“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
It's a piece of lace. Hvar Lace. I guess one would call it a doily, a small decorative item for a table or another surface. You can't tell from the picture, but it's not very large, just about 20cm (8") across.
It's not a run-of-the-mill object - it is a tiny piece of a unique local tradition, an unlikely and distant end (for the moment) of a historic trajectory. It is also like no other lace you've seen, because this type of lace is made in just one place: the Benedictine nunnery on Hvar. More about that later.
Lace is not very fashionable these days. Most people in my generation probably associate lace with times when we visited our grandparents in their houses or apartments and saw lace covering various surfaces. In Greece, I still see it in the odd saloni of rural homes (the non-often-used and somewhat chilly sitting room that contains family heirlooms and is used only on formal occasions). In all of Europe, I see it in folklore museums.
When the eponymous Peter Sommer and I first visited Hvar, that beautiful island off Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, some years ago, we were excited. Excited about the Ancient Greek field system near Stari Grad, excited about the island's lavender fields, excited about seeing Hvar Town, a miniature Venetian port town with its harbour, its lone arsenal, its churches, steeples and stone houses, its monasteries and museums, its Austro-Hungarian fort above the town. Every guidebook and website we used for preparation also referred to Hvar Lace, and - to be honest - we were not excited about that. How interesting could lace possibly be?
When I returned a few years later (one of multiple returns for me) with my Athenian partner M., the same thing happened. That day, the nunnery was closed and I was hugely disappointed. M. was not, she was puzzled. What could be so interesting about some lace? We were travelling with Filip, who is now Peter Sommer Travels' main expert in Croatia, and it was Filip who managed to get us into the nunnery to see the lace. As we entered, M.'s jaw dropped, just as mine and Peter's had dropped a few years earlier. Hvar Lace is amazing.
Lace-making is a quintessential European craft - or art. Its beginnings are uncertain, either in the Late Middle Ages, say the 13th or 14th centuries, or the Early Modern Era, 1500 onwards. We really don't quite know. What we do know is that lace, the art of creating elaborate textile ornament around holes, was usually based on bleached linen, i.e. hemp. For centuries, it was a common activity for nuns and for ladies of the nobility to make lace, later also of the high bourgeoisie, a respectable craft for the female members of non-noble but wealthy commercial families, to create striking material for the collars and sleeves of their husbands and for their own. From that base, lace later became a folk art in many areas, a standard accoutrement for the rich, and a sign of value for those who were aspiring to better themselves. Lace was a common symbol of social ambition, a standard feature of being sophisticated, being wealthy, being successful, being cultured.
What happened on Hvar is unique. It required two factors.
First, the American Agava (some call it the century plant) was brought to Hvar. This striking plant, originally from America, was spread around the Mediterranean in the 19th century, so its presence on Hvar is not a big surprise. Second, at some point in the late 19th century, if we can follow local tradition, a sailor (Hvar is a maritime place) brought a piece or several of agava lace from Tenerife, where that was a tradition then (now, it's lost there). Presumably, lace was common in Hvar then. The Hvar nuns studied the item or items and they worked out how to do it. And they came up with what is now a unique tradition.
Fibres are extracted from the agava leaves - they are up to a metre (3 ft) long. They are then somehow bleached (the exact technique is a secret). Then, the nuns create the embroideries, based on single agava fibres, not on hemp string like other embroideries. There are three different techniques they use, working from the centre, working from the edge or working from a cardboard matrix. I cannot claim to understand the detail.
The results are stunning. Unbelievably so. Hvar lace is extraordinarily delicate. It is not based on twisted strands of fabric, but on individual filaments. The nuns have extraordinary skill and extraordinary knowledge. They only work the fibres when southern winds (Jugo) blow, because the northern wind (Bora) will dry out the stalks and break them. Croatian lace is recognised by UNESCO as intangible World Heritage, and the Hvar tradition is included with two other regions.
So, what we show our guests is a unique expression of centuries of history. If you can afford it, Hvar Lace is also a good souvenir. It's not cheap. but you have to consider how many hours and days and even weeks go into each piece. Hvar is a key visit on Peter Sommer Travels cruises from Split to Dubrovnik or from Dubrovnik to Split. Our expert guides focus on the island's very long history, and Hvar Lace has its place in that story.