Part of my Umbrian based research is on a type of textile known as ‘Perugia Towels’. It’s a name which they seem to have acquired at the end of the nineteenth or the start of the twentieth century when they were collected by English and American antiquarians and it comes from a mistranslation of the Italian ‘Tovaglie Perugine’. This, of course, strictly translated means ‘Perugian tablecloths’ ( the Italian word for towel being ‘asciugamano’) and NOT ‘Perugia towels.’ One of those tricky Italian translations which my Italian teacher used to call ‘false friends’ – it looks easy enough to translate it as the word it sounds a bit like in English but it can lead down all sorts of wrong trails. Believe me, I know, I have done it. The one that always gets me is the Italian verb ‘controllare’……..no, not ‘to control’, in fact it means; ‘to check.’
Oddly enough it seems from the evidence of inventories and paintings that in the Renaissance household Tovaglie Perugine were in fact used as both tablecloths and towels, and in many rooms of the home; the dining room, the kitchen, the study and the bedroom. I love to have the chance to handle old textiles like this. Objects used so closely by our Renaissance forbears seem to bring them alive to me as people with the same practical needs we all have. The stains and worn patches these have accumulated over the years tell their own stories.
It was the patterns on the Tovaglie Perugine which made them popular with early collectors and which remain fascinating today, as my photos here give an idea of. Some of those early collectors started to document the different types of patterns and these records themselves inadvertently reveal something else which hasn’t changed through the centuries. A lot of the pieces which have survived are very small, and small pieces of the same patterns can be seen repeated in different collections. The textile dealers selling these to the collectors must have cut up the cloths into small pieces in order to sell each piece separately. An antique dealer can usually be relied upon to maximise returns!
I wonder if Renaissance dogs treated them in the same way as my dog with our tea towels…?