ERC EU logo

Blog

Album Amicorum: Fashion, Friendship and Foreign Travel in Renaissance Europe

Michele Robinson

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, university students – especially those from Germany – often travelled to different institutions throughout Western Europe and documented their experiences in album amicorum, or friendship books. At first, these books were simply filled with mottoes and signatures from students’ friends and important people they met during their studies; overtime, though, the books featured inscriptions paired with images such as coats of arms, emblems and local people from the various cities visited. These images could be drawn by the person writing the inscription, painted by a local artist or taken from a printed book or single leaf, meaning that each album was as unique as its owner.[1]

Coat of arms and emblematic image with inscriptions from the autograph album of Johann Joachim Prack von Asch, 1587-1612. Getty Research Institute Collection, Los Angeles.

Along with revealing fascinating information about the experiences of German students, these books are also, perhaps surprisingly, useful for historians of dress. The representations of people included in the albums typically show men and women from different social classes wearing local dress. And, unlike most contemporary costume books, these representations are in colour, often still vibrant after more than 400 years, and the clothes are perhaps more up-to-date than in costume books, a sort of distant relative to the albums.[2] These books are useful for the Refashioning the Renaissance project not only because they represent dress, but often the dress – and scenes of daily life – of the lower-class inhabitants of Venice and the surrounding area. One of the most common ‘types’ of person from humble social origins depicted in the books is the female peasant from Padua, carrying two baskets of fruit, flowers or fowl over her shoulder.

Peasant woman (fol. 024r) from the Album Amicorum of Jan vander Deck, after 1592. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Rawl. B. 21.

Peasant woman from Padua (fol. 032r), Album Amicorum of Paul van Dale, c.1569-1578. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Douce d. 11.

Although these images come from different albums and neither is an exact replica of how such a woman would have looked or dressed, when we consider them closely and carefully, we can begin to reconstruct what a lower-class woman from Padua or other towns in the Veneto might wear. For instance, both images show the women with their skirts slightly puffed out around the waist, wearing quite long aprons and a garment draped around their shoulders and tucked into the front of their bodices.

Matrona Veneta [Venetian Matron], from Jan Baptist Zangrius, Album amicorum of habitibus mulierum omnium nationum Europae, tum tabulis ac cuneis vacuis in aes incisis adornantur, 1605. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Paris.

These kinds of representations also help to remind us that working people needed to have clothes that were practical and functional, though this does not preclude them from looking good. Unlike women from wealthy and elite families with floor-length (or longer!) gowns and towering platform shoes, working-class women had to be able to move themselves and perhaps their wares from place to place quickly and efficiently. The bunched-up skirts of Paduan peasant women may have created a distinctive look, but this was also a means of lifting the hem line away from the dust and dirt of the road on the way to market, and probably also prevented tripping on or ripping the garment. Thus, the images in album amicorum give us a sense of what people were wearing and encourages us to think about why they made these choices – both for fashion and function.

 


[1] For a general overview of the different types of albums and their chronology, see Max Rosenheim, “The Album Amicorum,” Archaeologia 62, no. 1 (1910): 251–308
https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261340900008158.

[2] Margaret F. Rosenthal, “Fashion, Custom, and Culture in Two-Early Modern Illustrated Albums,” in Mores Italiae: Costumi e scene di vita del Rinascimento = Costume and Life in the Renaissance: Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 457, ed. Maurizio Rippa Bonati and Valeria Finucci (Cittadella (Pd [i.e. Padova]): Biblos, 2007), 79–107.

Did Dress and Fashion Matter in the Poor Neighbourhoods?

In November, during my recent research trip in the state archives of Siena with our researcher Stefania, we decided to take a walk in the Sienese neighbourhood of Onda. This central contrada south from Piazza del Campo, originally called San Salvatore, used to be a popular neighbourhood among Sienese artisans in the Renaissance period. By 1531, nearly two thirds of San Salvatore’s inhabitants consisted of artisans or small local entrepreneurs, including painters, innkeepers, musicians, tailors and mercers to smiths, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, and weavers.

Street view in San Salvatore

One of the inhabitants of San Salvatore was the shoemaker Girolamo di Domenico who lived here in the first half of the sixteenth century with his children and wife Calidonia. His story invites us to think of the harsh economic conditions of many of the lower ranking artisans that we are studying in this ERC project. Tax records tell us that, in 1531, his taxable wealth was a modest 175 lire and the family’s economic circumstances did not improve in the following years. Girolamo died in 1547, leaving behind minor children. While there is no trace of what happened to the family after the shoemaker’s death, we can only hope that Girolamo’s brother Giovanni and someone named Girolamo di Bartolomeo Salvestri, described as Girolamo’s ‘relative’ (parente), both shoemakers, protected the widow and her children from falling into complete poverty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Stefania and I walked along the narrow, twisting streets of San Salvatore, looking at the original architectural features of the buildings that revealed where shops had originally been located, we were wondering whether clothing and fashion mattered on these streets, where many families struggled to provide just the basic living for their families.

While questions of cultural meaning and value in the absence of artisans’ own words are difficult to evaluate with precision, archival evidence, such as household inventories, allow us to access individual’s personal wardrobes and gain knowledge about ownership of clothing at most levels of society.

The shoemaker Girolamo’s inventory was drawn up a few days after his death on 14 September, 1547. The list of clothing that belonged to him and his wife included 26 dress items (pairs of hose, hats, shirts, skirts, jackets, under- and over-dresses and cloaks) that were stored in five chests. This indicates that the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife both had two or three sets of clothes.

Page from Girolamo di Domenicos inventory

Although a fair number of their garments were modest, often described as ‘sad’, ‘old’ or ‘worn out’, the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife Calidonia owned some garments that made it possible for them in special occasions to strip off their work clothes and dress up. The five chests of clothing in Girolamo’s house included relatively fine dress items, such as a white men’s doublet, a pair of black woollen breeches, a woollen cloak and a black satin beret, as well as a pair of black detachable women’s satin sleeves, a woollen cloak and two purple skirts described in the document as ‘fine’.  Furthermore, some of these clothes were decorated and made from fine materials. One of the shoemaker’s wife Calidonia’s purple dress, decorated with a black velvet band and large puffs in the upper part of the sleeve, was made from pavonazzo-coloured cloth.  This purple colour, obtained from valuable kermes dyestuff, was preferred also by patrician men and women, not only because it was expensive, but also because it was also a symbol of power and authority. Pavonazzo became forbidden from lower classes by sumptuary law in Siena in 1588.

Such garments were treasured objects among artisan families and may have been acquired in connection with marriage. Yet, the presence of fine garments such as Girolamo’s white doublet and black woollen cloak, or Calidonia’s satin sleeves and pavonazzo dress demonstrates that Renaissance dress and dressing up mattered at all levels of society, even among the poorer quarters of the city. Everyone wanted to look good in festive occasions and on Sundays at Church!

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.