Historically viewed as a craft of the poor, tied essentially to the tools of peasant art, hand printed Romagna fabrics have an uncertain date of birth.
As the oldest documents do not go further back than the first decades of the 19th century, it is assumed that Romagna hand printed fabrics were being made before that.
Indeed, it seems realistic to place the Romagna workshops as the last survivors of a group operating in the Papal States and in Rome itself up to the end of the 18th century.
However, the development and dissemination of these fabrics stopped around the beginning of the 20th century.
A Romagna noblewoman, Rasponi Eugenia, who lived in the mighty fortress of Santarcangelo, was perhaps the only one that did not stop appreciating the value of printed fabrics, adorning the walls of her castle and the artifacts of a furniture factory she set up with them.
Drying the fabric in the sun
The ethnographic exhibition “Romagna Reunited Exhibition”, held in Forlì in 1921, relaunched printed fabrics and the commitment and passion of a few printing works have made a decisive contribution to their success today.The rustic printed fabric, which only retains its true appearance in Romagna, now has to defend itself from competition from a large number of products of very little value, made with industrial and automated processes and products in other regions, and even in other European countries, which are passed off as from the Romagna.
A problem that the Romagna printers, overcoming the traditional rivalry of defending the secrets of each workshop, have solved by constituting an association - the Associazione Stampatori Tele Romagnole - which created a brand with which to distinguish true Romagna hand prints.
From subjects of rural Romagna to more refined floral ones, the cataloguing of the most typical designs for Romagna printed fabrics reveals, contrary to what you might think, a multifaceted heritage that does not end with the images of wild countryside, so popular at one time and that even today are among the best known: chanterelles, vines, grapes, rustic mugs, pine cones, thorns, angry bulls, a reminder of a bucolic, traditional Romagna that has vanished.
Animals include eagles, panthers, griffins, doves, weasels, salamanders, dragons and dolphins, hens, deer and pheasants, most recently fish were included.Naturally, even in these cases the drawings are functional to the decoration and appear in the form of emblems and allegories. Animated scenes, on the other hand, have quite a rigid repertoire: the bull hunt, St. George slaying the dragon, grape crushing and dance scenes in the yard.
The vast basket of floral clichéss is multifaceted and difficult to categorise because of its extraordinary wealth of sign and fantasy.
Many classical motifs appear as a poor substitute for the decorative art of rich fabrics, which were distinguished as ornate by being embroidered or printed on fabrics with much more expensive methods and colours.
There are, finally, modern designs drawn by contemporary artists of the region: this is the case of the cut apple and many other subjects drawn by the poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, or the flatbread, which looks like a sun because of its flaming rays, drawn by the painter and artist Tinin Mantegazza.
First, the designs are drawn on paper and then stamped on the wood. Then the incision of the matrix phase begins, according to the system of woodcut printing.Armed with chisels and scalpels, artisans wear away the wood around the parts that will be imprinted to a depth of about five millimetres.The coloured paste is first applied on a suitable buffer in order to prevent the stamp absorbing too much and “smearing” it on the fabric, then the wooden matrix is pressed on the buffer and finally onto the fabric.
To allow the colour paste to dry properly, the printed fabrics are spread over long canes in the heat, usually on the premises of the same printing works, and, in the evening, look like the sloping ceilings of multiform, Arabic tents.The next day they are taken to the bathroom to fix or change the colours.After fixing, the fabric is rinsed vigorously, so that it can withstand subsequent laundry washes and aggressive modern detergents, as they used to resist the test of caustic soda in previous times.
"The wood blocks"
The wood blocks are appropriately numbered and often designed and carved by the same printer.Many of them are made of pear wood, a choice that is not random.
It is, in fact, soft wood, easy to cut, resistant to mallet blows and readily available in the Romagna countryside.
How do you recognise an original Romagna printed fabric? Even on the reverse of the hand-printed fabric, the design and colour printing can be seen and more unevenness and imperfections are perceptible.
The hand-printed design is the result of a composition of wood blocks, thus slight mismatches and connections may occur.
The charm of the place is undoubtedly that they print fabrics, with various motifs, using ancient methods, which have remained unchanged over time. This in itself is attractive, history can be felt, it is not closed in a museum and explained in words, but living and working everyday, still productive. All the printing works are adjacent to the main squares.
The original shop with production rooms did not face the main street or spaces for the sale or display of goods: there was just a small gateway, not at all obvious, opening onto the alley and no indication that it was a printing works.
At the same time their location in residential areas was not random and was crucial for the conservation of techniques and the printing production cycle.
Curator—Camera di Commercio di Forlì-Cesena