Entering the building on a sunny morning, the gaze is drawn upwards by a special light. A hazy, pearly glow extends down from the top of the stairs, enveloping the area and softening its contours. The large window designed by Otto Maraini bathes the space in beauty. Since 1958 the sun’s rays have filtered through the etched glass, drawing attention to an allegorical representation of what is taking place on the other side of the wall.
That same luminous grey shade often features in the samples kept in the Vitale Barberis Canonico Archives. And there are well over fifty shades at play here… If you have time and fancy browsing through the samples, you can look out for chromatic and chronological references in the samples of the same era. Those, for example, in the sample book “Été 1957 Hiver 1957/58 Été 1958 – Robes fantaisie” by the Alsace company Köechlin. And there you will see that, as for Maraini’s window, grey spans a spectrum of different hues from blue to white, or striped with black, nuanced to create contrasts and effects of depth. Fabrics too tell a story, using colour combinations, light and dark, pattern; creating that first impression that catches our attention and makes us take a closer look to figure out the design.
Just like Maraini’s triptych, which becomes clear as soon as our eyes are accustomed to its opalescent glimmer.
In the only existing biography of Otto Maraini, Andrea Bruno Jr writes: “the layout of the entrance to the executive area of the woollen mill shows that Maraini was experimenting with a new approach to design: the line of the staircase, the shape of the furniture, and the wallcoverings used in the waiting room reveal he has abandoned all references to the tradition that had marked his work until a few years earlier. The resulting image is very pared back but still consummately balanced, and a key role is played by the large window engraved with a depiction of the stages of wool processing…” Perhaps, however, the difference in style is not really that marked. Maraini is like the creators of fabrics, for whom innovation often lies in the ability to conceal references to the best-loved motifs, playing with variations on a theme, rather than actually varying the theme.
In 1958 the factory was given a new look, in Maraini’s signature style: austere and imaginative, rational and bucolic, sober and refined, classic and baroque.
Maraini wove the tiles of his mosaic like yarns are interwoven, because the mosaic of the spinner is like a tapestry, a brocade of glass tiles intertwined to tell a story that is centuries long, and always the same. In the background, industry is represented, but the foreground depicts human endeavour, a young woman spinning yarn with a hand spindle: human creativity, transforming nature without denaturing it. The sheep at the spinner’s feet is docile and calm (with a rather knowing look on its face) because it has nothing to fear.
The distaff reaches higher than the smoking chimney, and the transformation is being wrought by human hands, not machines: a hierarchy of significance. The young woman is depicted in Maraini’s typical style, with her hair blowing in the wind. She is shapely and feminine, yet with a strong, solid look about her. She could easily be a warrior or a musician, wielding a spear or playing a stringed instrument. She is an artist in her own right. Weaving is an art in itself.
Pages of a volume of Vitale Barberis Canonico historical Archives with fabric samples, dated Summer 1958.
When he arrived in Pratrivero, Maraini was at the end of his career, but still faithful to his ideas. He had reinvented himself and done a lot of experimenting, but he had always stayed true to himself. Fascinated by classical art, female figures, the power of gesture and the evocative use of visual references, there is a little bit of everything in the window of Lanificio Vitale Barberis Canonico, from Greek and Roman statuary to Millet, from Botticelli to Dürer to Breton to… Maraini. The writer mentions other works of his in the Biella area that are linked by a common thread: not these three anonymous icons, but the Fates, who rather than weaving yarn, had the task, in the end, of snipping it (shears and scissors feature in this image too, and it is no coincidence that they are close to hand…).
Maraini’s translucent images highlight the central role of spinning, which is depicted between a sheep shearer (wearing a strange cap that looks out of place in this setting, and was actually inspired by Van Gogh’s Loom with Weaver) and a weaver. It is an interesting choice of subject matter, like that of the mosaic on the façade: why did he decide to celebrate an “intermediate” step rather than the finished product, namely the company’s core business?
The work conveys an impression of spartan harmony, but great poetry: the figures look like musicians playing their instruments. Otto Maraini’s art has the power to express compelling, dream-like symbolism, even when his images are presented with the immediacy of a comic strip.
Or that of Edgar Lee Masters’ beautiful, haunting poem dedicated to the weaver of Spoon River, the late Widow McFarlane, who takes pity on us all.