Xysta: On wall embroidery
For over 400 years the xysta [ksaaistà] motifs and technique has been the symbol of a small village of Pyrgi in the southern part of Chios, North-eastern Aegean Islands, where one of our Architects, Dimitra originates from. A great amount of research surrounding xysta’s origins has been made by Maria Xyda, a local architect and expert, who has also accomplished restoration projects and author of the book The Scraffiti in Pyrgi of Chios Island.
Xysta (meaning scratched) is a traditional wall decoration technique based on the art of sgraffito. In Pyrgi [pirˈʝi], this engraving technique is applied on the external face of the wall. The grouting is applied with two layers of lime; the first layer is used to level the stone wall and the second is where xysta is formed.
Origin of Xysta
Pyrgi was built in the middle of the 14th century during the domination of Serenissima Republica di Genova. The use of xysta in Pyrgi has been influenced by Eastern culture, adopting the organisation and the shapes of the motifs. The development of the motifs to more complex patterns is thought have begun in the mid-19th century, with circles or compound patterns resulting from the combination of the original geometric circle and square motifs. These patterns are reminiscent of weavings that take into consideration the building’s openings, stopping before the walls reach the ground to avoid getting dirty.
The range of motifs is based on local craftsmen’s’ skills and tacit knowledge. The process of creating a motif begins with the craftsman surveying the façade of the chosen building, noting the placements of windows and doors, as well as floor plate locations. These are then expressed on the façade by using themes, such as geometric forms, vegetation, and floral patterns. The motifs are created with a ruler and a compass only; within the zone, the craftsman maintains the centre of the square stabled, but by displacing the centre of the circle, different combinations/ patterns can be generated.
The motifs are organised horizontally in zones of 15-33 cm in height, with each motif repeating along the zone. The zones are then separated with two lines, creating a gap that measures between 3.5 – 5cm. The patterns are scratched alternately – traditionally with a fork – to keep the balance between the light lime and the dark grouting base. When there is a surface between two openings, or under a balcony, and the pattern cannot be formed horizontally, a circular motif is created. All motifs have specific names that the craftsmen use to differentiate them.
The Evolution of Xysta
The different periods where xysta was applied can be seen by the different shades of the grouting and the variation in the materials that the craftsman used. Initially, the grouting base consisted of river sand, lime and water as well as straw. The second coating also consisted of 2-3 layers of lime with colour such as ochre and lilac.
Around 1930 xysta patterns were simple, whereas in later years, craftsmen started introducing more complicated patterns, with planters and flowers. Also, in the last 20 years, the craftsmen started using cement and black sand and therefore the grouting base became darker, resulting in a big contrast between chiaroscuro, as they also added lampblack in the basic grouting, to emphasise the contrast between black and white.
In order to preserve the xysta façades, many locals choose to restore the original façade, however, in cases of severe deterioration, a newer technique is applied, such as that with darker grouting base. All homes within Pyrgi are now listed so that the xysta can be preserved, and any new builds also require xysta to be integrated into the design. Chios’ xysta are taught in the architectural universities in Greece not only as decorative tradition but as a co-existence of two cultures; the West and East. In the last years, xysta motifs have inspired graphic design as well as modern packaging.