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‘The buildings talk to me. Every one has something to say’

The Rubelli family firm has been producing fabrics in Venice for generations. But, as Nicolò Rubelli, its director, explains, the company is just as focused on the future. Jonathan Bastaple went to meet him

Venice is a city of textures and surfaces: the façades hang like faded brocade curtains above the smooth edged docks and portals. The architectural patterns are fascinating — not just the quatrefoil windows and the rhythmic verticals of slender arches, but also the accidental abstractions, where pink plaster has been stained by salt water or fallen away to reveal rough red brickwork, or patch upon patch of repair has left an ancient frontage looking dappled and skewbald like the flank of a pinto horse. And then there is the green and mutable water, which shimmers like a bolt of raw silk rolled out on a narrow table.

‘I like the Venice of the light,’ says Nicolò Rubelli, the head of a family firm that has been designing and producing fine fabrics in Venice for five generations. ‘When you see sun on the water it gives you a sense of peace, and you know you can walk and be quiet. I live next to the Guggenheim museum, and the first minutes of my journey to work are so inspiring: the colours of the water and the skies, the fog. In other places — New York, say — it is the buildings that fascinate. But here what you see is the wideness of the sky; you see nature, but nature tamed. The water is never still; you are looking at a sea within the city.’

Rubelli is speaking about his fragile hometown as he makes his way through narrow early-morning streets, across deserted little squares, over tiny humpbacked bridges. He is a collector of maps, specifically old maps of Venice, but he also carries a layered cartographical history of the city in his head.

‘The buildings talk to me,’ he says. ‘Every one of them has something to say.’ He pauses at the ornate Chiesa di San Moisè. ‘Look at that: a baroque church covered in sculptures, but not a single religious symbol. Everything on that façade is a monument to the Fini family who built it, a declaration of their wealth and influence. It’s not a church at all, it’s a triumphal arch masquerading as a church.’

Rubelli has been producing fine textiles since the late-19th century

Rubelli has been producing fine textiles since the late-19th century

The dawn walk comes to a very Venetian dead end at a square quayside on the Grand Canal. There’s no way to go further without climbing into a water taxi. But Rubelli produces a key from his pocket and goes to an unobtrusive door in the gable end of a building to one side. It leads into a magnificent Renaissance vestibule — low-lying, dark and reeking of history. This is the ground floor of the Palazzo Corner Spinelli, the Venice HQ of Rubelli when Nicolò’s father was in charge. It is now a rather wonderful corporate pied-à-terre.

‘This is like my second home,’ says Nicolò, as he heads up the broad staircase to the office. It is a fabulous set of rooms: coffered ceilings, another disguised triumphal arch in the form of an enormous fireplace by Jacopo Sansovino, a deep light well in which classical busts perch on niches like cormorants on a cliff face.

‘The Venetian Rubellis were dyers of red, which may be where our name comes from’

‘As a child I was always hanging around here. When I got older I would come after school and make labels for cuttings on an old typewriter. It was fun, but I was also handling the things my family made, getting to know them. My father took me to the mill on the far side of Venice, where one of the managers explained the workings of the loom. I was not then thinking that this place was my destiny. I went away to study engineering, and afterwards, while I was looking for a job, I came here as a stopgap. I never left.’

The history of the Rubelli family is woven into the fabric of the city. The company has been here for 125 years, but the family’s roots in the city go back much farther. ‘The Venetian Rubellis were dyers of red,’ says Nicolò, ‘which may be where our name comes from. One of the ancestors we know of is buried in a church past San Marco towards the Arsenale: his tombstone is still there. Later there was a Rubelli who commissioned an altarpiece from Tiepolo for a church on the mainland.’

The Rubelli showroom items on display include Pila 47 chairs, a Schola Grande Flower Top table, a Luna Grande chandelier, and a drape from the Bolshoi theatre

The Rubelli showroom: items on display include Pila 47 chairs, a Schola Grande Flower Top table, a Luna Grande chandelier, and a drape from the Bolshoi theatre

That art-loving Rubelli owned a haberdashery on the Calle de la Canonica in the shadow of the cathedral; his heirs and descendants were importers of Dalmatian cloth, which they dyed and re-exported. And although that business went out of the family at some point after the end of the Venetian Republic, Nicolò’s great-great-grandfather Lorenzo Rubelli picked up the thread when he acquired the weaving business of Giobatta Trapolin in 1889.

Over the next few decades the family made curtains for the royal train, and modernist fabrics with outstanding Venetian artists, such as the portraitist Guido Cadorin and the Murano-born sculptor in glass and metal, Umberto Bellotto. Nicolò is proud to point out that when Princess Grace of Monaco visited Venice in 1958, she carried a Roberta di Camerino handbag made from handwoven Rubelli soprarizzo velvets.

‘We can’t keep doing the same things over and over. People today are looking for something unexpected’

In modern times, the Rubelli family has made itself indispensable to the living heritage of the city. In 1996, when the Fenice opera house was almost destroyed by fire, Nicolò’s father immediately offered to help with the restoration. The Rubellis donated silk damasks for the Sale Apollinee and velvets for the auditorium, along with their upholstering expertise.

‘It helped that the burnt textiles had been supplied by my great-grandfather in the 1930s,’ says Nicolò. ‘In the archive at Corner Spinelli, there was a tiny piece of antique velvet, a sample of the fabric that we used at the time. That meant we could match the exact shade of pink for the new seats.’

The archive consists of a bank of glass-topped plan chests, each shallow drawer of which contains a single garment or a sample of fabric. Among these ‘documents’, as Rubelli calls them, is a sizeable collection of priests’ vestments dating back to the 17th century — pious folk art beautifully and ingeniously sewn from scraps of material.

The Rubelli archive holds a collection of priest’s vestments such as these, dating back to the 18th century

The Rubelli archive holds a collection of priest’s vestments such as these, dating back to the 18th century

Nicolò Rubelli with the new 2017 Rubelli Venezia collection

Nicolò Rubelli with the new 2017 Rubelli Venezia collection

There have been other restoration projects: lampases for the Palazzo Reale, the Venice home of Emperor Franz Joseph; soft furnishings for the Gritti Palace, once the plush waterside haunt of Ruskin and Hemingway, and another place that Nicolò calls his second home.

Outside Venice, the company has produced wall hangings for La Scala in Milan, and a new stage curtain for the Bolshoi in Moscow, on which an imperial double-headed eagle and a few bars from Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar  have replaced the dusty hammer-and-sickle of old.

Nicolò seems proud of all these commissions, but is wary of becoming the presiding genius of a dead Venetian craft. ‘Of course we could not resist when the call came from the Fenice,’ he says, ‘but I have to figure out how to say new things. Because we can’t keep doing the same things over and over. People today are looking for something unexpected.’

‘When there is an opportunity to get involved in the arts scene, we take it — usually more with our expertise than with money’

That tension takes visual form at the company’s modern office in the mainland suburb of Marghera, where embroidered Rubelli fabrics have been stretched and framed like canvases — then slashed diagonally across the middle in the manner of Lucio Fontana’s tagli  paintings. They were made for a trade fair, but could almost be a symbol from some anxiety dream. Nicolò seems to think that the way to avoid the retro trap is to engage with the present-day artistic life of Venice and the wider world.

‘We have been sponsors of the Guggenheim for more than 15 years, because it is the most active space for real art in Venice. And when there is an opportunity to get involved in the arts scene, we take it — usually more with our expertise than with money: giving textiles or ideas.’ This was how Rubelli came to supply the fabrics for the Stephen Frears film Dangerous Liaisons  and Sofa Coppola’s Marie Antoinette — which won the Oscar for best costumes in 2007 — as well as the TV series Game of Thrones  and the recent Disney film Beauty and the Beast. In the Harry Potter movies, you see wizards clad in Rubelli cloaks.

A length of soprarizzo velvet and a reproduction of a dress worn by Caterina Cornero, the last Queen of Cyprus, made for the 2015 Venice Carnival

A length of soprarizzo velvet and a reproduction of a dress worn by Caterina Cornero, the last Queen of Cyprus, made for the 2015 Venice Carnival

‘We are not artists; we define ourselves as friends of art,’ says Nicolò of such projects. Yet some of the textiles Rubelli produces are almost indistinguishable from contemporary art. One recent fabric consists of a white weave that has been hand-painted with hundreds of little brushstrokes in gold, like tufts of gilded grass. It is minimal and beautiful, and you could happily take a couple of metres of it and put it in a frame — just like those Fontana pastiches — or even cover a room with it and call it an installation.

In another forward-looking experiment, Rubelli is making an all-fabric chair, the idea for which was brought to them unbidden by two recently graduated designers. The chair looks like an upholstered, half-filled oil drum; you push one side down onto the seat, crushing it like a soda can, so that the standing side becomes the chair’s back. ‘We call it Pila 47, which is the address of our Marghera office,’ says Nicolò. ‘Only young people could have made this chair, because they feel able to break the rules and are not afraid.’

Back on the street, Nicolò’s thoughts return to the city and his place in it. ‘My heart is in Venice,’ he says. ‘It is my root and an inspiration, and sometimes perhaps a limitation. I remember going to the islands of Murano and Burano when they felt like fishing villages. I suppose Venice is still a village, albeit less provincial than the word suggests. Like villagers, we gossip a lot, because here you walk, and walking leads to talking. An alfresco life continues out near the Arsenale, or around the Ghetto, where there are fewer tourists. As a Venetian you feel at home everywhere in the city, even in places you don’t often go to.

‘But the museification of the island is a kind of sadness,’ he adds. ‘We are preserving this beautiful object by taking the life away from it. You no longer hear the Venetian dialect, and I miss that. On the other hand, Venice has never been so beautiful. The patina is still there, it is still everywhere, and it is a privilege to belong in such a place.’