Focus On

To find the thread

Italiano (Italian)

Translation by Marina Dlacic 

by Valeria Tassinari

A workshop of the School of Decoration of the Brera Academy at the Antica Arazzeria Scassa to revive the high heddle technique.

The fingers of Katia and Franca Alcaro move free and fast, they have in their fingertips the memory of thousands of hours of work, of kilometers of thread, of infinite shades of colors; tireless, precise, they follow the rhythmic pattern of intertwining and knots that have been repeated identical for over sixty years.   They remain – only them – to preserve the ancient technique of high-heddle tapestry so well, and to continue to perform masterpieces with that special attention to color that makes their laboratory unique, founded by Ugo Scassa in the 1960s and continuously active until to date thanks to his nephew Massimo Bilotta, who inherited his enthusiasm and proactive spirit.  Artisan, entrepreneur, art lover and friend of artists, Ugo loved the challenge, and chose that of modern and contemporary painting, which he began to interpret in a very sensitive way thanks to an intuition: to strengthen an ancient tradition such as the tall heddle – vertical warp and weft stretched from the bottom up – adopting a new way of composing the skeins to capture all the vibrations and tonal gradations of the pictorial models.


Two hundred and sixteen threads every forty centimeters of fabric, multiplied by often very large surfaces, a granulation that even returns the illusion of the brushstroke while, on the back, a soft expanse of threads fully restores the tactile sensation of the material.  When you enter the large room dominated by ancient looms, it is precisely this particular method of composition of the chromatic skeins that immediately makes you feel inside a world apart, pervaded by a wisdom that seems to exist only where it has been practiced for a long time, among the walls of the ancient Certosa di Valmanera, a few minutes north of the historic center of Asti. In the half-light necessary for work, among the splendid tapestries by Capogrossi, Cagli and Klee (among the many made by Scassa), the large wooden looms are silent and powerful presences.

Workshop Arazzeria Scassa Asti 2021 – photo Barbara Casagrande

In that silence, fifteen students of the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan were the protagonists of a workshop, an intense shared experience of working on the loom, from May 31st to June 12th, thanks to a training residency promoted by the academy in collaboration with the tapestry shop. Prepared and motivated through a series of meetings with experts online during the academic year (a whole year of distance learning away from manual skills), selected on the basis of the presentation of a sketch among a large number of applicants of the Three-year and Two years of the School of Decoration, the girls have thus passed from digital to the direct practice of a technique that only in that place  they could have experimented.

Primary objective of the teachers of the School, represented in particular by prof. Sergio Nannicola, coordinator of the Biennium of Decoration and creator and curator of the project, is the relaunch of knowledge and the desire to practice an art and a profession that is being lost.  As is known, in fact, just as in the international contemporary creative production the techniques of artistic craftsmanship are today more than ever attracting attention – and are also required for projects of a highly experimental and innovative nature – in reality almost all traditional workshops especially the Italian ones, are experiencing a profound crisis due to a lack of new trained workers.The great training gap, determined by the transformation of art institutes and by an idea of ​​culture that neglects the apprenticeship, has long since left a mark, allocating to the extinction a wealth of knowledge and skills that would have and could continue to be an extremely prestigious resource for our country.Thus, faced with a growing number of artists, designers and collectors who show interest in devising specific projects for this type of production, what were once the sanctuaries of Italian excellence in applied arts are often no longer able to cope to requests for greater commitment, and even seem destined to close within a few years, due to a substantial lack of generational continuity.

With this awareness, the Brera School of Decoration has begun to offer training courses in the field, which include laboratory experiences outside to promote the dissemination of knowledge of niche artisan creative techniques and practices, in the belief that they should not only be preserved as historical cultural heritage, but which can also be reinterpreted in the perspective of experiments that look to the future, to offer students a concrete expressive and professional possibility.

The “Alto Liccio” project is therefore also part of this vision, the articulation of which between virtuality and dexterity has assumed – in this last year of distances, restrictions, dematerialization of doing – a paradigmatic value. Initially, the preliminary meetings with the students allowed them to virtually visit the tapestry workshop and, subsequently, to think about the relationship with collecting and the market, entering, always virtually, in the Modenese gallery of Antonio Verolino, specialized in tapestries and contemporary carpets. Subsequently, a phase of confrontation with the teachers of the theoretical and laboratory subjects was preparatory to the production of sketches to be submitted to the commission, which selected them on the basis of quality and feasibility.

With the choice of projects by Ilaria Ceriotti, Yidan Gao, Beatrice Smiriglia, Ekaterina Gruniushkina, Natalya Kilganova, Vanessa Lo Bosco, Sofia Banfi, Anna Guerra, Sara Viganò, Alice Monzani, Beatrice Morino, Elisa Parrello, Claudia Coazzoli, Sofia Bramuzzo, Jiemeng Wu – the commission formed by Sergio Nannicola with Massimo Bilotta, Katia and Franca Alcaro dell ‘Arazzeria Scassa, Maria Cristiana Fioretti (Director of the School of Decoration) and Barbara Giorgis (Coordinator of the three-year school of decoration) has identified the working group (coincidentally all female) who participated in the workshops in the laboratory to make small tapestries of the format of 25×25 cm., a size suitable for a week of work, especially for those who face this technique for the first time.

Thus, side by side on the loom, guided by the ancient wisdom of Katia and Franca, all the girls were able to totally immerse themselves in an ancestral dimension, experiencing a different measure of time, and discovering the potential of a world previously totally unknown to each of them. . The quality of the small works, simple abstract exercises on a formal level but chromatically precious and never banal, is the testimony of the commitment that all have lavished on this collective and individual project, which will soon be fulfilled in an exhibition and in a documentary publication.