreciated by those who love and practice traditional embroidery, perfect in technique and made according to a precise pattern, was largely defeated by a response and success that exceeded all our expectations. The concept of the exhibition and the high quality of the works on display prevailed over mere technique of execution even in the judgment of purists of classical embroidery.
This has convinced us to continue in this direction by promoting other appointments with Fiber Art. The relationship between ancient and contemporary will not be interrupted, but will run in parallel, the thread will continue to tell stories, convey messages, and create bonds.
The Embroidery Museum definitely opens to the future with the awareness of enriching its proposals, of involving a higher number of users, of giving space to contemporaneity through an ideal dialogue between yesterday and today where the protagonist is always the thread.
With this in mind, what short-term projects?
We are collaborating on an international call open to artists from Italy and the European Union aimed at an exhibition-scheduled for late fall-that can tell, through a medium for centuries associated with the feminine universe, the rights still denied to many women today-individually or collectively-at every latitude. But about this project I do not want to reveal too much.