A life preserved: Clelia Marchi's sheet

12 Mar 2021

Image © Luigi Burroni

History is filled with gaps. Countless lives have passed undocumented, lost in time. This is particularly true for working class people, so many of whom had no means to record their thoughts and experiences in a world very different from the social media-dominated age we live in today.

Millions have passed anonymously into history, without trace or testimony, voiceless and invisible. Which is why the story of Clelia Marchi is so remarkable.

Born in 1912, Clelia was a farming woman from the lower Po Valley in northern Italy. Her life was one of poverty, eking out an existence in a hard rural landscape. She raised her eight children and toiled on the land for decades. When she was 60, tragedy struck: her husband was killed in a car accident. In a moment her lifelong companion and support was gone. The long, full days were replaced by long, empty nights.

But then Clelia remembered something from childhood. An old schoolteacher had once told her about the inscribed linen sheets that the ancient Etruscans used to wrap their dead. Clelia was inspired. She opened her closet, took out the wedding bed sheet that she would never use again and began to write her life story across its surface. It took her two years.

In 1986 she proudly presented the inscribed sheet to the local mayor. Impressed, he contacted the Pieve Santo Stefano - where the Fondazione Archivio Diaristico Nazionale (National Diary Archive), had recently begun collecting and cataloguing diaries, memories and letters of the Italian people. The Archive awarded Clelia’s autobiographical work with a special prize, acknowledging the value of her contribution.

To protect Clelia's words, the sheet was unfolded only once a year. But in 2012, the Foundation decided to display it permanently to make Clelia’s story more readily accessible to visitors. This required a showcase that would ensure the strictest guarantees of preventive conservation. Goppion was honored to be enlisted as providers of a solution worthy of any masterpiece.

A spacious, wall-mounted display case made of glass and steel was created. Its large glazed front door guarantees perfect legibility of the writing on the sheet, which rests on a surface with adjustable inclination. The sheet is expertly illuminated by LED lights placed on the bottom and on the ceiling of the display case, revealing the sheet not just as an historical testimonial, but also as an embroidered work of art. Being part of the Q System guarantees perfect tightness and security, while the internal microclimate is ensured by a system of passive stabilization of relative humidity.

Clelia died at home in 2006, aged 93. Her life story was also published as a best-selling book, Ghanca Una Busia (Not Even One Lie). But the original bed sheet on which she recorded her life account of hardship, self-sacrifice and love remains the vital testament of a woman’s life in rural Italy during a century of unparalleled change. A voice that could have so easily been lost forever, like so many others, has been saved, speaking to us today, and to future generations.

Image © Luigi Burroni

Image © Luigi Burroni

Image © Luigi Burroni