Marietta lives in one of Florence’s most densely populated quarters.  No-one can avoid the sounds and smells of a busy working city that fill the streets.

The textile industry had been the engine of Florence’s economy for centuries.  Skilled workers did their fine weaving, dying, and cloth finishing in professional workshops, but more basic operations like spinning and twisting thread and even some weaving took place in workers’ homes with all the family playing a part.  Silk merchants in particular organized much of their production through either individual homes or through institutions like orphanages or convents where there were many hands and a great need for income to pay for food, clothing, and shelter.  Since it did not pay very much, basic textile work was left to the poor, whether inside or outside institutions.  And most of it was carried out as piecework – that is, those laboring were paid not by the day or the hour, but by how much they produced.  In the case of textile workers, this might be measured by weight, or by the length of thread or cloth produced.  Everyone from young children to grandparents built the family economy.

Marietta had learned and developed her weaving skills at the Innocenti and in the Orbatello.  Many charitable institutions trained their wards in textile piecework not only to keep food on the table and sheets on the bed, but also to ensure that these children would have the practical skills to build a future.  Marietta’s practical skills at weaving silk were no doubt one of the advantages that drew the attention of her husband Pietro, and they were critical to helping her to survive as a young widowed mother when plague carried him away.

As evening falls, the sounds and smells of work fade away as working people turn out to relax and socialize with friends either in corner taverns or on the streets themselves – gambling & music, quiet conversation and loud swearing, jokes and storytelling all set the Florentine social soundscape.

Nicholas Terpstra


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘Weaving a life’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading

Richard Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2009.

Nicholas Terpstra, Lost Girls: Sex & Death in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins, 2010.