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Make invisible, visible. News from Venice’s Archive

Studying material culture for those social groups that weren’t part of the elite has always proven difficult. Lesser documents were indeed produced by artisans, workers and poor people, even in societies, as the “Italian” ones, that historically proved to be particularly inclined to the use of notaries and courts to certify relationships and exchanges.

How can we spread the light on the standard of living of working classes then?

One of the most important sources in order to make invisible people a bit more visible are probate inventories. These documents were usually a list, more or less precise, of the possession of a person at a certain moment of their life.

Archivio di Stato di Venezia.

But why someone would feel the need to write an inventory? Well, the reasons are different, since inventories had different purposes.

Firstly, they were the main tool to estimate an inheritance. When a person died, no matter how rich they were, the heirs or their guardians (called commissari) asked to list all the items that could be inherited, as well as to evaluate them. This process could involve several people, from the notary who registered the documents (testaments and inventories) to the person charged to estimate the value (usually a haberdasher or another artisan). These inventories show all the objects that these people were able to accumulate in their life and, often, also those of their entire family, giving us the possibility to understand how consumption evolved within specific social classes.

Secondly, an inventory could be asked from creditors. In these cases, a court was usually involved and the inventory listed all the objects that were present in a home or, more often, in a workshop, that could be used to refund the petitioner.

Lastly, inventories could be written to certify a dowry. Young women were granted a certain amount by their father when getting married, that could be paid in money, objects or estate properties (an amount that scholars more recently started to identify as an anticipation of the inheritance). Even if this dowry was usually managed by the groom’s family, once the husband would eventually die, women had the right to get it back. In order to refund the widow of her dowry (that she could finally start managing herself), an inventory was usually requested by a court, in order to identify the suitable objects to be returned.

Probate records from Venice.

These documents of course don’t just show us a list of possession. Inventories present indeed not only the precise origin or position of houses and workshops, but also the names of the commissari appointed by the deceased. Inventories will tell us not only what these artisans were wearing, using and accumulating, but also will give us a glimpse into the social world of these people.

In the future we will share more detailed glimpses into these interesting documents.

The Fruit Seller, by Vincenzo Campi (1580)

Our banner image on the front page of the website is The Fruit seller by Vincenzo Campi,  from 1580. The painting is kept at the collection of Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan, and measures 143 x 213 cm. It depicts a young woman selling fruit, and it ties to the tradition of late sixteenth-century Italian genre paintings. These genre scenes afforded curious Renaissance gentlemen the possibility of observing how the lower orders lived, worked, and dressed, while still maintaining a distance from the subjects.

The painting offers an interesting look into the clothing of the fruit seller. She is dressed in a front-opening yellow gown with a green apron and a high-necked linen shirt. Her relatively basic clothes  are designed to provide maximum comfort and practicality during work. For example, although the upper part of the fruit-seller’s dress seems to be tufted, the wrinkles across the bodice imply that there are no boning or corset. In addition, the upper part of the outfit includes large ribbons where the sleeves could be attached, but she is wearing the dress without sleeves. Emphasizing durability, comfort, and practicality rather than beauty, the represented clothing ties the wearer to her role as manual labourer. A closer look, however, reveals that the fruit seller’s dress includes several details that respond to contemporary taste. For example, her linen shirt is decorated with lacy edging that matches both her ruff and sleeve cuffs according to the taste of the period, and her green apron includes a yellow embroidery pattern, perhaps made in imitation of gold embroidery.

These kinds of visual messages were well understood by contemporaries. Archival evidence from early modern Italy shows that artisans and shopkeepers often used a wide range of methods to update ordinary dress to conform to current fashions. It was not just simply a matter of fashion “trickling” down through the social layers, but popular groups created meanings, rules and practises of their own, and built their identities through self-fashioning.

However, there has been surprisingly little discussion on how non-élite members of society dressed in early modern Europe, and there is a demand for a rigorous interdisciplinary study of Renaissance fashion that investigates how fashion developed and evolved in dialogue, and across, social groups. Refashioning the Renaissance project draws visual, documentary and material evidence to shed light on popular taste, dissemination, transformation, and adaptation of fashion, of imitation and meaning, and of changing cultural attitudes to dress among popular groups. Campi’s Fruit Seller reflects these ideas and attitudes, and is a fitting image for the project.

Source: 
Hohti, Paula: ‘Dress, dissemination and change: Artisan ‘Fashions’ in Renaissance Italy’, in E. Welch (ed.), Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford University Press/Pasold, 2017), 143-165.

Archival Research launched in Italy

State Archive of Siena

The State archive of Siena is located in the Palazzo Piccolomini, by the beautiful central square, the Piazza del Campo. It contains thousands of files that document the economic, political, social and artistic life of the city. Among them are treasured examples, such as the last will and testament of Boccaccio and the breath-taking painted medieval Biccherna tablets, which are on display at the archive’s museum (Museo delle Biccherne). I have been working in this archive for years, but this time I returned with a new goal, to carry out systematic research in dress, clothing and fashion across household inventories in 1550-1650. Together with our new research assistant, Stefania Montemezzo, we are on a mission to find out how ordinary Italians’ fashion changed in this period, and what were the key agents of fashion change at the lower social levels in Siena, Florence and Venice!

Records at the State Archive of Siena.

I also visited some sites that were connected with Renaissance artisans, such as the narrow street, Vicolo del Bargello, that leads out of the Piazza del Campo. This is where one of my Renaissance shoemakers, Giovanni di Domenico, held his shoeshop in 1550s. 

Vicolo del Bargello.

Photos: Paula Hohti