Living History

Italy’s Ancient Textile-Printing Mangle
In a tiny town near Italy’s Northeastern coast, the unique art of handmade, rust-printed textiles is still alive thanks to a piece of living history: a massive stone-and-wood mangle designed, in part, by Leonardo da Vinci.
 
If you are lucky enough to have a friend from Santarcangelo di Romagna, a small town in Italy’s Rimini province just minutes from the Adriatic Coast, sooner or later you are likely to receive a gift of rust-printed fabric, such as a tablecloth, curtain, or towel. For the people of Romagna, these beautiful linens represent a unique local tradition, which dates to the early 1600s.
 
I am fortunate to have such a friend, and when I received a gift of a hand-printed tablecloth with a pattern of wonderful greenery, I was inspired to visit Romagna and learn more about this thing called rust printing. This exploration led me to the antique printing workshop of the Marchi family, Antíca Stampería Artígíana Marchi, established in 1633, which houses one of Romagna’s greatest historical treasures: an original, working, 17th-century giant stone press or mangle, the traditional tool of the rust-printing craft.
 
This mangle, which would become the subject of my short film, “The Mangle of Santarcangelo”, has its origins in Mesopotamia. The machine’s original design required the strength of many men, but during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci himself calculated the precise measurements and weights that allowed the mangle to be operated by one craftsman alone. In Romagna, the mangle has been used since the Middle Ages for ironing the crude, handmade fabrics of the era. Because the Marchi family has preserved this mangle through four generations, theirs is the only workshop left that can still do rust printing the old way: on raw, hemp fabric.
 
After Alfonso Marchi, a serious, shy gentleman, introduced me to his son Gabriele, together they began to tell me their story, which is inextricably linked to this ancient machine. Alfonso saved this very mangle from being scrapped when he was just 12 years old. He decided then and there that the mangle would become his tool and his life’s work. As you will see in the film, Alfonso talks about the mangle as if it were his brother.
 
A traditionally made, rust-printed textile is nearly impossible to find anywhere outside the Marchi family’s shop. But its cost can still be seen as a bargain, because it gives you a lustrous fabric that can last for centuries.
 
“Our mangle is 385 years old. I’ve been in love with this mangle since I was a baby,” he says. “During the war, this wonderful machine risked being destroyed, because the house had been occupied. Many of the printing molds were stolen and many others burned by German soldiers.” Fortunately, Alfonso’s son, Gabriele Marchi, is now carrying on the family tradition, using the same techniques and tools. 
 
THE ART OF RUST-PRINTING
The Marchi printing house still owns numerous stocks of hemp fabric, accumulated over generations. Rust-printed hemp fabrics ironed with this mangle can cost twice as much as those of linen or cotton and ironed with modern methods — roughly $340 for a 150 x 150 cm tablecloth, for example, or $100 for a couple of towels. There are several reasons why handwoven hemp is so costly. First, hemp fabric of this type is no longer made; second, because it is thick, rough, and heavy, the fabric requires a lengthy processing time; and third, a traditionally made, rust-printed textile is nearly impossible to find anywhere outside the Marchi family’s shop. But its cost can still be seen as a bargain, because it gives you a lustrous fabric that can last for centuries.
 
Hand-printing designs on fabric with natural colors was common throughout Europe in the 6th century and remained in vogue until the end of the 17th century. As new technologies supplanted the old, Romagna became a center of craftsmanship, preserving the ancient techniques of rust printing and passing them down through generations.
 
Traditional rust-printing technique uses handcarved molds of pear or walnut wood that are immersed in a colored paste made from flour, vinegar and iron rust (the exact recipe is jealously guarded by the artisans). As the paste is printed on linen, cotton or hemp, the rust seeps deeply into the fibers of the fabric so that the decoration is visible on both sides. The fabric is dried and then immersed in a caustic bath of ash and water to fix the design. Then it is washed again to eliminate excess color. Finally, the printed fabric is laid out to dry, the last step of a process that makes the design resistant to fading over time and repeated washings.
 
For the full version of this article, and the documentary, please see “Italy’s Ancient Textile-Printing Mangle.” Other articles, documentaries, and podcasts on “the architecture of excellence” can be found on The Craftsmanship Initiative.
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