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. A CRAFTSMANSHIP documentary short.
Story and Film by LUISA GROSSO
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” (featured below), 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.
“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 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.
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.
As with everything handmade, each rust-printed fabric is unique. Because it is so expensive and time-intensive to create, cheap imitations of rust prints are common, undermining the survival of the craft and the artisans who devote themselves to it. An authentic, rust printed fabric shows the design clearly on both sides, as well as small inaccuracies (in the orientation, contours, and colors of the drawings)—all proof that the item was printed with blocks that were handcarved and hand-placed.
Gabriele says that the family sells mainly modern fabrics in its storefront now; relatively few people appreciate handmade hemp fabric or can afford it. Keeping an antique craft like this alive in the midst of modern commercial demands is not easy. “Our processing times are long,” Gabriele says, and we cannot meet the needs of a market that demands fast deliveries, large quantities, and low prices.”
While no one becomes rich doing this kind of work, Gabriele seems to feel that it is possible to cultivate loyal customers and live with dignity. “The greatest satisfaction is the strong and positive feedback from all those who become aware of our work.”
Yet Gabriele’s father, Alfonso, has one nagging concern as time marches on: “The mangle shows signs of wear,” he says. “It is a wheel that has been spinning for hundreds of years, and the time will come when it will need a restoration of its structural parts—a job that needs experts, and above all, a big economic intervention.”
He speaks tenderly of the gigantic machine, concerned for its fate. “Who will do it? Who will take care of him?”
It is my hope that this film will contribute, in some small part, to the efforts of the Marchi family and the town of Santarcangelo di Romagna to preserve this remarkable, living example of antique craftsmanship.