Francesca Bencivenni is one of the few remaining authorities in Aemilia Ars needle lace, an ancient tradition of Bologna. She was born in the province of Bologna, where she developed a passion for lace and embroidery since childhood. Today she contributes to preserving and spreading this time-honoured technique.
Tell us about yourself. How did you start making lace?
Needlework has always been the passion of my life. I started when I was only three years old, imitating my mother and grandmother. My very first production was a little needlepoint design of a lamb. I found it very stimulating to be surrounded by people who loved this art and respected its simple rules. My coming of age was not only marked by finishing high school and getting a driving license: my taste also underwent a drastic change. I suddenly veered from colourful needlepoint and cross-stitch embroidery to more refined, tone-on-tone works.
I started studying other techniques - bobbin lace, “punto antico”, drawn thread works - inspired by a much more classical taste.
My friends could not understand why I enjoyed spending my time with women who were as old as my grandmother! But the truth was that I wanted to learn how to make things that nobody else wanted to do anymore. I felt I had a great responsibility: the more I learned, the more I wanted to improve myself and understand. I did not want all this knowledge to be lost forever. Bologna was the capital of culture in 2000. The city’s history and its minor arts, which had made Bologna famous for several decades of the 20th century, were brought under the spotlights. The arts that were combined under the name of “Liberty” (the Italian word for Art Nouveau) in the rest of Italy were known as “Aemilia Ars” in Bologna. Shortly after, I started a course of Aemilia Ars needle lace, which has since become “my” technique. As far as I know, I am the only person who teaches and makes this type of lace as an occupation.This crisis has stimulated me to prove myself, to keep studying and perfect my technique both from a theoretical and from a practical point of view. A commitment that has given me a great deal of satisfaction. I have had the pleasure of seeing one of my works displayed in the exhibition “Liberty, a style for modern Italy”, recently organised in Forlì.
In this day and age, it is impossible to make big works like in the past: trousseaus, for example. To begin with, because very few people order them. Then, the costs involved are high and, finally, there are not enough expert lace makers to manufacture them.
Does it take a special training?
Aemilia Ars is a type of needlework that requires a lot of reasoning, but no other particular training or knowledge. My purpose is not to teach how to make lace, but rather to make my pupils understand the right approach, in order to achieve stunning results. First of all for the person who makes them, and then for those who admire them.
How can you reconcile an ancient art with the new trends and needs of the market?
“It has to change, in order to remain the same.” In this day and age, it is impossible to make big works like in the past: trousseaus, for example. To begin with, because very few people order them. Then, the costs involved are high and, finally, there are not enough expert lace makers to manufacture them. Only a handful of young women, including myself, still work these traditional techniques. Nowadays, people tend to buy for themselves, rather than for their homes. And what can you proudly sport outside your home? Jewels. My most successful creations are those in my Gold line, which combines goldsmithing with grapes made in Aemilia Ars lace. Each piece is a one-off. When we make small works mixing different and special crafts that are of the same high standard, the public appreciates them, because they recognise this complementarity. In order for Aemilia Ars needle lace to survive, it has to change its vocation and move from trousseaus to high-quality and unique fashion items.
Do the institutions protect artistic crafts such as yours?
Not the institutions themselves, but the people working inside the institutions. I often wondered whether it was just my bad luck that my work was not being appreciated. I thought that maybe there were other regions in Italy where artistic crafts were more valued, or perhaps that it was necessary to go beyond the boundaries of Italy in order to be considered. At the same time, it is sadly true that the type of work I do is unique, and it is not included in a special development programme. However, I believe that this uniqueness must be protected, and that the awareness of the institutions should be raised.
Do you think that the younger generations could find this an interesting activity to undertake?
The question is: “Is it true that the young are not interested in the crafts? Or is it rather that nobody offers them this alternative?” This crisis is hitting our strong points. To fight it, we have to start from high-school students, we must give them examples of quality. If, for instance, in a fashion school the students were offered courses, even short ones, in traditional pattern cutting and lace making, someone would certainly decide to go on in this activity.
I believe that the young could actually do better, because they are familiar with information technologies and foreign languages, which are fundamental in global communication. What I can give them is the rules, the respect for history and tradition; what they can give to the world is the revival of part of Italy’s artistic heritage.
What are the critical areas in your sector? And what are the opportunities?
One of my biggest problems is that I am alone. If I have managed to make Aemilia Ars survive, it is because I attended courses that were, however, mere hobby classes for women. But in the meantime, we have lost the craftspeople that are necessary to make big works, which cannot be done by one person alone, because of the time involved in their production. What we must do is build the necessary skilled workforce, in the shortest time. I have dedicated a great deal of energy to teaching, and my students could make a big piece after three years of schooling.
My dream would be to make an antique Aemilia Ars lace dress, which was originally created for Mrs Marsaglia Balduino from Genova, in 1906. The dress was destroyed in the year of the Milan World Fair, due to a fire that burned down the decorative arts pavilion where it was exhibited. I have recently found the drawings of this dress, which were bought by a private collector who was unaware of their value. I would like to recreate it today. This project could be important for a number of reasons: it would have an undeniable historical value; it would contribute to making Aemilia Ars an occupational opportunity; and, finally, it would have a social effect, because it would provide a positive example of cooperation: each piece joined to the next, each part essential to the final result, everyone important in their specific role.
In the short-run, I continue my activity as lace maker and teacher, dedicating my time to work and study.