Saturday morning on the island of Sant’Antioco, off the southwest coast of the island of Sardinia. Walter and I are in the breakfast room at Bed and Breakfast Le Terrazze in the main port town of Sant’Antioco. The group of taciturn Italian surfers have cleared out to hit their boards.
What shall we do today?
We scan a tourist brochure in Italian and find a listing for the Museo del Bisso (Bisso Museum). “What’s bisso?” we ask simultaneously.
Our host, the mellow Nello, clearing plates and cappuccino cups, offers an explanation in Italian. We don’t quite grasp what bisso (byssus) is even though we’ve had no problem understanding Nello up until now. (Our here-to-fore comprehension is almost entirely due to Nello’s patient and measured delivery.)
He says the proprietor of the museum, Chiara Vigo, is an old friend and that she’s famous for her work. He thinks we’ll find it interesting and offers to phone Vigo to check if the museum is open. He reaches Chiara and she gives us the green light.
The “Museo” is not even a five-minute walk and turns out to be a storefront workshop just a bit down the hill from the Basilica of Sant’Antioco.
A flyer inside the front window announces a crowdsourced fundraiser to finance a new space for the Museo del Bisso. A hand-lettered notice states La Fretta Non Abita Qui (in-a-hurry doesn’t live here); another announces Qui Non Si Vende Niente (here, we don’t sell anything).
We walk past a loom, displays of needlework crafted with golden thread, framed memorabilia, and press clips of Vigo. Seated toward the back of the room at her worktable, Vigo greets us warmly in her husky voice. It’s as if she’s been waiting her entire life for us to show up. Her comfy attire is gray sweats and knit sweater adorned with a jaunty lacquered fruit pin. Her pepper-and-salt hair is pulled back from her striking face.
A Sea Witch’s Tale
Vigo spins the yarn of her life-long vocation to bisso, the brown filament excretions of the Mediterranean bivalve Pinna nobilis — known as noble pen shell or fan mussel — as she holds up a translucent half shell on which her nonno had painted a scene. Accustomed to diminutive bivalves like edible mussels, we gape at the length of the Pinna nobilis shell. It is at least 2-feet tall. Some grow as long as 4 feet.
Diving to harvest the filaments without harming the bivalve, cleaning, processing, and spinning the filaments– all of this Vigo learned from her grandmother, Maria Maddalena Rosina Mereu, who received the knowledge from previous generations of women in her family. As she speaks, Vigo combs a clump of bisso to clean the bits of sea debris then she meticulously pulls the clean filaments away from the clump.
When I comment on her patience, she replies. “Senza patienza, non si fa.” Without patience, this doesn’t happen.
A clump of bisso feels like a cloud, she says, placing a puff on each of our palms. “It’s a thousand times softer than human hair.”
She sings a haunting old Sardinian love song as she picks up a jar in which she has soaked bisso in a brew of 15 different seaweeds and two types of lemon juice. She wraps her hands around the jar, covers it with her mouth and chants/breathes into it. She fishes out the cluster of filiments which the chemical process has burnished into a gold filigree. “I am an old witch” she says, laughing.
Now that we’re catching on, Vigo performs the spinning process. It’s a dancelike movement. She turns a wooden spindle on her thigh as pulls the filaments to wrap them into one long, strong thread.
The Sea Silk Gift
True to the sign in the front window, Qui Non Si Vende Niente (here, we don’t sell anything), Vigo explains that she doesn’t sell the book. But if we buy a copy at the Mondadori bookstore just down the street, she will inscribe it for us. Walter sprints off to fetch the book.
Vigo’s non-commercialism is central to her mission. She harvests and prepares the bisso as a gift from the sea. In gratitude for the Pinna nobilis filtering impurities from the water, Vigo proudly crafts its silk into works of art and shares them with the world. She gives the works to museums, to Popes, to newlyweds, and new parents. She gives her time and knowledge to scholars, artisans, and researchers. Vigo accepts donations but will never profit from what nature gifts to her. She says that nothing she makes belongs to her.
What a fine morning on the island of Sant’Antioco off the southwest coast of the island of Sardinia.
Postscript on the Sardinian maestro of sea silk
Back home after our 10-week adventure, I read Chiara Vigo, L’Ultimo Maestro di Bisso by writer/journalist Susannna Lavazza. This is some of what I learned.
Vigo has long been the subject of international media reports and scholarly studies. Accolades abound: Sardinian Woman of the Year, an Honor of Merit recipient from the Republic of Italy, and recognition of bisso as a United Nations World Heritage.
Her masterwork, “The Lion of Women,” took four years to complete.
In addition to bisso, Vigo works with silk, cotton, and linen using natural colorings. She is a master at the craft of dying fabric and threads with organic dyes.
These are some of Vigo’s words from the book . . .
“Water has immense power and in my case it is immensely important. There was a time in my life when I felt a deep sense of sorrow inside and it was water – in a truly physical sense, actually going in the water with my Grandmother – that turned this pain into something else. . . .
“. . . all that I am is water. My mastery includes an esoteric part and a physical part. So there’s nothing random about my oath being the water oath and byssus being known as water thread, gold of the sea. Not gold seen as currency, but gold seen as a spirit from the depths of the sea. Water is vital for everyone and there’s no doubt that all the women who made byssus before me were inextricably tied to water.”
More Information About the Maestro of Sea Silk
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