The silk of the sea

In Sant’Antioco, Sardinia, the rare and ancient weaving of byssus resists, handed down orally by Chiara Vigo

Chiara Vigo was born in 1955 in a world of threads, canvases and arts, a singular character, fascinating and sometimes poetic, the last vestal of an ancient, as precious tradition of Jewish origin, of which there is a trace (purple, violet , scarlet and gold) in the Bible. Chiara is a master of the ancient weaving of byssus, a brown thread, thin and impalpable that is obtained from the secretions of the largest bivalve mollusc of the Mediterranean, the Pinna nobilis, and therefore called “sea silk”. The most populous colonies of Pinna nobilis sink in the sandy bottoms, crossed by warm currents that surround Sardinia, especially along the south-west coast, in the Sulcis, just near the largest Sardinian island: Sant’Antioco (about 90 km from Cagliari). An island in the island, which already for this particularity is certainly worth a trip dedicated exclusively to the discovery of its territory and its sea. The belt of the habit of San Francesco di Assisi was made of byssus. For centuries the gloves of the Bourbons, the cloaks or headgear of their queen brides, the vestments of the Popes still kept in the reliquaries of the Holy See, or canvas – always sacred theme – placed in the most famous museums have been made of  byssus. The byssus is scattered everywhere. To it the Maestro Vigo has dedicated her life: since her birth she sews the sense of her coming into the world with threads of byssus. She does so with profound awareness, pigeonking stories of private life and family affections in precise spaces of a large mosaic, much bigger than her, whose first piece – between esoteric and history – is lost in the mists of time. She grows up with her grandmother, also a master of byssus: she learns this art and much more from her. Her soul lives in the sea, and it is from there that, between harvesting campaigns punctuated by precise times and modalities, and rituals that are always repeated the same from the “oath of the sea” (with which one becomes a master), she hands down orally to Sardinia and all of humanity this ancient knowledge. Her commitment is not that of an artisan, her name is not that of an artist, because her masterpieces are priceless, and can be exhibited, donated, admired, but not sold or bought; her work to protect the environment is not that of an activist, even if she is tireless and incessant, because she follows the rituals of a vestal and not political colors; her name is Master, but of disciples and students (especially Sardinians) she would like to meet many more than those who still attend her workshop today; her work is not a job, because it is not paid, it is not guaranteed, it is not protected, there is no law protecting this ancient knowledge, which in all respects is a candidate to be considered and recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in 2006 awarded her the “Un bosco per Kyoto” award for her constant commitment to environmental protection, and in 2008 the honor of Commendatore della Repubblica. “A Master has the function of preserving what it is, so that future generations can walk in the footsteps of history, and everyone has the right to find it there,” Chiara Vigo affirms vigorously. And it is from this profound awareness that she has the strength to continue all the battles because more and more schools know and pass on to the young Sardinians this inestimable heritage that is also a transmission of ancient wisdom important for the collective memory of Sardinia and the entire Mediterranean basin.