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Pharmaceutical Fashion: The Leather Tanner’s Jewellery Box

In The Treasury of Jewels (Venice, 1602, p. 228), Cleandro Arnobio explains that pearls represented many (and contradictory) things:

First, a thing prudently done.
Second, a holy thing.
Third, a thing much desired and a precious and expensive good.
Fourth, a vane and superfluous ornament that should be forbidden to women.
Fifth, an ornament on the gates of heaven

Queen Elizabeth I was well known for her love of pearls, which represented her status as a ruler and well as her great wealth, marine power and purity. Attributed to George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I (The Armada Portrait), c.1588. Oil on oak. Woburn Abbey & Gardens, Woburn, UK.

In fact, perceptions of gems and precious metals more broadly were complex and varied; these goods were beautiful works of nature that could be employed to honour the church, god and rulers but desire for them was also a huge, unnecessary expenditure for secular (and vane) adornment. In addition to glorifying and beautifying sacred and secular bodies, gems and semi-precious stones were also believed to protect and improve the health of those bodies. As Arnobio goes on to explain with respect to pearls, if ground into powder and ingested, they could cure ulcers, clear up sight problems, comfort the heart, staunch flux of the womb and taken with sugar, pearls could help cure pestilential fever (237). Pearls and gems were often ingredients in medieval and early modern medicines for a range of ailments and illnesses. The focus of this blog post, however, is on the health-giving benefits of wearing gems and jewels, like pearls, which were believed to temper the humours so that lust was reduced and chastity bolstered by those who wore them.

Drawer F with samples of materia medica collected by John Francis Vigani, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University in 1703-4, including shark’s teeth, pearls, sapphires, jacinth, lapis lazuli, garnets, rubies, topaz and other stones. Queen’s College, Cambridge University.

In particular, we’ll look at some of the jewellery owned by a Sienese leather-tanner, Pietro Paolo de Cheri as described in the inventory drawn up when he died in 1637. This list shows that he and his family members had access to necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, rosaries and hat badges that were made from or decorated with amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and other precious materials. These were beautiful and sometimes costly goods that marked the economic and social status of the wearer as well as their age, marital state and religious and political affiliations, but they were also believed to have important health benefits that offered care and protection from harm and illnesses. Importantly, these kinds of objects and materials were just one way of supplementing other methods of protecting and defending individual and familial health, such as amulets, medicine, devotional practices and keeping one’s body, home and the air clean.

One lovely example in Pietro Paolo’s inventory is ‘a little amber rosary with fifteen silver buttons’. Rosaries were used by the faithful to keep track of their prayers, with beads of one size or material to mark the recitation of the Hail Mary, often punctuated at intervals of ten with a bead of a different material or larger in size, which signalled a different prayer was to be recited, usually the Our Father. In Pietro Paolo’s rosary, the amber beads marked the Hail Marys and the silver beads probably marked the Our Fathers, but these materials—amber in particular—were also important to prayer and maintaining good health.

Amber beads on a string of unidentified fibre, date unknown (medieval?). 65 x 114mm. Museum of London.

Amber – fossilized tree resin – largely came from the Baltic Sea in this period and was (and still is) valued for its beauty, rarity and its perceived powers. It can be shaped and polished, and was used for handles for cutlery, made into cups and amulets, featured in frames and also used in the form of beads, as with the leather-tanner’s rosary. It is especially suited to objects that are handled, as amber warms up through touch, and this warmth helps to release a scent into the air and the hands. This was important as part of religious practice and experience, but the smell produced was also believed to help purify the air and protect people against dangers like the plague, as Rachel King has shown. Amber was believed to be such a powerful prophylactic against illness (and a pleasant-smelling perfume), it was also ground and mixed with oil for perfuming gloves and pomanders, and was burned like incense to help clear the air of dangerous smells and spirits.

This pomander would be filled with scented materials like amber and musk pastes. Suspended from a belt, cleansing perfumes followed the wearer, wherever they went. Pomander, 17th century (Italian). Silver, 6.4 × 2.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Amber can also take on an electric charge when rubbed vigorously with another material, like wool. Sophie gave a demonstration of this—called the triboelectric effect—in our imitation workshop in March 2020, where a small piece of amber was ‘charged’ and then attracted small bits off of a table top like a magnet. This property was also recognised in the early modern period, leading some to recommend amber be used to draw dangerous substances out of the body. For example, the Belgian physician Johannes van Helmont (1577–1644) suggested rubbing amber on the wrists, temples, insteps and left breast to help prevent illness. As Martha Baldwin has argued, van Helmont believed that the amber, working like a magnet, would draw out from the body the dangerous odours that caused plague.

Pietro Paolo’s amber and silver rosary was not just an object that was beautiful and costly, but that supported religious practice by helping the devout count and keep track of their prayers. The feeling of the warmed amber beads and smell they released would add to the devotional experience, but also helped to purify the air of dangerous and even deadly smells and substances, helping to keep the believer safe and healthy.

Jasper was a material also praised for its beauty and usefulness in texts on minerals and gems, but unlike amber, it rarely appears in the inventories of artisans’ homes gathered for this project. Pietro Paolo, though, was one of the few people from our documents in possession of jasper, of which he had four pieces alongside some bits of coral. It’s not clear if these were just loose pieces, if they had been shaped, polished or treated in another way or what they were intended to be used for. The inventory also does not make clear what colour the jasper pieces were, as this opaque material could be found in a range of colours and combinations. Notably, the jasper does not seem to have been set in silver, the material recommended by contemporary writers for boosting jasper’s virtues, which include curing fever and dropsy (edema), allaying lust, encouraging conception, aiding childbirth, making the wearer virtuous and staunching bloody flux (dysentery). This was quite a useful and powerful material!

This intaglio shows just one type of jasper, which can range in colour and opacity. In the early modern period, the most highly esteemed was green jasper with red striations. Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1500 (Northern Italian). Jasper and silver, diameter: 51 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Much more common in artisan households and jewellery boxes were items featuring coral. In addition to the pieces that Pietro Paolo the leather-tanner had, he was also in possession of six coral necklaces: two featured coral beads and baroque pearls, three with just coral beads and one that combined coral, gold and stone beads. All the pieces except this last necklace are described as being ‘for girls’ and coral was believed to be particularly useful for keeping young people safe in this period. Early modern portraits of children sometimes show them wearing necklaces or bracelets of coral beads as well as coral branches, as it was believed the material would protect them from both witches and epilepsy. The Christ Child is also at times represented wearing coral beads and branches, and the material was, through its red colour, linked to the blood of Christ and redemption, giving it religious significance and power.

Here the Christ Child wears a necklace of coral beads and from which a branch of coral is suspended. Giorgio di Tomaso Schiavone, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1459-60. Oil on panel, 69 x 56.7 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

This example of a Carved pieces of coral mounted in expensive enamelled gold were owned not by leather-tanners or other artisans, but wealthy and elite families (or the Christ Child). Carved coral amulet for a baby, mounted in enamelled gold filigree, possibly Italy, ca.1600. Height: 6.3 cm, Width: 2.7 cm, Depth: 2.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Adults, too, wore coral, especially women, as it was believed to help issues with menstruation, again due to its colour, as well as issues with the heart, stomach, intestines and gums. It was also believed that red coral would turn pale when touching the flesh of a person that had been poisoned, due to the vapours released through the pores of the skin. So, although a different result than with amber, physical touch was a key means by which coral could positively impact health.

An image of a young peasant woman from Chioggia, described as wearing a necklace of pretty coral beads in Cesare Vecellio’s costume book of 1590. Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, e moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due (Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590), 150v.

Like coral, it was believed that carbuncles—red gemstones like garnets—would become pale if worn against the skin of a person who had ingested poison. Although not as common as pearls, coral or turquoise in the homes and jewellery boxes of artisans, garnets seem to have been fairly popular with this social group. They may have offered an affordable alternative to much more costly rubies, and there are twice the number of garnets versus rubies listed in the project’s inventories. There are also quite a lot of artisans with rings with ‘red stones’ that perhaps were intended to look like rubies or garnets; contemporary writers note that many tried to counterfeit carbuncles using glass pastes or coloured foils layered between pieces of rock crystal and the stone, which were hard to detect when set in rings.

Most often the garnets that appear in artisans’ inventories seem to have been worn in the form of beads strung alongside gold buttons, pearls and sometimes turquoise in necklaces and bracelets. This is the form the garnets in Pietro Paolo’s inventory took and he owned two necklaces of little garnets and gold beads. As these would likely rest against the skin, the garnet beads would, in theory, signal if the wearer had ingested poison. Additionally, this gemstone was believed to ‘gladden the heart and send away sadness’, and to ‘defend those who wore it against the plague’, as Ludovico Dolce described in his translation of a Latin lapidary into Italian in 1565 (26r).

In the inventories collected for the Refashioning the Renaissance project, garnets and pearls were often strung together in necklaces and bracelets; however, they also appear together as decorative elements in earrings and rings, as in this example. Enamelled gold fede ring, with a lozenge shaped bezel set with pearls surrounding an almandine garnet engraved with clasped hands, the back of the bezel engraved with a red flower, with later Roman mark for gold (1815-70), made in Italy c. 1640-60. Height: 2.8 cm, Width: 2.3 cm, Depth: 1.7 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As I mentioned above, garnets in our inventories appear frequently strung alongside pearls, though this was not the case for Pietro Paolo’s collection of jewellery. Instead he owned a necklace of baroque pearls on two strings interspersed with black buttons, two pairs of necklaces of coral mixed with baroque pearls (mentioned above) and some earrings, bracelets and a medallion for a hat band all decorated with pearls. And it wasn’t just the leather-tanner, but many other artisans owned pieces of jewellery and accessories decorated with pearls; this gem can be found much more frequently than any other in the inventories gathered for this project. Like other precious materials, pearls were valued for their beauty, rarity and associations with purity. But they were also believed to have health benefits such as preventing fainting, problems with the heart and dysentery, as well as improving eye sight. Although the best way to benefit from pearls was to actually ingest them—pulverised seed pearls and other gems were a common ingredient in medieval and early modern electuaries—they also provided some health benefits when they were worn, as Cleandro Arnobio argued with respect to chastity.

This recipe to prevent death from the plague calls for ‘white pearls’ to be mixed with other ingredients including deer antler, camphor and sugar; pearls and other gems were common ingredients in contemporary medicines for a variety of ailments. [Girolamo Ruscelli, De’ Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio Piemontese, prima parte…. (Venice, 1563), 51v.

One of my favourite descriptions of the prophylactic power of a gem is that for jacinth (also called hyacinth) given by Girolamo Cardano. He explains that, ‘it fends off the plague, which strikes mainly through fear and through weakness of the heart, and hyacinth abolishes both’ (369). Although the artisans studied as part of the Refashioning the Renaissance project did not own jewellery or accessories decorated with this reddish-orange gem, they often owned others that were believed to offer defence against a variety of dangers. Amber, jasper, coral, garnets, pearls and many other precious materials not discussed here provided wearers with not just a fashionable look, but together with clean linens, saying one’s prayers and sanitising the air perhaps offered some reassurance in times of illness. Although fear may not be the cause of illnesses, we know today it does negatively impact the immune system, so as a source of reassurance and hope, gems and jewels surely did support good health.

Ring with intaglio in jacinth showing the head of Minerva, seventeenth century. British Museum, London.


Works cited and recommended further reading:

The inventory of Pietro Paolo de Cheri’s homes and workshop can be found at the Archivio di Stato Siena, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 65, 1637, fol. 20v-26v; all of the jewellery is listed on fol. 23r.

Giovanni-Maria Bonardo, La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589), 22v and Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.) (Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565).

Martha R. Baldwin, “Toads and Plague: Amulet Therapy in Seventeenth-Century Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 67, no. 2 (1993): 227–47.

Girolamo Cardano, The De Subtilitate of Girolamo Cardano, ed. and trans. J. M. Forrester, vol. I (Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

John Cherry, “Healing through Faith: The Continuation of Medieval Attitudes to Jewellery into the Renaissance,” Renaissance Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 154–71.

Maya Corry, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven, eds., Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy (London; New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017).

Anselm De Boodt, Lapidary or, The History of Pretious Stones, trans. Thomas Nicols (Cambridge: Thomas Buck, 1652).

Lodovico Dolce, Libri tre ne i quali si tratta delle diverse sorti delle gemme che produce la Natura (etc.)(Venice: Gio. Battista Marchio Seisa, 1565), 45r. Giovanni-Maria Bonardo (conte), La minera del mondo, … divisa in 4 libri, (etc.) (Fabio Zoppjni, 1589).

Christopher J. Duffin, “The Gem Electuary,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 375, no. 1 (2013): 81–111.

Marieke Hendriksen, “The Repudiation and Persistence of Lapidary Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Dutch Medicine and Pharmacy,” in Gems in the Early Modern World, ed. Michael Bycroft and Sven Dupré (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 197–220.

Rachel King, “‘The Beads with Which we Pray Are Made from It’: Devotional Ambers in Early Modern Italy”, inReligion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, edited by Wietse de Boer and Christine Göttler (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013), 153–176.

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Lambs, Coral, Teeth, and the Intimate Intersection of Religion and Magic in Renaissance Tuscany,” in Images, Relics, and Devotional Practices in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, ed. Sally J. Cornelison and Scott B. Montgomery (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 139–56.

James E. Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2011).

Collars, Cuffs and Ruffs in Early Modern Italy

13 January 2020

Linen shirts were important garments in the early modern period. They helped to keep the body clean by drawing away sweat and oil, but also gave structure to sleeves, bodices and doublets. From the early sixteenth century, shirts began to expand beyond the boundaries of these garments, peeking out through slashes in sleeves, as well as at necklines and the wrists. Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Lady as Lucretia, (1530-32), for example, shows her white linen shirt through the fur-trimmed slashes near her elbows. The top of her shirt is visible along the low neckline of her dress, and at her wrists.

Figure 1. Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Lady as Lucretia, 1530-32. Oil on canvas, 96 x 111 cm. National Gallery, London.

This extension of linen offered a sort of canvas for ornament, like embroidery with silk or metallic threads, complex works of lace and carefully pleated and shaped ruffles. For example, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s A Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna (1560) shows detailed embroidery around the collar and cuffs of the man’s shirt, which have been neatly folded over in order to display this fine work.

Figure 2. Giovanni Battista Moroni, A Gentleman in Adoration Before the Madonna, 1560. Oil on canvas, 60 x 65 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

In the 1560s, collars and cuffs developed into detachable pieces that could be cleaned and set separately from shirts. These were made and set in a wide range of styles, which could be mixed and matched to create different looks. For example, Justus Sustermans’s portrait of Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena d’Austria and their son, Ferdinando (c. 1640), shows three different options for how a very wealthy Florentine might decorate their neck and wrists.

Figure 3A. Justus Sustermans, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena d’Austria and Their Son Ferdinando, c. 1640. Oil on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence.

On our left is Maria Maddalena, with a standing, heavily starched collar made of very fine lace in at least two layers, which looks to be folder under along her collar bone and sitting on top of more lace, perhaps that decorated the collar of her shirt. In the centre of the painting is Cosimo. His collar also features layers of lace, but these have been shaped into ruffled loops and circle his neck completely.

Figure 3B. Detail from Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena d’Austria and Their Son Ferdinando showing Cosimo and Maria Maddalena’s collars.

The lace pattern echoes that on Maria Maddalena’s wrists – her cuffs have a pattern different to that on her collar.

Figure 3C. Detail from Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena d’Austria and Their Son Ferdinando showing Maria Maddalena’s cuff.

Finally, on our right is Ferdinando, with a collar that settles down onto his shoulders and features very fine lace, which is nearly transparent, and that is attached to linen or perhaps silk. The same style is also found on his cuffs, with a pleated band of white linen or silk and very fine lace.

Figure 3D. Detail from Cosimo II de’ Medici, Maria Maddalena d’Austria and Their Son Ferdinando showing Ferdinando’s collar.

These fashionable accessories would have been costly to have made and to maintain; they required many metres of fine linen and lace, and in order to be worn, had to be carefully cleaned, starched, set and pinned in place by a professional. Large collars and cuffs also impeded the wearer’s movement and posture – imagine trying to eat or write, let alone work while wearing frilly cuffs and a collar! For these reasons, scholars usually assume that ruffled collars and cuffs were worn just by the very wealthy, who didn’t have to engage in physical labour to support themselves or their families. But contemporary descriptions of peasants, artisans and other working people sometimes note that they had ruffles on their collars and cuffs; painted and printed images show these same people wearing decorative and unnecessary accessories at their necks and wrists; and household inventories locate these items in the chests and cases that contained their wardrobes.

For example, in his costume book, Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo (Venice, 1598), Cesare Vecellio describes artisan and common women in Rome as, ‘ornamenting their necks with strings of coral with some gems and with some little ruffles on their very white shirts.’[1] These ruffles line the open neckline of the woman’s shirt and also peek out at her wrists in the image that accompanies Vecellio’s text.

Figure 4. Artisan woman of Rome from Cesare Vecellio Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo (Venice, 1598), 23v.

This woman’s clothing, which looks heavy and somewhat cumbersome, does not suggest she is heading to work; however, other images show people at work whilst wearing decorative collars. Vincenzo Campi’s painting of a fruit-seller, for instance, shows a woman in a white, loose-fitting white shirt with neatly ruffled collar open at the front and laying almost flat on her shoulders.

Figure 5. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c. 1580. Oil on canvas, 145 x 215 cm. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Another scene by Campi shows women at work in more strenuous roles, wearing shirts with collars in a range of styles, as well as other accessories for their necks and shoulders. For instance, the two women rolling out pastry at the table wear shirts with ruffled collars (or perhaps these were separate items attached to their shirts), one is closed, creating a frame for the woman’s face. The other woman’s collar is open at the front and shaped quite similar to that worn by the fruit-seller. Just by opening their collars these women could create quite different looks. In contrast, the women in the foreground wear collarless-shirts with rather low necklines and transparent shawls tucked into the front of their bodices. The older woman working at the mortar and pestle as well as the men and boys in the scene all wear quite simple collars, which fold over the necklines of their outer garments.

Figure 6. Vincenzo Campi, Kitchen Scene, c. 1590-91. Oil on canvas, 145 x 220. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

These are not straightforward representations of people at work; however, inventories suggest that fruit-sellers, butchers and others had shirts and collars like those in Campi’s paintings. For example, a Venetian fruit-seller called Piero owned ‘one new shirt with ruffles’ in 1584.[2] Bernardo Morelli, another Venetian fruit-seller working in the city in 1650 owned ‘seven collars for the neck’.[3]  

These simple but decorative additions to shirts might have been suitable for wear during work, but artisans and their family members also had ornate collars and cuffs that would be at risk while performing the tasks in Campi’s painting, such as butchering an animal or rolling out pastry. These fashionable items were probably saved for special occasions rather than work. For example, Cesare Carli, a butcher in Siena had in his home ‘two large ruffs for girls’ in 1638, perhaps worn by his daughters.[4] Another butcher, this time from Florence also owned ruffs, one of fine linen that was not yet sewn and five others that are described as ‘used’ in 1570.[5] These were perhaps similar to the tall, starched collar depicted in Figure 7, dated to around 1620. Although this portrait shows a man of a higher social status than the butchers, his image offers a clear example of one way that large, starched ruffs and cuffs without lace or embroidery could be worn.

Figure 7. Unknown painter, Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1620. Oil on canvas. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Finally, Giovanni Suster, a Venetian inn-keeper had two collars that featured Flemish lace, one with a set of matching cuffs in 1646.[6] These would have been impressive and fashionable additions to an outfit, though it is difficult to know how large the lace trim was or what kinds of patterns it featured. Perhaps these items were in a style similar to those worn by Maria Maddalena, Cosimo or Ferdinando, discussed above. It is also possible that the lace, which was quite expensive, was a smaller trim along the edge of a linen ruff, as seen in Bartolomeo Passarotti’s painting of man playing a lute. Here, the lace is just a small detail along the edge of the man’s cuffs and collar.


Figure 8. Bartolomeo Passarotti, Man Playing a Lute, 1576. Oil on canvas, 77 x 60 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

These examples and sources show that there were a huge range of options for how collars, cuffs and shirts could be decorated and worn. For artisans and their family members, these kinds of ornate and decorative items offered a means through which they could make individual choices and dress fashionably.


Further reading:

Janet Arnold, Jenny Tiramani and Santina M. Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women c.1540-1660 (London: Macmillan, 2008).

Natasha Korda, ‘Accessorizing the stage: Alien Women’s Work and the Fabric of Early Modern Material Culture’, in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, ed. by Bella Mirabella (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), pp. 223–52

Georges Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 41-89.

Amanda Wunder, ‘Innovation and Tradition at the Court of Philip IV of Spain (1621-1665): The Invention of the Golilla and the Guardainfante’, in Fashioning the Early Modern: Dress, Textiles, and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800, ed. by Evelyn S. Welch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 111–33


[1] Cesare Vecellio, Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo (Venice: Sessa, 1598), 24r.

[2] Archivio di Stato di Venezia (hereafter ASV), Giudice di Petizion, Inventari, b. 338, f. 66, 14 November 1584, 1v.

[3] ASV, Giudice di Petizion, Inventari, b. 363, f. 18, 26 April 1650, 2r.

[4] Archivio di Stato di Siena, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 83, 5 January 1638, 105r.

[5] Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, b. 2709, 20 September 1570, 19r.

[6] ASV, Giudice di Petizion, Inventari, b. 360, f. 25, 11 Septemeber 1646, 9v and 10v.

An inn-keeper’s inventory and inspiration

Inventories are key to providing us with insight into the clothing that people had in their homes or in shops like those of tailors and second-hand-clothing vendors. Thanks to Stefania’s hard work gathering, transcribing and categorising these documents for the project’s database, we have a huge amount of data that can be used to try and trace trends in consumption, like the kinds of colours or fabrics that were popular at various times and in different cities. But the inventories can also support more focused research and help us develop case-studies, as they sometimes provide a great deal of information about families and individuals. This in turn helps us to develop a fuller picture of how clothing may have been linked to different aspects of identity, for instance profession, marital status, wealth, age or the neighbourhood in which people lived or worked.

The first page of the inventory of Oratio Franceschini’s home and inn. Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, busta 2717, 7 August 1617, 162r–165v.

For instance, Oratio Franceschini was an inn-keeper in Florence until his death in 1617, when an inventory was drawn up of his inn and home. The document tells us that the inn where he worked and lived with his wife, Silvia, and their underaged children was located on the corner of via il Prato and via Palazzuolo. The approximate location of the inn is shown circled in red in the image below. After Oratio’s death, the ownership of the building was split between his brother, Zanobi and Madonna Olivia, who was his paternal aunt and the wife of Giovanni Parlanti, also an inn-keeper and present at the time the inventory was compiled. There are several points in the inventory where Giovanni interjects to give details on entries, such as the names of owners of things that had been pawned to Oratio or which pieces of clothing belonged to Silvia.

A map of Florence in the late-sixteenth century. Stefano Buonsignori, Nova pulcherrimae civitatis Florentiae topographia accuratissime delineate, 1594. Museo “Firenze com’era”, Florence.

A detail of Buonsignori’s map showing the approximate location of Oratio Franceschini’s inn and home.

Indeed, there are many, many garments listed in this inventory, aspects of which dovetail with the interests of different members of the project, offering points of departure for further research. For instance, three of Oratio’s shirts as well as a number of sheets and napkins are noted as having been ‘in the wash’ when the inventory was made, and there are tubs for laundry listed in the inn’s kitchen suggesting some of this work – washing clothing and linens – was done at the inn.

Ippolito Scarsella’spainting showing the laundering of linens outside of an inn. Ippolito Scarsella, Supper at Emmaus, c. 1600. Oil on canvas, 99 x 124cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of Fondazione Federico Zeri, University of Bologna.

This is really useful evidence for my research on caring for clothing in this period, part of what our experiments with recipes meant to support in April. We don’t know very much about the laundering of clothes in this period, but that it was usually done by women, who were sometimes hired by other households to wash their linens. These could be washed in a mix of hot water and lye at home, if one had the necessary tools (like Silvia, the inn-keeper’s wife), but it was hard work, carrying loads of wet laundry to a riverbed or well to beat and rinse the items with the water. Women also had to protect the clothing against thieves as it hung to dry, and protect themselves from the unsavoury characters that sometimes lurked about riverbeds. This, and that some laundresses were reformed prostitutes, gave the work negative connotations and meant that it was very important for the women that did this work to be careful in order to stay safe and keep their reputations—and those of their families—intact.

The title page of a poem by the Bolognese poet and songwriter Giulio Cesare Croce, about a laundress in search of clients with clothes for her to wash. Giulio Cesare Croce, La Filippa da Calcara (Bologna: gli eredi di Cochi, 1628).

Keeping linens clean was important for good hygiene but also for social and cultural reasons; for instance, in the early modern period, having bright white linens became a sign of civility, politeness and purity. Laundry was especially important at an establishment like an inn, as both beds and food and drink were provided to guests, meaning bedding, tablecloths and napkins would have been dirtied quickly and frequently. A common complaint about contemporary inns was that they were unclean; for instance, in his description of all the professions found in Venice, Tommaso Garzoni notes in his La piazza universale (1605) how typical it was for inns to have ragged towels, sheets in pieces, cushions that stink of urine and bolsters full of bedbugs (711–2)! To combat this kind of stereotype, it may have been even more important that inn-keepers ensure linens were clean and, as mentioned above, there were tablecloths and napkins in the wash with Oratio’s shirts.

In this period there were many negative ideas about inns and inn-keepers; this moralising engraving shows the debauchery of a local inn with the inscription: “The nuzzle of dogs, the love of whores, the hospitality of inn-keepers: None of it comes without cost.” Gillis van Breen, Inn Scene with Prostitutes, 1597. Engraving, 133 x 194 mm. Prentenkabinet, Universiteit, Leiden.

Evidence in the inventory of Oratio’s home and workplace suggest efforts to keep clothing and linens clean; however, there is also evidence of garments that were in rough shape. The document describes many shirts, hose, cloaks, skirts and doublets as ‘nasty’, and to a lesser degree, ‘broken’ and ‘ragged’. Garments like these, like those ‘in the wash’, are also useful pieces of evidence for my research on how people cared for their clothing and in particular, the very long life-span of garments. ‘Nasty’ and ‘ragged’ clothes remind us that in the past, people did not just get rid of items that were no longer in pristine condition or in the latest style. Instead, these were re-dyed, mended, re-used and worn until they could be worn no more. This is part of why we have so few extant garments from this period, when people rarely threw out clothing and instead sold it off, transformed it into something new, or wore it to rags and then sold those rags on to be made into paper.

These underpants found under the floor of an Austrian castle show signs they were repaired at least three times! Perhaps we should take a lesson from our ancestors? Underpants from Lengberg Castle, Nikolsdorf. Fifteenth-century. Linen. Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol, Austria; Lengberg Castle.

Although much later than this inventory, Gaetano Zompini’s engraving shows a female second-hand clothes dealer at work. Gaetano Zompini, ‘Revendigola (Secondhand Clothes Dealer)’, plate 39 in Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia(1785). Engraving and etching on laid paper; plate: 26.7 x 18.3 cm (10 1/2 x 7 3/16 in.).

The inn-keeper’s inventory shows that the family had clothes in the wash and garments in rags, but also some pieces that sound rich and colourful. For example, Silvia had several head-coverings that were trimmed with gold and silver and a muff made of fur. The inventory also describes an over-gown the colour of sea water, a bodice of lavender and a shirt the colour of dried roses. We also find sleeves of silk, a black satin bag and a doublet of light wool. Some of these fabrics, garment-types and colours don’t survive today, and we must turn to contemporary images and other texts to try and understand what they looked like. We can also try to recreate these textures, colours and objects through experiments, as with the project’s colour workshop in September 2019 and the doublet that Sophie is working to recreate. It will be really exciting to see our results!

This small image from a printed game shows in interior of an inn with an inn-keeper, seller of wine and a serving woman. Similar to inventories, it offers some detail about their clothing but not the colour! Detail from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Gioco de mestieri a chi va bene e a chi va male, 1698. Etching, 326x438mm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Inventories like that of Oratio Franceschini’s home and workplace can help shed light on the wide variety of clothes that regular sorts of people had – those in the wash, ragged or beautifully coloured. They sometimes offer vivid descriptions and points from which we can investigate further using contemporary texts, poems, images and other archival documents. We can also use experiments to try to recreate fabrics, perfumes, colours and finishing techniques to bring back to life and refashion what is now lost.

Representations of the Supper at Emmaus were popular in the early modern period and give us a glimpse of what might have been worn by contemporary inn-keepers, like the one here with a cap, white ruffled collar, brown jerkin, doublet with red sleeves and a white shirt with sleeves rolled up. Paring these kinds of images with inventories and other sources can help us determine how truthful they are.  Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601. Oil on canvas, 141 x 196 cm. National Gallery, London.


For further reading:

On inn-keepers and their homes/work places:

  • Paula Hohti, “The Innkeeper’s Goods: The Use and Acquisition of Household Property in Sixteenth-Century Siena,” in The Material Renaissance, ed. Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn S. Welch, Studies in Design (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 242–59.

On laundry, hygiene and washer women:

  • Katherine F. Rinne, “The Landscape of Laundry in Late Cinquecento Rome,” Studies in the Decorative Arts9, no. 1 (2001): 34–60.
  • Guido Guerzoni, “Servicing the Casa,” in At Home in Renaissance Italy, ed. Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London: V&A Publications, 2006), 146–51.
  • Douglas Biow, The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy(Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2006).
  • Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), especially chapter 8, ‘Excretions as Excrements: The Hygiene of the Body’, pp. 240-239.

On the second-hand market and the pawning of clothes in early modern Italy:

  • Patricia Allerston, “Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Venice,” Costume 33, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 46–56.
  • Giulia Calvi, “Abito, Genere, Cittadinanza Nella Toscana Moderna (Secoli XVI-XVII),” Quaderni Storici 110 (2002): 477–503.
  • Isabella Cecchini, “A World of Small Objects: Probate Inventories, Pawns, and Domestic Life in Early Modern Venice,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 35, no. 3 (2012): 39–61.
  • Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, “From the Closet to the Wallet: Pawning Clothes in Renaissance Italy,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 35, no. 3 (2012): 23–38.
  • Carole Collier Frick, “The Florentine ‘Rigattieri’: Second Hand Clothing Dealers and the Circulation of Goods in the Renaissance,” in Old Clothes, New Looks, ed. Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark, Dress, Body, Culture (Berg Publishers, 2004), 13–28.