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At home with a tailor – a multifunctional workspace

In 1622, the tailor guild’s statutes in Elsinore stated that customers should ‘get their finished work in agreed time’ and tailors were not allowed to have unfinished work laying around for too long. If the tailor was too slow, the owner of the commission could complain to a guild meeting, and the master had to pay fine not only to the guild, but also the the guild’s poor. The only acceptable reason for slow work was ‘illness or other legal matters’.[1] In case of complaints from customers, the work was to be inspected by two other master tailors, and if the garment was found ‘poorly sewn’, damaged, or if the tailor had ‘taken too much off than necessary’, the tailor had to keep the work and pay the expenses himself.[2]

A tailor, from Das Ständebuch by Jost Amman, 1560. Image: Wellcome Collection.

These passages originate from the tailor’s guild statutes in Elsinore and illustrate how tailors in Elsinore aimed to be reliable, trustworthy, and perform their best work. But the 1622 statutes do not only state the process of working as a tailor, they also regulated how finished garments should be sold in town. According to the statutes, a tailor could only sell garments from the ‘one place where he himself lives’.[3] This could explain why the tailor Jacob Robbersen, who was a member of the tailor’s guild, had a wooden board hanging outside his door, but other than that artisan inventories do not give much evidence on the physical space around the production of clothing.[4]  

The place of work

In light of the Refashioning the Renaissance, inventories are especially good at illustrating artisan’s personal wardrobes. However, a unique inventory from a tailor in Elsinore gives us also insight into the work environment around the production of clothes.

Page from the tailor’s guild statues in Elsinore, 1622.

An insight into a tailors work environment in the household is demonstrated in the inventory of Peter Folckertzen, a tailor whose inventory was drawn up on a summer day in 1650.[5] The inventory does not only give us an understanding of the private possessions found in the household, but it also sheds light on the space that they occupied when the inventory was made. This can give us a sense of the daily life in the household, and how a tailor’s work was performed in this period.

Page from Peter Folckertzen’s inventory from 1650.

From the inventory, we see that prior to his death Peter lived in Elsinore, where he owned a property in Frands Skriverstræde and a garden in town. The house consisted of several rooms, including a small chamber, a steggers (a sort kitchen), sallen (a larger room) and a basement that kept six empty beer barrels. Peter did not live in the property by himself. He oversaw a household consisting of himself, his wife, their children, and his journeymen who also lived in his household. From the inventory we also get information on his family relations as it was noted that Peter’s heirs were in Holstein.

A room for daily life?

According to the inventory, it looks like sallen was a central space in the house. For example, it housed materials for household work, such as spinning: two old rock (spinning wheels), two haspel (thread winder), and a garnvinde (yarn winder). But it also seems to be the place where Peter and his two journeymen worked during the day producing clothing. This is illustrated by the furnishing of the room, which included two shredderstoele (tailor chairs) and a verckfad, an artefact to store needles and threads. Furthermore, it contained an elaborate measuring stick, an alen (ell-wand) that was made of ebony ‘with some silver and bone’, three tailor’s scissors, one for each of his journeymen and one for himself, and a prenn, an awl to create holes in fabric. There were also four old særke (shifts), but nothing suggest that these were commissioned work.

Figure 5: The Tailor’s Workshop, 1661, Quiringh van Brekelenkam. Image: Rijksmuseum.

The room was not only reserved for work, as the furniture of the room suggest that it had a multifunctional purpose. Children and apprentices slept there, and closets, benches, and leather chairs indicate that it was a central room for daily life. Being both the place for work and sleep, it is noteworthy that sallen was the most decorated room in the house, which could suggest that this was also the room where guest and customers could be received. On the walls were five unidentified but valuable contrafeier, (often a portrait), and an old piece which was described as ‘about Juno, Venus and Pallas’. This painting hung together with five other small tauffler (paintings). It is likely that the painting named ‘about Juno, Venus and Pallas’ was similar to the painting with the same title, painted by Hans von Aachen in 1593, that depicts the three goddesses (figure 6). It was not only paintings that adorned the room. Hanging above the table was a small angel, and on the wall was a small mirror. Sallen was also the place for reading, writing, and entertainment, as it housed items such as 12 small old books, a Luther’s bible in German (folio), a board game, and an inkhorn.

Pallas Athena, Venus and Juno, Hans Von Aachen, 1593. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Other inventories give evidence on tools and property in relation to the craft, and few other inventories give evidence of textiles and unfinished work the tailors left when they died. However, in comparison they do not give such a vivid insight into the material surroundings of artisans working from home. Nevertheless, all these small evidences allow us not only to get insight into the household of artisans, but also—more importantly—show how work, such as making clothes, was an important task in the household occupying the central room in the house.


[1] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626-1641, 74 v

[2] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626-1641, 74 r

[3]Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626–1641, 74 r

[4] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Byfoged, Skifteprotokoller, 1621–1625, 521 v

[5] Danish National Archives, Helsingør byfoged, Skifteprotokoller, 1648-1650, 213 r – 215 v

Dr Victoria Bartels joins the Refashioning the Renaissance project as a Research Fellow

28 August 2020
 

We are happy to welcome Dr Victoria Bartels to the Refashioning the Renaissance team. Victoria has done editorial and archival work for our project already for several months, but is now joining the project for six months as a full-time Research Fellow, transcribing some of our sources and carrying out research on dress, fashion and weaponry among Italian artisan classes. 

Victoria holds a PhD in Early Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, where her doctoral research examined the cultural role of arms and armour in Renaissance Florence. Her current research interests focus on protective dress, weaponry, violence, and contemporary notions of gender. 

To read more about Victoria, see our People page.

Luxuries that cost human life? Pearls in Early Modern Italy

Early modern visitors to the Rialto market in Venice report a dazzling abundance of goods for sale. As the Englishman Fynes Moryson describes in his travel account, Itinerary (1617): ‘The goldsmiths shoppes lie thereby, and over against them the shoppes of the Jewellers, in which Art the Venetians are excellent’ (191).He and others were surely tempted as they passed by their glittering displays.

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Oil on oak panel, 100.1 x 85.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Most of these precious materials came to Venice from across Europe and the wider world. Some goldsmiths and jewellers emphasised the foreign and mysterious origins of gemstones, perhaps as a marketing tool. Rimondo Rimondi operated his shop ‘under the sign of the Turk’ in the neighbourhood of San Severo to the east of the Rialto district. Here customers could purchase Bohemian garnets, Baltic amber and white sapphires from India.[1]

We don’t know what Rimondi’s sign looked like, but ‘Turks’, men from the Ottoman Empire, were often represented with turbans like that worn by the Sultan Mehmet II in this portrait. Gentile Bellini, The Sultan Mehmet II, 1480. Oil on canvas, possibly transferred from wood, 69.9 x 52.1cm. The National Gallery, London.

Rimondi’s competitors also offered gems, precious metals and semi-precious stones from around the world. Benetto Bellotto, who had a shop near the Rialto bridge under the sign of the Magdalen, sold bracelets ‘in the Turkish style’, Scottish pearls and assembled gems called doublets (doppie) from Spain.[2] In Alvise Belliardi’s shop you could find diamonds, agate, lapis lazuli, turquoise and emeralds—all imported from afar—for sale. The goldsmith also had ‘two table-cut rubies and another cabochon ruby set in a gold ring in the Turkish style (ala Turcehscha)’. Finally, Belliardi also seems to have stored gems for friends or clients when they were away. He had, ‘in a box a string of seventy pearls, marked with a lead marker, said to belong to Abraham Turcho Granatino, who is in Constantinople’. [3]

Lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone that was imported into Europe from what is now Afghanistan. It was used to make very expensive blue pigments as well as in jewellery. Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, c. 1567-9. Carved lapis lazuli, 5.5 x 4.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There was a definite air of exoticism around gemstones and jewels that added to their desirability and value. But behind the sparkling facade were dark secrets; these materials were often mined, fished or otherwise retrieved in ways that harmed human and animal life as well as the environment. And, the gems and jewels that came with ethical implications were worn not only by the wealthiest members of society, but those lower on the social hierarchy as well. The inventories gathered for the Refashioning the Renaissance project show that many artisans owned gemstones and other precious materials that were financially and environmentally costly.

This painting on copper shows an idealised and mythological take on the fishing of pearls and coral in the New World. Jacopo Zucchi, The Coral Fishers, 1585. Oil on copper, 55 x 45cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Pearls in particular appear in great numbers in these documents especially in the form of necklaces and bracelets, and indeed pearls were coveted by people across early modern Europe. Until the end of the fifteenth century, most pearls came to Europe from the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Gulf of Mannar, with freshwater pearls largely coming from Scotland. But, on his third voyage to the Americas in 1498, Christopher Columbus realised pearls could be fished off of the coast of what is now Venezuela, opening up a new and plentiful source for the European and Asian demand for pearls. Spanish-run pearl fisheries quickly depleted communities of indigenous divers, having enslaved and worked many of them to death. To feed the European market, and to fill Spanish coffers, enslaved men from the west coast of Africa were brought to the Americas to dive for pearls.[4]

Reports from Spanish missionaries and other Europeans detail the appalling treatment of the African and indigenous divers, both in terms of their living and working conditions. Bartolomé de Las Casas (c. 1474–1566), for instance, recorded in his Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies) that divers were beaten if they took too long fetching pearls from the sea floor. On these deep dives men risked being attacked by sharks and other marine predators, as well as drowning, haemorrhaging and blown ear drums. According to Las Casas, many died after only a few days of this work, and those who didn’t saw changes to their hair colour and burned wounds due to prolonged time in cold salt water.[5]

This detail of Theodor de Bry’s engraving shows pearl divers off of Cubagua, near what is today Venezuela. From Girolamo Benzoni’s Americae pars quarta (Frankfurt am Main: Ioannis Feyrabend, 1594), plate XII.

In addition to taking human lives, pearl diving also killed an enormous number of animals. Pearls are found in about one in 10 000 oysters and it’s estimated that over the most lucrative thirty years of fishing off of the coast of the island of Cubagua alone, 1.2 billion oysters were harvested.[6] Their shells were pried open, pearls removed and the remains tossed on the beach; some contemporaries wrote about the incredible stench from the discarded oysters and all the flies this attracted – a far cry from even the smelliest of canals in Venice, where many pearls ended up in workshops like Rimondo Rimondi’s.[7]

In addition to the loss of human and animal lives, pearl fishing also devastated the local environment. Harvesting tens of thousands of oysters over a fishing season drastically altered the marine ecosystem. Some entrepreneurs also proposed dredging the sea bed to more quickly collect oysters, though this was not often practiced in the Americas due to the damage it caused, which prevented recovery of the oyster beds over time.[8]

The large, drop-shaped pendant pearl on this necklace is so famous it has a name: Le Peregrina, The Wanderer. It came into the possession of the Spanish crown having been fished from waters off of Panama in 1579. It passed through the hands of Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, and eventually Elizabeth Taylor. In 2011 it was sold at auction as part of this necklace for 11,842,500 USD!

Pearls from the Americas flooded the European market in waves beginning in the early sixteenth century. And, the Portuguese gained control of pearl fisheries in Indian Ocean and Gulf in 1507, which meant more pearls than ever were coming directly into Europe.[9] This abundance drove prices down, making pearls more affordable, even if they were never cheap. One contemporary noted: ‘Now everyone wears pearls and seed pearls, men and women, rich and poor’. This observer pondered whether pearls were so popular, ‘because they are brought from another world […] or perhaps it is because they cost the lives of men.’[10]

Pearls certainly carried with them reminders of the sea and maritime power, even for those who would never visit the waters from which they came. For example, a stone-cutter in Siena had a pair of little gold pendants with ships and six little baroque pearls in 1646.[11] These may have been similar to the pendants owned by a weaver, also from Siena, who had, ‘a pair of little pair of ship-shaped pendants with six pearls each and six more little pearls with a red stone in the middle’, in 1640.[12] There are several examples of these kinds of pendants in the Refashioning documents and in museum collections today, suggesting they were quite popular.

Pendant in the form of a ship, 16th century, possibly Italian. Enameled gold and pearls, 16 grams. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

But, if ship pendants decorated with pearls made reference to the sea, maritime power and increasing European dominance over other continents, they elided the death and destruction that came in the wake of pearl fishing. This made it easier for consumers to ignore or remain ignorant about from where their pearls came and at what cost. Similarly, today’s pearls hide their origins well. Natural pearls—those that occur and grow in wild oysters and mussels as they coat parasitic worm or other foreign bodies (but not sand) with nacre (also called mother of pearl)—are now very rare. Nearly all pearls on the market today are ‘cultured’ or grown inside of salt- or freshwater molluscs through human intervention. A young oyster or mussel is forced and propped open with a wooden wedge and a scalpel is used to make an incision in its reproductive organ. Then a nucleus—often a bead of pearl, mother of pearl or shell—and a piece of mantle from another mollusc are implanted; the animal is then allowed to close. Over time, it secretes nacre (mother of pearl) around the nucleus, as it would any other irritant in nature. After around three and a half years a saltwater pearl can be harvested if the operation was a success. This process usually results in the formation of one or two pearls but freshwater mussels can produce between thirty and fifty pearls at once, though over five years rather than three. After the harvest, some animals are killed and others put through the process again.

Pearl farming has drawn criticism from both animal welfare groups and those concerned with the environment. Mussels feed on plankton, the growth of which is encouraged by farmers through the addition of manure, soil and other pollutants to freshwater. Oysters, though, are more sensitive to their environment and changes within it. They won’t produce pearls if conditions aren’t perfect, so farmers monitor the saltwater environment closely. This is similar to those running pearl fisheries in the early modern period, where there was an understanding that the waters could be over-fished and that changes to the ecosystem impacted the number and quality of pearls produced. And, as in the past, diving for pearls today can be difficult, dangerous and even deadly work.

This devotional pendant features pearls made from lampworked glass – a convincing alternative to real pearls? Devotional pendant, 16th century (and later), Italian or Spanish. Cut and polished, reverse-painted, reverse-gilt, and reverse-silvered rock crystal; lampworked glass; gold. Diameter 3.3 cm. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

‘Do we get most bodily pleasure from luxuries that cost human life?’ Pliny the Elder (23–74CE) asked about pearls in his Naturalis Historia written nearly 2000 years ago.[13] The question continued to be relevant into the early modern period, when people were enslaved and died, billions of animals perished and severe environmental damage was caused all to feed desire for pearls and wealth generated from them. Today, modern versions of these problems persist, though some efforts are being made to farm and harvest pearls in more ethical, eco-friendly ways. There are also alternatives to cultured pearls, such as those made from plastic, cotton and glass. In the early modern period, too, shoppers could choose pearls made from clay, shell, glass or enamel to suit their budgets, desires and sensibilities.


[1] Archivio di Stato di Venezia (hereafter ASV), Giudici di Petizion, b. 350, f. 13. 22 April 1626.

[2] ASV, Giudici di Petizion, b. 358, f. 45, 12 December 1642.

[3] ASV, Cancelleria inferiore, Miscellanea, b. 41, f. 30, 10 August 1570, fols. 5r and 7r. On the global trade in gems see Michael Bycroft and Sven Dupré, eds., Gems in the Early Modern World: Materials, Knowledge and Global Trade, 1450–1800 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[4] Mónica Domínguez Torres, “Pearl Fishing in the Caribbean: Early Images of Slavery and Forced Migration in the Americas,” in African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, ed. Persephone Braham (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014), 73–82. Nicholas J. Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (October 1999): 243–57, 250-1; Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (UNC Press Books, 2018), 38-40.

[5] Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (UNC Press Books, 2018), 43. Mónica Domínguez Torres, “Pearl Fishing in the Caribbean: Early Images of Slavery and Forced Migration in the Americas,” in African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, ed. Persephone Braham (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014), 73–82

[6] Warsh, American Baroque, 62.

[7] Warsh, American Baroque, 155.

[8] Warsh, American Baroque, 65-67.

[9] Robert A. Carter, Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry That Shaped the Gulf (London: Arabian Publishing, 2012), 61-89.

[10] Warsh, American Baroque, 81.

[11] Archivio di Stato di Siena (hereafter ASS), Curia del Placito, b. 283, f. 266, 3 September 1646, fol. 18v.

[12] ASS, Curia del Placito, b. 280, f. 111, 24 April 1640, fol. 224r.

[13] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, a Selection, trans. John F. Healy (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 135.