As a foreign correspondent for four decades, I’ve attended cultural exhibitions and walked the halls of museums on six continents. Nothing I’ve seen is more stunning than this 305-part, 160-meter-long collective work of art — in the breadth of its narrative, in the exquisite skill of its crafters or in its sheer emotional power. It was executed by hundreds of volunteers, from every corner of the globe, many of them with ties to Barga. Woven images of Barga’s Scottish legacy lead off the stunning collection, which snakes through several rooms in the Conservatorio di Sant’Elisabetta, where it will be displayed until August 26.
Few people have played a more disproportionate role on the global stage than the Scots, whose population is only 5.3 million in 2015 — it was less than 2 million prior to the 1830s — but whose out-sized achievements in philosophy, exploration, science, economics, engineering and industrial development have generated major currents in world affairs for half a millennium. That role has been profoundly amplified through immigration, the “Scottish Diaspora,” which today counts an estimated 30 million people.
All of this is documented, along with the lives of “ordinary” Scots who were the extraordinary vanguard of the diaspora. Included, too, are the Barga immigrants who moved in the opposite direction, to Scotland itself, where they worked as farm laborers and fish-and-chips vendors. Their sons and daughters are simultaneously among the proudest of Scots and Barghigiani alike. You’ll see Paolo Nutini stitched among them, as well as the highly accomplished scions of the Zambonini, Piacentini, Capanni, Corrieri, Nardini, Bartolomei, Conti, Castelvecchi, Lunardi and Orsucci families.
In its larger frame, the tapestry literally circumnavigates the planet. Who knew of the Scottish communities in Scandinavia, Russia and Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Portugal? The tapestry recounts this lost story, then moves on to South and East Asia — to the Scot-established foundations of modern China and India. It swerves both westward and eastward to document the immensely significant role of their cousins in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where leaders of Scots blood have provided more presidents and prime ministers than any other ancestral nation. The present prime minister of Britain and both of his predecessors bear Scottish surnames. So have the prime ministers of independent Ghana in Africa, Vanuatu in Oceania, and nearly every Caribbean nation-state.
The exhibition may sound overwhelming, and it could hardly be otherwise given the subject. Yet the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry also moves the visitor deeply with its stories of individual heroism, in the fields of Flanders, in the surgeries of physicians confronting global maladies, in the classrooms where teachers battle ignorance. And above all, in the epic and endless saga of immigration.
Article by Frank Viviano