Woolen Gardens

European travelers such as Antonio Maria del Chiaro were struck long time ago by the uncommon abundance of woolen carpets in each Romanian home, be it aristocratic, bourgeois or peasant. Carpets were laid mainly onto the walls of the rooms, but they also covered the beds, the benches, the floors, and even the tables. Even more striking, such carpets were almost always homemade, as if there was a weaving factory in each house. Indeed, this was the case until perhaps half a century ago. No actually developed weaving industry existed in rural area, but the wealth of carpets, wall hangings, floor rugs and woolen clothes was due to a largely domestic craft spread all over the territories inhabited by Romanians. For a few weeks each year – generally during winter time – almost each peasant woman installed a loom at home and turned into a weaver for a while. And afterwards turned back to field work. This specific, cyclic and discontinuous feature of the peasant weaver's craft triggered some characteristic traits of the carpets themselves. The thoroughly non-industrial and not specialized way of production precluded the technical development of the proper craft of weaving and building the loom. As the peasant women turned into weavers generally once a year, they had not the necessary interest and the needed time to focus on improving the tools, the machines and the techniques of weaving. This is why the craft, in its manufacturing features, remained practically unchanged for centuries, employing largely the same, rather primitive, kind of looms and the same old techniques of weaving. At the same time, the non-industrial feature of the craft caused the issues of professionalization, of productivity and competitiveness, and the inherent technical and stylistic standardization they determine, to be played down. Weaving was similar to cooking, except that it was performed less frequently. The products were designed mainly to satisfy the needs of the family. Carpets and clothes were made for home consumption and only a small remaining part was destined to be commercialized, mainly during periodical popular festivals and fairs, once or twice a year. With no productivity pressure and no structured commerce, there was no serious internal market to develop and no external market to conquer. Subsequently, beautiful works and exciting ornaments peacefully cohabited with mediocre production and dull decoration. They simply satisfied domestic needs and entered no competition. Thus each peasant woman weaver was tempted if not forced to be creative, to re-invent, in a certain sense, the carpet on her own, be it in a good or wrong direction. And this boosted the astonishing creativity of the peasant weavers that one can easily perceive when simply scrutinizing the local carpet output. This forced creativity is the explanation of the huge diversity of ornamental motifs and decorative structures that characterizes Romanian carpets. It was a plurality of crafts, not a unique, coherent one, dominated by the patterns imposed by a certain centre of production, as in medieval Italy, in Flanders or in early modern France. Although some villages and especially some monasteries such as Tismana tended to focus (generally later on) on the craft of weaving, there was no powerful centre such as Brussels, Tournai or Beauvais, no strong atelier and exclusive influent schools to guide, to enforce, and to consecrate a certain perspective on the technique of weaving and on the ways of ornamenting the carpets. There was no school and no programme. In such conditions of fragmentation, of de-centralization and individualization of the production, the striking technical consistency and decorative coherency of the Romanian carpets is even much more significant, depending on a profound, inextricable tradition and stylistic, anthropological profile whose survival was not determined by economic success but was also not endangered by the later changes in taste and production innovations. It was a matter of a deeper matrix that equally informed the extremely diverse, individual accomplishments. It appears almost certain that the earliest woolen fabrics of the carpet genre in Romanian territories were generally deprived of any decorative motif, be it vegetal, animal or anthropomorphic. Yet they were vividly coloured in alternating, large chromatic fields followed by a succession of a few narrow stripes in various colours that were followed again by a couple of larger fields and then by other narrow stripes and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. No pre-established pattern of alternating the colours was operating, as to turn them in a mechanical structure. Thus neither the larger colour fields nor the narrower stripes kept a fixed order in their intervention. If the first colour (one would only arbitrarily use the word "first", as the carpet seems usually not to have a beginning, but to be a merely broken piece, a fragment from a continuous, infinite texture which is only conventionally cut in a way that gives a beginning and an end to the fabric) would be red, the second green, the third black and the fourth yellow, this does not imply that, after the intervention of a few narrow stripes (say, blue, white, brown, orange, black and violet), the next group of larger colour fields would be again red, green, black and yellow. Not at all: the next group could comprise completely different colours as well as the same colours but in a totally reversed order. It is the same case with the narrow stripes that separate the larger colour fields. When they reappear, they do not forcefully have the same arrangement or the same colour distribution, and they do not necessarily have to be four, five, six or seven each time they intervene. The only acting principle is that a larger coloured field cannot be immediately followed by a narrow stripe of the same colour, because in this case there would be no visible difference between the field and the stripe. This does not prevent a carpet from having a succession of colour fields ending for example in red, followed by a single narrow black stripe which is immediately succeeded by another larger red colour field. A salient pattern and a strong effect is produced in this way. The sheer freedom in distributing both the colours, and the order and number of chromatic fields or narrow stripes makes out of the remarkable sense of liberty, the total freedom of following one's own, very particular and even momentary imagination and inspiration the main feature of the oldest type of Romanian carpet, together with the powerful impression of a fragment simply taken out from an infinite deployment. This feature challenges one of the main characteristics of the carpets in general, the belief that they are the products of a planned organization of the work following a model present at least in the weaver's mind if not before her eyes, from the very beginning. Contrariwise, this type of older Romanian carpets is actually mastered by the weaver's subjective sense of proportion, of rhythm and chromatic harmony. It is more immediate and physical, like a woolen dance of the weaver and the loom.Although this kind of carpets is still produced – in a dramatically reduced amount – until nowadays by the peasant weavers, it was long before superseded by the richly ornamented fabrics with Oriental traits that largely imposed themselves since the 17th and especially the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, the basic feature of the Romanian carpet, shared by almost all the weavers from Oltenia to Moldavia and from Banat to Maramures is neither a matter of technique nor of ornament, but of dimension, and the apparently eccentric, specific dimensions survived despite the productive and stylistic changes and even despite the disappearance of the very grounds of their imposition. Notwithstanding the period and the region, the majority of the traditional carpets are singled out by their typical combination of a generally impressive length (from 2-2.5 to more than 3 meters) and a conspicuously modest width, rarely exceeding 1-1.5 meters. Such dimensions are not the result of technical, stylistic or material requirements, but they are directly determined by the specific use envisaged for the carpets. Similarly to the carpets woven in Western Europe, the Romanian counterparts were initially required, during the Middle Ages, to cover the interior walls of the generally wooden houses, to contribute to a better thermal isolation during the long and much colder winters. The traditional Romanian carpets are essentially wall-hangings. In Western Europe, stone castles and palaces, and later on stone houses in the towns and even at the countryside determined the appearance of much larger and specifically higher walls. Thus emerged the characteristic occidental wall-hanging, with a comparable, proportional width and length, usually producing almost a square, always determined by a frontal view on it generating a basically horizontal hierarchy and ordering of the deployed imagery. Tapestries of this kind therefore tended to resemble huge panel paintings that covered the walls, making them warmer but also deeper. Essentially readable, they were placed upright, like a page of written paper, and consequently they were read horizontally, line by line. This is why, like some paintings, such wall-hangings turned into screens that permitted the appearance of a full woolen if not silky world, copied after the paintings of the times, depicting historical and religious scenes, battles, allegories employing recognizable vegetal, animal and human figures that frequently tended to be as realistic as those in the paintings of the time. Contrariwise, the Romanian carpet, a wall-hanging too, perfectly echoed the specific requirements of the typical Romanian house, which remained basically a wooden and small one until late in the 19th century. The much smaller interior walls of the rooms in such houses required a proportionally less broad wall-hangings. Moreover, the typical compact peasant furniture lined up all the walls inside a room, with the bed on one side and the high benches, chests or trunks on the other sides, precisely to isolate the walls and, at the same time, to free space for the table and the chairs in the middle. Therefore the only empty space on the short walls of the rooms that needed a further protection was the not so broad one right in the middle, extending from below the ceiling to the beds and benches that covered at least a third of the lower part of the walls. That restricted area on the walls was enlivened and warmed up by carpets. And because the rooms were not so spacious too, the wall-hangings (frequently a single wall-hanging or two) tended to circle the whole room, like a square, coloured woolen ring or stripe covering the walls right in the median area. This is the primordial reason why the old, traditional carpets are so long and so narrow.Beside the typical, uncommon dimensions, this anthropological determination also explains another specific trait of the Romanian carpets, namely the partition of the chromatic areas in successive sections of fields and bands of different colours always disposed on a vertical axis. Traditional older Romanian wall-hangings never aim to substitute a painting, like their counterparts in the West. This is why, not at all paradoxically, icons and later on oil paintings, prints and even photographs in their frames were – and still are – placed onto the woolen wall-hangings, as if on a background. Try to imagine a religious painting by Rogier van der Weyden placed not only against but indeed onto the background of a tapestry with a similar religious theme! The use of the wall-hanging as a background for other images was permitted in the traditional Romanian peasant's interior precisely because the carpets were not envisaged as images or texts (like the tapestries in the West) but essentially as (coloured) fields, as woolen gardens. As they were deployed horizontally on the walls, their geometric decoration of alternating colour fields and narrow bands was automatically erected on a vertical axis, a series of stripes that actually worked like deployed folds, giving the impression of enhancing the space, making more room in the small rooms of the peasants. The idea of deploying a horizontal story on the carpets, the succession of realist images readable like a book from the left to the right never occurred to the peasant Romanian weaver. There is in the old popular culture nothing resembling the Flemish tapestries, vertically erected and horizontally readable. But there is also nothing resembling the much earlier Norman tapestry from Bayeux, horizontally deployed and horizontally readable, like an unbroken feuilleton. Essentially non-literary, mirroring a civilization centered on symbols and orality rather than on histories and books, the Romanian wall-hangings aim simply to develop the space in a room, making it bigger, more free, colourful and warm. For this reason they had to circle the rooms horizontally like in a universal embrace, but they also had to be geometrically rhythmic on a vertical axis, as if some pieces cut off from – and opened to – the infinite, that anybody could imagine as continuing where the wall-hanging ceases to be deployed, thus extending the real dimensions of the wall, of the room, making it both higher and larger. If one would try to read such carpets, one would have to take them down from the walls, to roll and to deploy them like a woolen scroll onto which, despite the code of coloured bars, nothing is written. The pressure of this forma mentis was so powerful that even when, later on, proper ornamental motifs (geometric, vegetal, animal or anthropomorphic) were introduced inside and/or between the bands and colour fields, they were forced into the ordering of a vertical axis. This makes that such motifs, even when they are anthropomorphic, turn into mere repetitive ornaments. As they are closed between the vertical bars and stripes, if one does not want to take the carpet down from the wall, one has to turn one's head in order to see the figures in the upright position, otherwise they generally seem to lie on their side. Together with the preservation of the eccentric dimensions, this later adaptation of the ornaments is a proof of the power exerted by the structure of a primal model onto the further development of the weaving craft. Simple or extremely complex borders are the salient mark of the Oriental carpet's influence on the later Romanian weaving craft. The internalized framework constituted by the borders is actually the direct and total challenging of the primal model of the traditional Romanian carpet. The border is the closing, the ending of the older infinite openness. Enclosed into the framework of a border, the ornament becomes a mere captive motif. The open-ended woolen garden becomes a much more rigorous space, like the one of a miniature, a Persian one with so many tiny details and intricate interpenetrations of floral and animal ornaments. Ceasing to be simple, clear and free, ceasing to work as a room-enhancing and room-opening device, the later carpets become valuable assets in themselves, pure ornaments. Now the richness, the complicated techniques and stylistic boldness together with a paroxysmal rush for the most innovative, exotic decorative motifs become the axis of development of the weaver's craft. Although the older, traditional construction of alternating colour fields and narrow stripes survives and adapts to the new environment closed by the borders as if in a cage, they lose their most profound nature, the unpredictable liberty and (both horizontal and vertical) openness. Once they manifested a deep anthropological feature of the Romanian psyche, while now they turned into a mere decorative, emasculated motif simply quoted in a carpet, neither active nor liberating. Moreover, equally under the influence of the Turkish domination, the typical Romanian carpet, which was the wall-hanging, becomes more and more a proper carpet, a 'kilim'. Much shorter and better proportioned, less eccentric, and also tremendously rich as far as ornament and colour diversity are concerned, but significantly less original and powerful, impoverished from the point of view of a trans-aesthetic, anthropological viewpoint, the carpet begins to fall from the walls onto the floor. What was originally designed for the vision, to make the eyes see more space in small rooms, is now designed to give comfort and a sense of mastered, subjected richness that lies under the feet. A complete reversal of standpoints has occurred. Nonetheless, the new view and practice was to cohabit for centuries with the older one, giving occasion to numerous reciprocal hybridizations that, together with the unique force of adaptation of Romanian weavers, make the real wealth of the craft until the 20th century. The stunning coherency of the ornamental vocabulary developed by the weavers all over the territories inhabited by Romanians is partly based on the common ground given by the older, primal model of the traditional wall-hanging that survived through the later various adaptations. The ever present rhombus and its infinite variations that one may find on the carpets from each corner of the Romanian space is a proof of a consistent anthropological and stylistic matrix. Some other dominant motifs, such as the basically old Christian one of the 'tree of life' are equally shared, like the cross, the spiral and the rose. Complementarily, each region has developed its own specific ornamental and even technical idiom inside this larger woolen language. Oltenian carpets are populated by vegetal, animal and anthropomorphic figures treated in a more realistic way. In Muntenia geometric motifs are more frequent, but they emerge through the abstraction and stylization of the same vegetal and animal motifs. In Moldova, particularized by the survival of the eccentric, narrow and longer dimensions, the motifs are predominantly geometric, even when they are inspired by real elements such as the 'tree of life' that usually turns into spider-like, geometric ensembles. While the Banat it is marked by big, radiant geometric ornaments like the multilayered, ladder-like rhombus, Transylvania and Maramures harmoniously mix together geometry and naturalism in various degrees. Later on, by the end of the 19th century, many exotic themes invade Romanian carpets, and they are mainly realistically (at least in intention) depicted, such as the parrot, the camel and the peacock. They joined the older, traditional zoomorphic motifs such as the butterfly, the bee, the fish, the stork, the chickens, the cuckoos, and the doves. Thus a new woolen garden emerges, one which is not purely colourful and made for enhancing the vision and the need of freedom, like the older, traditional one that opened a metaphysical space, but rather a theatrical garden designed to satisfy the curiosity, the need of sense, of reality, of diversity, of amusing stories. It is a typical sign of modernism that finally reached the Romanian village.

by Erwin Kessler