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D - 33: Corsica - where is the Silk?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

When we sail along the coast of Corsica in July, we will not only see chestnut but plenty of mulberry trees. You may remember that the Genovese authorities asked the Corsican farmers to plant a chestnut, an olive, a fig and a mulberry tree every year. The mulberry trees are here. But what happened to the silk industry for which they were planted? Genoa had its own silk factories and had a reputation for its elegant silk gowns.

Genovese noblewoman in an elaborate silk dress (16th century)

We all know that silk comes from China and that the country made a killing by selling it to Europe. Wearing silk in Rome was so trendy that Seneca the Elder criticized “immoral” women for wearing “translucent” dresses. The Senate tried to ban the luxury fabrics. To no avail.

In 552 AD, Emperor Justinian, who built the Hagia Sophia and canonized Roman Law, obtained smuggled silkworms from two monks who had travelled to China. Helped by a few Persian fabricants, Justinian set up the Byzantine silk industry which soon flourished. Damask – from Damascus of course – a reversible figured fabric became all the rage. When Arabs conquered the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire a hundred years later, they continued the tradition. From the Arab world it spread to Muslim Spain and Sicily. By the time of the crusades, the know-how reached Italy. Silk manufacturing centers were established in Venice, Florence, Genoa and Lucca but also in the Genovese colony of Caffa on the Black Sea, where Genovese merchants traded with the Mongols. The demand was high and people made a good living. But Caffa fell to the Turks after 1453. Genoa had to look for raw silk closer to home.

Tailoring Damask made in Genoa in the 16th century (photo from the Ardèche silk museum)

Asking the Corsicans to plant mulberry trees thus makes perfect sense. With its warm and sunny climate, mild winters, good rainfalls and cheap labor Corsica was the perfect place to produce raw silks. And so, the trees were planted.

Mulberry trees in the Ardèche growing around a hamlet

The effort started well. Soon all of Corsica was involved in producing raw silk. It was work that could be done on the side. White mulberry trees were planted everywhere. Whilst silkworms can eat any plant, they only produce the translucent silk threat when fed with mulberry leaves. It was a true family business. Women hatched the silkworm eggs carrying them on their chests in little sachets, men looked after the trees and harvested the leaves,

children chopped and fed them to the worms and provided the little twigs the silkworms needed to attach their cocoons. After a month they could be harvested. The entire family was involved in boiling the cocoons and spinning the silk.

Silkworms feeding on chopped mulberry leaves

Silk cocoons on the twigs inserted on the feeding shelves

Woman spinning silk in Myanmar where it is still spun manually

Unfortunately, the success would not last. The frequent Italian wars put an end to it. Once Andrea Doria had resigned from French services and aligned Genoa and himself with the Spanish crown in 1529, Genoa felt the wrath of French King Francis I. He gave Lyon the monopoly for silk production in France in 1540. Henceforth all merchants were forced to clear their silk imports through Lyon. To make matters worse, during the Italian wars the Ottoman fleet operated in the waters around Corsica. The island found itself cut off from Genoa. You may remember that the Corsair Turgut Reis was captured on the Corsican Westcoast in 1540 and became a prisoner of war for four years. With France, the key market, gone and transportation interrupted, the production of raw silk came to a halt. It never recovered. The trees are still here though. There was an attempt to revitalize the silk industry in the early days of French rule. Napoleon’s father was one of the initiators. But competition from mainland France was too strong.

Siege of Nice in 1543, a joint operation of the French Army and the Ottoman Fleet

The part of France which benefitted from Francis I's trade policy was the Ardèche. We have seen yesterday that climate and geology of both are quite similar. With Lyon being just 150 km to the north, the Ardèche became the preferred supplier of silk. There are mulberry trees everywhere, just next to the chestnuts. The silk boom made the Ardèche rich and lasted for centuries. It ended when America invented the far cheaper synthetic silk. Today, only the trees and empty factory buildings – often converted to “Musée de la Soie” remind us of the glorious time of silk. As Corsica, the Ardèche is now a tourist region – without the beaches but the wonderful Gorge de l' Ardèche!

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