All of San Giovanni in Fiore seemed to be driving down Via Gramsci as I searched out the atelier of Calabrian textile artist Domenico Caruso. I was looking forward to the encounter as I had admired photos of his extraordinary work for quite some time. And wouldn’t you know, the old carpet hanging in front of his shop distinguished the location perfectly: Caruso Tessiture Artistiche & Scuola Tappeti. I sought out a parking spot and as I was about to ring the bell, a friendly face popped out of an upstairs window. He would be right down.
Shortly cropped hair and a rather full beard framed a warm smile and penetrating gaze. Strongly connected to his roots, Domenico Caruso was born and raised in San Giovanni in Fiore, a population center of Calabria’s Sila Mountains. An image of his father hung on the wall facing his desk, like a family photo but an intricate tapestry. One of his four children entered as we were talking. The young boy greeted me politely and continued on his way. Upstairs, there was a child-sized loom the master textile artist had built for his children.
The whole family enthusiastically embraces the weaving activities. His lovely wife, Francesca Bisceglia, also works in the business, which not only produces unique textiles in a vast array of materials and styles but also repairs and cleans older, damaged articles.
Domenico Caruso is exceedingly precise, warm and unpretentious. He is the first (and to date, only) textile artist to have created a piece of cloth completely in gold thread, both weft and warp, for which he devised a new apparatus. Top designers have sought out his fabrics for their haute couture, his woven masterpieces have garnered international acclaim, and he may also be seen personally giftwrapping a client’s modest purchase. Caruso puts his all into everything he does.
TEXTILE HISTORY OF SAN GIOVANNI IN FIORE
On my visit to his studio, Domenico Caruso narrated the history of textiles in the area, an 800-year tradition connected with the abbey that was founded by Gioacchino da Fiore or Joachim of Flora (c. 1135-1202), Calabrian theologian and medieval prophet. The Florense Abbey began as a hermitage and subsequently served as a refuge, offering hospitality and political asylum for families fleeing from the surrounding territories of Crotone and Cosenza. The people cultivated the land and raised animals, and to protect themselves from the cold temperatures of the mountainous region, became proficient weavers. Every family had a loom, and the area was particularly noted for its bedspreads and garments.
The Florense Abbey eventually gave rise to the town of San Giovanni in Fiore. Over time, the textiles were influenced by the many different cultures that passed through the territory. There was a give and take of style and ideas, such as Greek, Arab, Spanish and French. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the local textile production expanded to include rug making.
In the 1920s Armenians began to arrive in San Giovanni in Fiore. They were textile workers who brought their craft with them, and after World War II, the Scuola Tappeti or Carpet School was founded. The Armenian rug makers taught local women how to knot rugs. The school was active from 1952 to 1978, when the Armenians left the area.
THE CARUSO FAMILY
Salvatore Caruso, Domenico’s father, continued the work of the carpet school in San Giovanni in Fiore. He was already in the textile business and came from a family with a long history in the field. Under his direction, the school continued working with the Armenian designs.
Domenico showed a keen interest in textiles at an early age and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Academy) in Catanzaro. He felt that maintaining his roots was important but at the same time he had the desire to branch out in other directions. And today, Caruso Tessiture Artistiche produces hand-woven textiles with historic and classic motifs as well as fabrics, tapestries and carpets with contemporary and original designs.
CLASSIC WOVEN TEXTILES
On my visit, a work in progress on an antique loom in the corner of the shop beautifully illustrated one of the classic designs from the area, the punto del guidice or judge’s stitch. The pattern is characterized by a saw-tooth rhombus shape, the jagged edges of which are meant to represent clear-cut justice. Two doves, symbolizing purity, perch on vine branches, connected to show a union and balanced to illustrate equitability under the law. At the center of the design, life’s constant is represented by an image of the pine, a symbol of existence and support for the people of the Sila mountains.
At the shop entrance, a bedroom nook displayed a classic flowered bedspread over which hung a garden-scene tapestry.
Old sewing tables were piled with skeins of thread in the vast array of materials used to create the great variety of textiles: cotton, wool, linen, silk, and even Scotch broom, once a common raw material, but now only on request due to the cost of today’s manual labor to produce thread from the ginestra plant. Another table was full of old tools of the trade.
Blankets and bedspreads, antique and of antique design were stacked on shelves around the shop. Bathroom, kitchen and dining linens were also on display. Each and every item I saw was crafted by hand, row per row of fine weaves.
Carpets could be flipped through as they hung in exhibition or appraised in a pile on the floor. The artisans in San Giovanni in Fiore are busy people. About twenty work on old looms in their homes around town, mostly women, some of whom were already working for Domenico’s father when he was a young boy. Today, the maestro, himself, focuses on design and special projects; the wheels in his head are always turning.
CARUSO TESSITURE ARTISTICHE– CARUSO ARTISTIC WOVEN TEXTILES
With his solid foundation, from familial and cultural roots to the mastery of classic weaving to a formal study of the arts, Domenico Caruso continues to embrace tradition while striving to innovate. So in addition to the timeless, historical patterns, Caruso Tessiture Artistiche features images and designs from more recent centuries as well as new creations.
His tapestry based on Edgar Degas’ pastel “Blue Dancers” is a fine example of his talent and finesse. Even from fairly close up, the thought, “Is it a painting?” cannot help but flash through one’s mind. The rich, pictorial depiction in the Gobelin style was executed on a Jacquard loom, an apparatus with perforated cards to facilitate the production of complicated images. Interestingly, Caruso noted that the Jacquard loom was invented by a Calabrian, who had been sent from Catanzaro to Paris at the request of the King of Naples between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century.
His homage to the Italian singer Mina is truly a masterpiece: two and a half million knots in pure silk that recreate an image from the booklet of her album Ti conosco mascherina. (By the way, if you haven’t ever heard Mina, listen to her singing “Brava,” and you won’t believe your ears.)
In his intriguing tapestry VibranteNudoRelaxBlu Caruso plays with optical illusion in an image completely of his own design.
INSPIRATION FROM JOACHIM OF FLORA
The citizens of San Giovanni in Fiore are proud of Gioacchino da Fiore; and growing up in this town founded by the abbot, Domenico Caruso couldn’t help but have been inspired by the theologian, in particular, by the fantastical images of the Liber figurarum. In this “Book of Figures,” Joachim expressed his ecclesiastical vision with flowering trees, circles symbolically linked together, a seven-headed dragon and other creative designs rather modern for the period. In fact, Caruso considers Joachim of Flora to be the father of abstract art.
The master weaver’s reproductions of Joachim’s images in large, silk tapestries, completely knotted by hand, each consuming well over a year’s labor, are magnificent. Pope John Paul II happily received Caruso’s donation of intertwined circles representing the trinity for the Vatican museums. Look closely at this photo. This is the pure silk tapestry. Amazing.
UNIQUE TEXTILES BY CARUSO TESSITURE ARTISTICHE
At this point, the reader, no doubt, is thinking that a Caruso original is way out of his league. Certainly, a sizable tapestry which may take a year and a half to complete would be destined for a museum or the walls of the rich and famous. However, Caruso has something for everyone, from table runners and linens to accent pillow covers and shawls. A surprising collection of articles for sale are available in his locations in San Giovanni in Fiore, Cosenza, and on-line. He takes commissions, as well.
A few years ago, Caruso began making purses with his hand-woven fabrics, and these artisan handbags have taken off. Patterns range from classic florals to reproductions of artistic masterworks to renditions of the designs by Joachim of Flora. Teaming with a leather craftsman, Caruso also produces larger bags and backpacks finished with fine French leather and fashioned for the cultured businessman or the casually elegant woman on the go. (Perfect for an American travel writer and blogger leading a Calabria tour?)
A couple of very pleasant hours flew by on my visit to Caruso Tessiture Artistiche & Scuola Tappeti. I thought, “How many knots could Domenico have tied in that time?” And, “What a satisfaction it must be for him to be able to spend his life doing something he loves.” Of course, in order to make a living and employ others in a region that so many must leave to find a job, he not only uses his artistic skills, but his imagination for business, as well. And then I looked around at the meticulous work put into each and every beautiful piece, images formed by hand, line by line, not stamped on a machine, each one unique. Priceless.
Visit Caruso Tessiture Artistiche & Scuola Tappeti in San Giovanni in Fiore on my new tour Traditions and Food of Calabria in June 2020!
Happen to find yourself in the historic center of Cosenza? Drop by Caruso’s shop at Corso Telesio 69. In San Giovanni in Fiore? Stop by Via A. Gramsci 195. And follow the master textile artist on Facebook at Caruso Tessiture Artistiche & Scuola Tappeti.
Related posts on this blog: San Giovanni in Fiore: Gioacchino’s Outpost in the Sila Mountains, Lanificio Leo Textile Factory: Blending Tradition and Innovation in Calabria, The Ceramics of Seminara, Calabria – In the Studio of Enzo Ferraro and Eco-Printing and a Day in the Caulonia Countryside.
Read more about the fascinating region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this important area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
Connect on social media: “Like” Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page, follow me on Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for more beautiful pictures and information. Or join me on a small-group Calabria Tour!
Sign up below to receive the next blog post directly to your email for free.