Italy Italia

Venice Venezia

Founded in the 7th century on a lagoon off the northeast coast of Italy, Venice grew to be the capital of a great trading empire and one of the key western markets of the Silk Road. Its commercial networks extended far to the east and by the 15th century Venice had developed close ties with the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran amongst others. As a consequence, the city is full of eastern influences.

Venice Venezia

The lanterns topping the domes of St Mark’s Cathedral (centre left) are very similar to those found atop minarets in Mamluk Cairo. The geometric lozenges that cover the Doge’s Palace (right) are thought to replicate the surface decoration of Ilkhanid mosques as far away as modern-day Uzbekistan.

Venice Venezia

It is remarkable to think that the brilliant blue pigment applied to Renaissance masterpieces over 500 years ago, such as Bellini’s San Giobbe Altarpiece, was produced from lapis lazuli mined 6,500km away in northern Afghanistan.

Venice Venezia

Venice is still home to a thriving community of artisans, many of whose businesses are centuries old. The origins of Luigi Bevilacqua’s weaving workshop on Venice’s Grand Canal date back to 1499.

Luigi Bevilacqua, Venetian Textile Makers

On the Grand Canal in the Santa Croce neighbourhood, is Luigi Bevilacqua’s weaving workshop, a business that dates back to 1875. It is an extraordinary place that resembles the interior of The Inventor’s castle in Edward Scissorhands. Complex and confusing wooden contraptions, thousands of reams of thread and gorgeous shimmering fabrics fill the long room.

Four women work on 18th century looms. One, Gloria, studied fashion and art at the local university and has been working here for the last 15 years. Across her arms and legs are tattoos of objects related to textiles and tailoring. She works with great concentration, as do the others. The textiles they produce are made of silk (which comes from China) and velvet. The fabrics are made using designs committed to memory. Gloria carefully lines up long pins that correspond to next thread of fabric. The tension of the loom is maintained by rocks that hang at one end. It is an incredible sight. Then, with everything in place, a great clattering fills the room as she pulls various wooden levers and steps down on peddles and the loom draws on over one thousand rolls of silk. After all of this effort another millimetre is added to the fabric.

Each day, each worker produces about 4cm. It is time consuming and labour intensive work. The results though are perhaps unique in the world. Clients include most of the great Italian fashion houses, the White House and the Kremlin.

One of the 18th century looms
Gloria at work
Gloria at work
A piece in progress
Gloria at work
At the loom
An 18th century loom drawing on hundreds of rolls of Chinese silk
Strands of Chinese silk
Rolls of Chinese silk
Locating a knot
There are around 12 looms in the workshop
Gloria at work
Gloria at work
Gloria locating a knot
Gloria locating a knot
Gloria at work
Gloria locating a knot
Strands of Chinese silk
Gloria locating a knot
Gloria at work
Some of Gloria’s tattoos
Some of Gloria’s tattoos
A new piece
Gloria at work
Working on a new piece
A new piece
The Luigi Bevilacqua showroom
Completed fabrics ready to be shipped
Pillow cases
The Luigi Bevilacqua showroom
Fabrics
Designs produced for The Kremlin (bottom) and The White House (top)
The exterior of Luigi Bevilacqua
The neighbourhood Luigi Bevilacqua’s workshop is located in

Venice Venezia

Today, skilled workers still hand operate great wooden looms, creating luxurious tapestries, upholstery and other textiles. These are still made from silk imported from China. The work is time-consuming and labour-intensive.

Venice Venezia

Artisan workers can only produce 4cm of fabric a day but over several weeks a remarkable product emerges that is in great demand the world over. Clients include most of the great Italian fashion houses, the White House and the Kremlin.

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer