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San Leucio Silk — fabric manufacturing is beyond a matter of mathematics

A tale of the present and past of San Leucio in Naples — the center of fabric manufacturing and a past dream of an ideal city. Annamaria Alois takes on its legacy while maintaining its heritage

Established at the behest of Ferdinand IV of Naples at the end of the Ancien Régime, between the 18th and 19th centuries, Manifattura di San Leucio was a source of pride for the Kingdom of Naples. The complex stands in the hills not far from the Royal Palace of Caserta: it covers an area of 16,871 square meters and has a façade 354 meters long, punctuated by a double order of pilasters, two orders of windows and two stringcourses with a tympanum in the middle. A monumental double staircase leads up to the entrance.

Inside, the 18th-century frescoes by Fedele Fischetti narrate the myth of Bacchus and Ariadne, the Mondragone marble tub — in the center of a room decorated with subjects from classical antiquity — and the bath of queen Maria Carolina of Austria, the younger sister of Marie-Antoinette. This is home to the Silk Museum. On the terraces that run down along the profile of the hill, is the Italian garden. The main entrance to the hamlet is marked by the Bourbon Arch, in reality dating back to the seventeenth century, when it was erected by the Acquaviva princes, lords of Caserta. The top of the arch is dominated by the royal Bourbon coat-of-arms, with two lions on either side sculpted by Angelo Brunetti.

Ferdinand IV and his consort Maria Carolina planned to continue with the same political and economic architecture outlined by his predecessor Charles III — or Charles I of Naples, the first in the Bourbon dynasty to take the Neapolitan crown. San Leucio, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was founded on a fief of the Acquaviva princes of Caserta (known as Palazzo del Belvedere or Palagio Imperiale). A hunting lodge was there, later restored by Francesco Collecini.

The property was passed on to the Caetani family then fell into the hands of the Bourbons of Naples and became a royal hermitage. In 1773, Ferdinand IV wanted to turn it into a buen retiro where he could escape from his courtly obligations. The chosen site was on the hills close to the Royal Palace of Caserta, where there were the ruins of a chapel dedicated to the martyr San Leucio, bishop of Brindisi. 

With its own vineyard and woodlands, the hermitage was used for short sojourns. Its permanent residents were only a few caretakers and their families. The fate of San Leucio changed on 17 September 1778, with the death of Carlo Tito from smallpox — three years old, Duke of Calabria and heir to the Neapolitan throne. He was Ferdinando’s firstborn. Bereft, the king decided to build a home for the poor, where he established a factory so that its residents would have something to do. He employed businesses from northern Italy, such as Brunetti from Turin. The colony grew.

Other buildings were erected to make it more functional: a church, homes for the instructors, and special pavilions for the machinery. The company was helmed by a General Manager, assisted by a Technical Manager who checked the condition of the installations. The technical preparation of the workers was the charge of the Manager of Crafts, one for each kind. The model of reference was the French à la Colbert. Work orders came from all over Europe. Advised by the minister Bernardo Tanucci, who had also advised his father, Ferdinand decided to send some youths to France to learn the art of weaving, to be then employed in the royal establishments. 

CASERTA: IL BELVEDERE DI SAN LEUCIO
THE BELVEDERE OF SAN LEUCIO
SETE SAN LEUCIO - SAMPLE WEAVING OPTIONS
SAMPLE WEAVING OPTIONS
THE YARN GALLERY OF SAN LEUCIO
THE YARN GALLERY OF SAN LEUCIO
SETE SAN LEUCIO - «SCULPTING THE FABRIC SURFACE»
SAN LEUCIO — SCULPTING THE FABRIC SURFACE

Domenico Caracciolo, Tanucci’s successor, gave a major boost to San Leucio, whose silks are today present in Buckingham Palace, in the Oval Room of the White House and in the Vatican. According to a design by the architect Francesco Collecini, a community known as Real Colonia di San Leucio was launched in 1778, organized according to a register of local laws. The local workforce was flanked by French, Piedmontese, and Genoan artisans, as well as by a group of weavers from Messina, attracted by the benefits and allowances enjoyed by the silk makers of San Leucio.

The workers were assigned a home inside the colony. Their children were educated free, benefitting from Italy’s first compulsory school, which began at age six. They were taught subjects such as mathematics and literature, geography, catechism, home economics for the girls, and gymnastics for the boys. No one could start working before the age of 15, with regular and shorter shifts compared to the rest of Europe. The terraced houses were designed according to the most modern urban planning and were salubrious and sound. They were built to last and had running water and bathrooms. Many have still lived to this day.

In order to get married, men and women in San Leucio, having respectively turned twenty and sixteen, had to have obtained a special ‘diploma of merit’. On the day of Pentecost, each couple was given a bouquet of roses, white for the men and pink for the women. In the churchyard and before the elders of the community, they exchanged the flowers as a promise of marriage. The women were free to choose the life companion they liked most. Everyone was free to leave the community, but this was discouraged by forbidding one’s return, or by reducing severance pay to a minimum. San Leucio was a futuristic world, a sort of a rudimentary socialist utopia based on aspirations for a better future entertained by a royal House.

Productivity was guaranteed with a cash bonus which the workers received according to the level of expertise achieved. The private property remained inviolable; dowries and bequests were abolished. When a husband died, his assets went to his widow and from her to the Monte Degli Orfani, a common fund managed by a religious order, which contributed towards supporting the less well-off. Personal issues were brought before the Assise Degli Anziani, the senior citizens, those who had reached the highest level of merit — and who monitored the level of hygiene of the houses and could decide on disciplinary actions and even expulsion from the colony. 

To fight aggressive foreign competition, the people of Leucio tapped into the fashion and clothing market, producing knitwear, hosiery, brocades and velvets. Following the fashions that came from Paris, through Marie-Antoinette, the sister of the queen of Naples, who with her couturière Rose Bertin launched the latest trends; rococo pekin was replaced by light tulles, chines, muslins, and reps. It was a growing success until the first half of the nineteenth century when the company got the exclusive for the ‘filo di vetro’ fabric, a creation by Gio. U.Ruforf.

Ferdinand IV decided to expand the colony to cope with new industrial demands following the introduction of silk reeling and the manufacture of voiles. As an enlightened autocrat, he dreamed of building a new city here, Ferdinandopoli, based on a circular plan with a radial road system and a square in the center. He wanted to make it a royal seat. He did not succeed, but he did manage to implement a body of social laws that were ahead of their time, inspired by the doctrine of Gaetano Filangieri and codified into law by Bernardo Tanucci. 

Ferdinand IV, the layabout King with a populist streak, had a passion for San Leucio. He organized hunts there and celebrations which he liked to share with the local people. It was like the dawn of a new era of justice, peace and prosperity. In 1789, the year of the storming of the Bastille, the king produced a work that illustrated the founding principles of the community of San Leucio: Origins of the people of San Leucio and its progress to date with the laws of its good governance by Ferdinand IV King of the Two Sicilies.

A text is commonly known as the Statutes of San Leucio. The code, championed by Ferdinand’s consort, Maria Carolina of Austria, a supporter of the Freemasons, was drafted by the freemason Pianelli, taking inspiration from Mario Pagano and the thinking of other Enlightenment figures. It reflected the aspirations of the enlightened despotism of that time towards ideals of social equality and economic improvements for the lower classes, paying attention to conditions for women. Published in 150 copies by the Royal Printing House of the Kingdom of Naples, it was divided into five chapters and twenty-two paragraphs.

Those unable to work were offered the possibility to stay in San Leucio in the Home for the Sick. This remained on paper for Napoleon’s entrance in Italy and the establishment of the Parthenopaean Republic in 1799, which forced the Bourbons to flee to Sicily under the protection of the British fleet. The victims of invalidity thus continued to survive thanks to the donations of the workers with the diploma of merit, collected by the elders in a special fund. The field workers were allowed to sell a part of the harvest on the market at prices fixed by the king.

THE PRODUCTION OF SILK AT SETE SAN LEUCIO
TRADITIONAL SILK WEAVING MACHINE
LAYERED PATTERNS AND WEAVES PLAYING WITH RELIEF

In 1789, lady Elizabeth Craven, consort of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, visiting Caserta, wrote in her Portrait du Roi Ferdinand published in London in 1826: «He gave me explanations not only of all of the rules of the factory but also of the most complicated mechanical devices that made the work easier». Between 1790 and 1796 the economist, historian, and politician Giuseppe Maria Galanti, a pupil of Abbot Antonio Genovesi, stayed on different occasions at San Leucio and observed that the most commendable aspect of this establishment was that nothing was compulsory. «Honor and other little problems are enough to make sure the laws are respected».

With the Restoration, after 1815, the idea of the new city was completely shelved, even though the factories, the warehouses, and Palazzo del Belvedere continued to expand. In 1824, the governor Antonio Sancio erected the statue of the king – today kept at the Railway Museum of Pietrarsa. Two years later, at the order of the minister and cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo of Calabria — who had put a bloody end to the Parthenopaean Republic and led a repression — a leather factory was opened, but had little success and risked sending the entire colony into ruination.

In 1834, the royal family decided to set up a company with private individuals. This was the organizational configuration in force until Bourbon Campania was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. In 1862, despite increased production and the development of the new Jacquard fabric, the Savoy family ordered its closure, but reopened it four years later, that time licensed to private enterprises.

This place slowly sank into oblivion. The production of silk in the area, despite the recession and the relocation of some factories abroad, remained an excellence deeply rooted in the area of Caserta, bolstered by an age-old tradition that was updated over the years. In 1976, for the 200th anniversary of its foundation, San Leucio returned to the limelight thanks to research conducted by the Milan Politecnico and Pennsylvania University.

In 1981, it was one of the beneficiaries of funding provided for by the Scotti-Signorile law for tourist itineraries, and just three years later a worksite was opened, following a contest of ideas organized by FIAT. After 15 years of work and a bill of 55 billion lire, the functional spaces were restored and the Leuciana Festival was opened. 

«The legacy of Manifattura di San Leucio is still in operation», stated Annamaria Alois, owner of the eponymous silk manufacturers. «My ancestors had been silk producers in this part of the Caserta area since 1850, even though the official establishment of the company dates back to 1885. I represent the fifth generation of the family working in San Leucio — the sixth is that of Angela Casale Alois, my daughter, who flanks me in the running of the factory. On my mother’s side, my roots go back to the royal silk factory, founded in the second half of the eighteenth century by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon. We continue to produce many of the specialties that made San Leucio famous all over Europe in the Age of Enlightenment: jacquard, the technology that stopped the age-old exploitation of children working in factories — and the heddles continued to move from the top of the frame of the old handlooms, for days, for years. We also produce passementerie and specialties on manual looms, machines in chestnut wood from the early nineteenth century, which we have restored: an expert artisan can produce just ten, fifteen centimeters of fabric per day». 

With silk, pure or mixed with noble fibers such as linen, our catalogue includes lampas, liserè and rococo and neoclassical-style damasks, stripes and small check, colors, combinations and patterns of all kinds, which are often directly commissioned by international interior designers. «I wanted to go beyond, mixing layered patterns and different weaves, playing with relief, almost sculpting the fabric surface. Using IT applied to tradition– I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD».

After university, Annamaria Alois learned the art on the field, exploring their codes with the texts of professor Puliti. «In a family of Cavalieri del Lavoro — where there was a sexist vein —, they were amazed that I could invent such complex arrangements on striped fabrics, on Imberling damasks», continues Alois. «I applied the rules of mathematic proportions. You need to study the weaves, which are linked to the number of threads that pass through thousands of comb teeth varying between 7 and 14 thousand».

The Manifattura di San Leucio has begun a partnership with Santiago Calatrava — supporting the retrospective entitled Nella luce di Napoli, dedicated to the city and on view until May 2020 at the Museo di Capodimonte. In the Real Bosco, once a hunting reserve of the Bourbons — the largest urban park in Europe, next to the Cellaio where the ceramics of Calatrava are displayed — is the eighteenth-century Church of San Gennaro. It is now closed, but will reopen – also for worship — in April with a restyling by Calatrava.

«The architect chose us to make three altar frontals according to his design — two side altars of 1.85 meters and the main one, measuring two meters. For these dimensions, the design must be adapted vertically and on a single piece of cloth, given that the width of the fabric is 140 centimeters and there cannot be any joins or visible stitching. Fabric altar frontals and antipendia were originally embroidered, especially by nuns, adding stones, tape and metal applications. We have to give that sense of relief, of prominence and chiaroscuro of embroidery, using jacquard silk with the dove, a sign of peace, and a constant in the artistic imagery of Santiago Calatrava. I want the design like in cartoons and with holes», he told me «You will know how to do it, it’s mathematics, isn’t it? I like to experiment. Sometimes I discover some old cartoons and sample books in the company archives, which preserve centuries of history». 

Its clients include the royal family of Qatar, the Italian ambassador in Paris and the Quirinale, whose tapestries were supplied by the Alois family from the second half of the last century. They export all over the world and 70% of work goes abroad. A museum has opened — 1885 Silk Museum — in the tuff stone palazzo that was the original premises of Raffaele Alois.

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