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Living and working during the Pandemic: Extraordinary times then and now

It has now been 40 days since our university ordered us to work remotely from home, due to spread of the coronavirus in Finland and elsewhere in Europe.

Despite all the challenges that these extraordinary circumstances have brought about into our private and work lives, our team is doing fine. By coincidence, we finished our entire experimental research phase just a few days before the coronavirus crisis unfolded, with our last major experimental workshop on Imitation in Early Modern Clothes and Accessories held at Aalto University in Helsinki in 10–12 March 2020.

Imitation in Early Modern Clothes and Accessories workshop at Aalto University on 10–12 March 2020.

Affects of the Covid-19 were already starting to show during our workshop. Most of the face mask had mysteriously disappeared from the Chemistry department.

We are now all working from home, in different countries, and spending our time analysing our project results, reading more about the context of our work, and writing up our results. However, although each one of us as researchers are used to working individually at home, it feels more important than ever to keep in touch and get together. We keep regular online meetings and virtual coffee hours in Zoom and Teams both with our current and previous team members as well as with our research assistants. This provides us an important platform to share our updates and thoughts, not only about work, but also about the experience of being in ‘quarantine’.

Refashioning virtual coffee hour.

Historically, the time frame of 40 days bears significance in the context of pandemic, because sources tells us that the term ‘quarantine’ refers to the Italian words quaranta giorni, 40 days, or quarantina. This was the number of days that all those who travelled to Venice from epidemic areas during the Black Death in the 14th-century were required to isolate.

The plague had devastating effects in Europe, killing from at least one third to a half of the European population in the fourteenth century, and outbreaks of plague continued to ravage towns and the countryside in the West up until the 19th century.

A mob attacking the Quarantine Marine Hospital in New York. Original Publication Harpers Weekly, 1858. Getty.

A series of major epidemics occurred also during the period of our study in the Refashioning the Renaissance project, especially during the years of Italian plague in 1629–1631. The shocking effect of the epidemic on Italian population is seen in our archival documentation. The graph below, presenting the number of post-mortem inventories drawn up for our artisans in Venice, shows clearly a high peak during these years, especially in 1631.

The number of post-mortem inventories drawn up for artisans in Venice 1550–1650. Refashioning database.

Venice was particularly vulnerable to the disease, because it was not only a busy trading port but also built upon a lagoon. But the plague ravaged also other Italian cities, such as Florence and Siena.

A detailed study of the inventories provides a window to the individual human tragedies during these years. One of the probable victims of the plague was our water seller Francesco Ristori, a resident of the gonfalone San Nicchio (Santo Spirito) at Oltr’Arno in Florence, who died prematurely at the beginning August 1631, leaving minor children behind. We are interested in the waterseller Francesco within out project because he was one of the aspirational artisans who connected with contemporary high fashions through wearing a range of clothing imitations.

His household goods, recorded on 12 September 1631 in the presence of his wife Maddalena and the witness Giulio di Silvestro Pagami, included, for example, a black, stamped doublet of mock velvet, made in imitation of a more expensive patterned velvet doublet, which our Refashioning the Renaissance project is in the process of reconstructing in collaboration with the School of Historical Dress.

Although we now live and work in special circumstances under many restrictions, our doublet reconstruction project continues and flourishes. It is exciting to see the progress of this interesting project, and it feels comforting to think that, at one point, sooner or later, life will be normal again and we will be able to gather together with our colleagues, friends and family to see what Francesco Ristori’s fashion imitation doublet may have looked like.

The inventory of Francesco Ristori, 12 September 1631.

When black became the colour of fashion

Visual images suggest that black became the colour of fashion during the late Renaissance period. While powerful men appeared consistently in fifteenth-century portraits in red crimson silks and scarlet woolens, sixteenth-century Europeans, from Italian courtiers to powerful princes and kings, presented themselves uniformly in sumptuous black garments, composed of deep saturated dark over-gowns and black headwear. The black protocol of the Spanish court during the reign of Charles V (1500-1558) and his son Philip II (1527-1598) was especially influential in Europe, because Spain in this period was the most powerful country in the world. The dramatic shift from colorful garments to black clothing is visible not only in official portraiture, but also in contemporary account books that recorded textile purchases.

Francesco Terzio, Portrait of Charles V at the Age of Fifty Years, 1550. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband

This preference for black in clothing marked a significant chromatic change in European sartorial practice. Although brightly colored clothing in red, green, blue and yellow continued to be worn under black over-gowns and during festivities, carnivals and leisure activities, by the late sixteenth century, black dominated fashion both in portraiture and ceremonial dress all over Europe.

Because of the prestige associated with black, it is usually assumed that black fashion was associated only with powerful princes and high-ranking wealthy European elites. However, documentary sources from Italy demonstrate that that, by the mid-sixteenth century, black was not worn only by rulers, aristocrats and wealthy mercantile classes, but it was by far the most common colour also in the clothing of ordinary artisans and shopkeepers. Post-mortem inventories from Venice, Florence and Siena drawn up between 1550 and 1650, demonstrate that over 40% of all artisans’ clothes that were identified by colour in the inventories were described as black. These included elaborate black woolen over-gowns that were open in the front, called veste and zimarre, worn both by men and women, as well as women’s petticoats, cloaks, small caps and detachable sleeves; and men’s cloaks, cassocks, doublets, hose and felted hats. The majority of black garments were made of wool, including expensive woollens such as say and rash, but many black textile items were also made of silks, including both affordable light and medium-weight silks, such as taffeta, ormesino, tabby and satin, as well as more valuable heavy damasks and grosgrains, and even silk velvets.

Woollen velvet, School of Historical Dress, London. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance project.

Some of the black garments were made in imitation of their more expensive counter-parts, such as the doublet made of black stamped ‘mocaiardo’, which our Refashioning the Renaissance project is in the process of reconstructing. This upper-garment, made in imitation of doublets of patterned silk velvet, belonged to a Florentine water-seller Francesco Testori who died in 1631. It may have been similar in style to the sleeveless modest black doublet worn by the butcher in Bartolomeo Passerotti image from 1580s.

Bartolomeo Passerotti, Butcher Shop, c. 1580s. Oil on canvas, 112 x 152 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.

The high popularity of black was connected, in part, to the symbolic properties of the colour: black was the colour of power. But the importance of black was also bound up with the visual and material qualities of black, because good, intense, fast black was one of the most difficult colours to create.

The best-known method to achieve black in the Renaissance period was to dye the fabric first in dark blue with woad, and then to over-dye the blue fabric in a red madder bath. This method, however, was relatively expensive, both because the dyestuffs were costly and because the preparation of the vat from woad or indigo was a laborious process. A cheaper and less labor-intensive method was to dye black using barks and roots or other vegetal dye sources that contained tannins, such as alder bark, walnuts, chestnuts and oak galls. Combined with vitriol or other iron compounds, tannins gave a beautiful, fast black (Video).

Video shows how adding green vitriol (ferrous sulfate; iron (ii) sulfate) into the dye solution turns the dye bath black.

Printed collections of dye recipes, such as that of Gioanventura Rosetti’s Plichto, published in Venice in 1548, offered advice for dyers to overcome the problems and produce better and cheaper blacks. Rossetti’s manual contained altogether 21 recipes for black, including eight recipes for a “very beautiful black”, most based on a combination of iron salts with tannins from oak galls, sumac or alder bark.

Relatively beautiful blacks could also be produced at home. Simple and less-labor intensive methods for achieving black were circulated in cheap printed media. One of the common recipes for home-dyed ‘lustrous’ black was titled ‘women so that when they have spun yarn they know how to dye it in many colours’. This provided a recipe for making black at home by boiling the fabric in a mixture of oak gall, vitriol, and a small amount of gum arabic.

Opera nvova intitolata dificio de ricette, repeated in another cheap printed collection of recipes titled Recettario nuouo nel quale si co[n]tengono molti secreti mirabili (1546).

Such recipes made it easy and cost-effective for men and women to carry out dye processes within the domestic setting, along with other textile-related recipes, such as stain removal. Although black produced in this way was not necessarily durable, the simple and inexpensive procedure produced a beautiful, uniform colour that could be easily brushed up by repeating the procedure.

These varied and cheaper methods to produce black, based on a range of recipes and dye sources, ensured that black as a fashionable colour became socially wide-spread.

Find out more about black fashion, and the material, cultural, and social significance of black in early modern European clothing in my forthcoming article ‘Power, Black Clothing, and the Chromatic Politics of Textiles in Renaissance Europe’, in Burgundian Blacks, edited by Jenny Boulboullé and Sven Dupré.


Further reading:

Chiara Buss, “A Very Fine Black Color”, in Silk, Gold, Crimson: Secrets and Technology at the Visconti and Sforza Courts, ed. Chiara Buss and Annalisa Zanni (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2009)

Elizabeth Currie, Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

John Harvey, Men in Black (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Jo Kirby, Maartin Van Bommel and André Verhecken: Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and their Historical Sources (London: Archetype Books, 2014)

Molà, The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

John H. Munro, “The Anti-Red Shift – To the Dark Side: Color Changes in Flemish Luxury Woolens, 1300-1550”, in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds.), Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol. 3 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), 55-96

Natalia Ortega-Saez, “Black Dyed Wool in North Western Europe, 1680-1850: The Relationship between Historical Recipes and the Current State of Preservation” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Antwerp, 2018)

Michel Pastoreau, Black: The History of a Colour (New Jersey, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2008)

Ulinka Rublak, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye,” 6-34;  Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2016), pp. 6-34

Farewell and warm thank you our research fellow Stefania!

Our project is half way through, and it has come time to say farewell to first of our research fellows, economic historian Dr. Stefania Montemezzo.

During her nearly two-year fellowship in our project, Stefania has been leading our archival work in Italy, identifying, documenting, transcribing and analysing hundreds of historical documents that reveal the kinds of clothing items our artisans and small shopkeepers owned and bought, and how their use was regulated in early modern societies in 1550-1650.  The core of this research, consisting of approximately 30.000 clothing items that were listed in household inventories of ordinary Italians, will eventually be available for public access on our online database.

Alongside her archival work, Stefania has been working in more detail on an account book of a sixteenth-century Italian peddler, a rich document that has allowed her to reconstruct the commercial and social activity of this small-scale operator whomoved around Tuscany selling cheap textile and fashion itemsfor ordinary clientele. Her work on this rare and detailed account will continue. She plans to analyse the document further, in order understand the identity of the buyers, the role of peddlers in the spread of fashion, the influence of the city on the countryside, and the role of geographical networks on the habits of consumption.

Stefania Montemezzo presenting her research in Renaissance Society of America conference in 2019. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We are very grateful for Stefania for her academic contribution and inspiration. She has given inspiring papers about her research in our academic events in Europe and US, and organized us a fantastic textile study week in Italy, with a one-day’s textile history seminar at the University of Padua where we discussed and debated economic meanings of early modern dress, textiles and fashion.

Dr. Stefania Montemezzo is a talented and rigorous young historian, with extraordinary capacity for team work.  In addition to her academic accomplishments, she has been a key member in team building team and greatly contributed to the good spirits in this project. She is just so much fun!

I am very fortunate to have been able to work with Stefania.

Our entire team wishes you, Stefania, best of luck with your future research. We will miss you dearly!

Our Refashioning team in Florence in May 2018. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.