National Geographic : 1984 Jan
19th centuries. Gandino is in a valley, enough off the beaten path so that it never was sacked; even antique dealers have trou ble finding it. Battista Torri, a retired wool worker and now keeper of the basilica, showed me the vestments and other pieces, which are kept in a dark room in the museum next door. I couldn't resist touching a ruby pile-on-pile silk velvet used in the early 16th century for the copes of Venetian doges. It was like whisking my finger through whipped cream. Then, such silk was worth more than silver; it is clear to me why. Torri took me to the sacristy, where he keeps the vestments ready for the priests. Almost everything the church owns is used at least once each year. The townspeople know when to expect them and raise ques tions when they are not used. B Y THE 14TH CENTURY Italian silks were made in cities such as Luc ca, Venice, Florence, and Genoa; the craft was encouraged by noble fam ilies who wore splendid silks themselves. In the quiet resort town of Como, which mean ders along the lake of the same name, there are few visible signs of the industry, though it annually produces more than 15 million ties and 60 million meters of some of the most beautiful silks made today. What's the secret? "We have a taste for ev erything rich and beautiful," explained Giampaolo Porlezza of Taroni, who master minds the most deluxe silks. Louis XI took drastic steps to curb the tre mendous outflow of money from France to Italy for costly silks, boosting French silks with royal orders to weavers in Tours. Lyon Necessity mothered improvisationin 1957 when Dr. Feng Youxian, a Shanghai vascularsurgeon, experimented with silk grafts. Since nylon then used in the West to replace diseased arteries-was unavailablein China, Dr. Feng fashioned a narrow tube from a silk sleeve and implanted it in a dog. In 1959 the refined prostheses (left) met with success in humans, and silk has since been used in 500 patients.