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An agenda for future research: fashion outside the urban areas

In 1587 and 1588 Alessandro Vignarchi, a peddler in the Tuscan countryside, was traveling across the mountainous area northeast of Florence. Alessandro was selling a wide array of products: grains, wine, cheese, but most importantly, woolen and linen cloth. He was part of a family of retail traders, that had been operating in the area since at least 1570, with their main activity based in San Godenzo.

Figure 1. Morozzi Ferdinando, Vicariato di Pontassieve, 28 September 1780. Source: Cartografie Storiche Regionali, Regione Toscana.

Alessandro spent several years traveling throughout the different valleys, meeting people that not only came from the Tuscan Apennines , but also from the countryside of Lucca, from the nearby Emilia region, and from the Chianti area. With his activity he reached a few remote villages that still today are in the middle of the Apennine woods. 

Alessandro’s activity, and that of his family, is testified by a series of account books that are organized using single entry bookkeeping, which chronologically report the debts and credits of the peddler, recording the transactions in the name of the creditors/debtors.

These books will be the basis of my new research, which will focus on consumption patterns, information networks, and fashion culture among non-urban populations in the early modern period. The Vignarchi case study, besides being an interesting family saga by itself, deals with several historiographical issues. Firstly, fashion historians have showed how trends and fashions spread horizontally and vertically across social groups. However, it remains unclear which information networks and carriers were diffusing trends and fashions among lower social groups. Secondly, the peddler’s activity is also connected to more recent historiographical debates in mobility and migration studies. Thanks to this peculiar source, it will be possible to address issues related to the identity of buyers, the role of peddlers in the spread of fashion, and the influence of the city on the countryside. It also helps us to understand the role of geographical networks on habits of consumption. Moreover, peddlers played an important role in the creation of informal social relations, thanks to their action in settling credits and debits among their clients.

Figure 2. Gaetano Zompini, Le Arti che vanno per via nella città di Venezia (1746-1754).

The role and relevance of the itinerant trade has been well-studied, particularly for Northwestern Europe and Italy, mostly for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Places such as the countryside and the mountains have been left behind in research, while a preference has been accorded to urban areas. While most European cities provide rich documentation of their retail systems during the ancién regime, the countryside and mountainous areas suffer from a lack of research, in particular for the early modern period. This is due to a lack of sources for several of these regions, but also the historiographical idea that the landscape of consumption in these territories was significantly less developed with respect to consumer culture.

However, understanding peripheral areas is as important as understanding the consumption patterns and retail trade of cities like Florence or Venice, since in this period the biggest share of the population lived in non-urban areas. And, at least in Italy, this demographic distribution did not change until the second half of the nineteenth century, when the country started to industrialize.

Peddlers and itinerant traders are figures that are always difficult to define precisely. It is difficult to find, including for urban areas, sources that may shed light on their roles, functions, and movements since they very often moved along the borders of the different economic systems that characterized the Italian regions. Despite the difficulties in following their exact activities and displacements, these traders had a fundamental importance as suppliers to non-urban areas, for the exchange of small goods and textiles, the circulation of news, and for the connections they created between areas. Interesting, for instance, is the role of itinerant traders in the labor market and work mobility described in the work of Laurence Fontaine.

The development of this professional figure was probably a result of a context characterized by people moving seasonally from one place to another, and in a situation characterized by rural pluri-activity (that was linked to the issue of subsistence in several areas of the peninsula).  A gradual process caused some of the rural workers to transform into itinerant traders.

Itinerant traders were, of course, involved on a more general level in regional and supra-regional trade, since they had strong ties with city merchants, the main suppliers for their goods. Peddlers not only sold their products to peasants in the most remote valleys of the Apennines, but also attended fairs and weekly markets that were held at the foot of the mountains, and directly supplied from the city’s merchants. In the case of Alessandro, because of his strong ties with Francesco Vignarchi, a cousin who was already a retailer of cloth, we can assume he infrequently needed to travel down to Florence to buy the merchandise himself.

Figure 3. Picture of a carta from the Vignarchi account book.

Peddlers, in the context of the Apennine area, had a strategic role since they connected different valleys and villages, spreading news (of different sorts) and products (particularly locally manufactured goods, as in Alessandro’s case pannibigi casentini– an heavy wool cloth from Stia – and wheat, which was insufficiently produced in the mountain area). In this sense, itinerant traders had a fundamental role in supplying the valleys with these vital goods. And, hopefully this research, now in its initial stage, will shed light on the activity of Alessandro Vignarchi and his family and help us understand what was happening in the mountains surrounding Florence, one of the most fashionable cities of the early modern age.

Finally, this research may show that peddlers were responding to the demand for flashy items by inhabitants of the Apennines.  It is unlikely that these rural people did not have any sense of fashion, sinceas a trimming master in mid-eighteenth-century Turin said: “Ama il contadino la comparsa, ma le facoltà non s’adattano al di lui desiderio”.[1]


[1]The peasant loves to appear, but his wealth doesn’t match his desire. 

How can we gain access to the hidden meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

The first Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in London, 2-4 October 2018

How can we use written sources, extant objects, and historical hands-on experimentation, to gain access to the meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

This was one of the main questions that our team discussed at length when we gathered together in London in October for a two-day workshop, organized by our postdoc researcher Michele Robinson. During the two days, we not only looked at our documentary sources, including sixteenth century account books and inventories, discussing how we can best combine quantification with qualitative research. We also thought about how we can connect our documentary data with surviving objects, such as cheap printed recipe books, knitted pullovers and linen undergarments, and use these as a basis for our forthcoming material experimentation and scientific analysis. Therefore, one of the important questions we asked in this session was, what can we actually learn by simply looking at and touching material objects, such as such as sixteenth-century printed advice manuals or a pair of early seventeenth century sailor’s breeches?

Because we are very interested in cheap early modern printed manuals that provided advice on a range of topics, from how to throw a dinner party to how to dye one’s beard black, the Wellcome Collection in London was a perfect place to start. The Institute holds a notable collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century printed books, including books of secret that contain recipes.

One of the books that we studied was Opera nuova nella quale troverai molti bellissimi secreti, a collection of cheap pamphlets from Venice from about 1540s. Although these small leaflets are now bound together as a book, cheap instructive pamphlets were originally sold individually by street peddlers and book sellers at a low price, and these were, as we can see in the picture below, of different size. The low cost and status of such pamphlets meant that such recipes and instructions were, at least in theory, easily available for our artisans and shopkeepers.

Turning the fragile pages of this simple book revealed small details of tear and wear, and demonstrated that small hand-written inscriptions and notes had been added on the margins of the pages. Although we do not know how books of secret were originally used, this gave a sense that at least some people, at some point in history of these pamphlets, has tested and used these particular recipes. 

On the second day of our workshop, we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Museum of London storeroom together with the curator Timothy Long, and to engage closely with some extant, less-affluent historical garments from their collections. This allowed us to study in close detail, for example, how a simple sixteenth-century sleeve was constructed, in what way a cap was knitted, lined and fulled, and how a sailor mended his own clothes and marked his breeches with initials or his personal sign. It is sometimes touching to see patched modest garments, and to think about how our artisans and shopkeepers, some of which were relatively poor, may have worn, made and mended these garments, treasured these for their monetary value or beauty, or handed them down as bequests in their wills.

Curator Timothy Long presenting some of the early modern textile objects in the Museum of London collection.

What made these two days very special was that Professor John Styles, who is a member of our advisory board, joined us for the entire two days, and shared his experience and valuable insights about how to combine documentary research with object-based analysis and hands-on experimentation. We were also accompanied, for the first time, by our new postdoc researcher Sophie Pitman. Sophie has been working on historical reconstruction in the Making and Knowing project at Columbia University in New York, and she will lead the experimental part of our team work from January onwards.

John Styles and Michele Robinson.

Sophie Pitman, Mattia Viale, and Stefania Montemezzo.

The two day-workshop was extremely important for our project, because it provided us with some new in-depth insights and inspiration about how we at the Refashioning the Renaissance project can approach documentary sources alongside historical objects, and use them as a basis for material and digital reconstruction and hands-on experiments, which we will start in January 2019.

Our deep interest in the analysis and reconstruction of materials, techniques and objects, alongside visual and documentary sources, connects our work with the research tradition developed in several other international research centres and projects, such as the Netherlands-based ERC-funded project ARTECHNE, led by Sven Dupré, the Making and Knowing Project in Columbia, led by Pamela Smith, the Centre for British Art in Yale, led by Amy Meyers, and the Renaissance Skin Project, led by Evelyn Welch, all of which work, in different ways, at the intersection of craft, art and design history, and history. Our intention is to continue our work within this tradition, and to think about how we can further develop this historical approach by connecting historical experimentation with digital reconstruction. This framework, we hope, will allow to establish a set of new methodologies in material culture history studies that allows us to gain better access to the skills, sophistication and hidden meanings that were involved with objects, materials and techniques in this period.

Summing up a year of archival research

After a year, with the last days spent in Siena in late October, the work in the Italian archives is complete. It has been a long and intense, but rewarding work, and it has given us great results.

An old picture of the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (copyright MIBAC, Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali).

The research work started in October 2017 at the Venice State archive, where it was possible to find a large number of documents. Here different collections were used: notarial and court collections contained post-mortem probate inventories that were requested by family members or appointed tutors in order to estimate the inheritance. In Venice I was able to find more than 600 inventories, of which 450 ca. will be included in the database (we are excluding mercers, goldsmiths and other high rank professions).

Origin of the inventories in the database.

At the beginning of 2018, the research focused on Florence. I spent there 3 months doing research at the archive, particularly in the collection of the Magistrato dei Pupilli. As for the Giudici di Petizionin Venice, this institution had the aim to certify inheritances. However, while in Venice the Petizion courtrecorded all the inheritances, the Magistrati dei pupillifocused in granting a tutor and the management of the inheritance for the children. Probably for this reason, Florence had consistently less inventories recorded for artisans. Here I was able to gather 206 inventories, of which 85 could be used in the final database. However, despite the lower number of inventories, Florence is precious for all the account books that are preserved there. From the medieval to the contemporary age, it is possible to find almost any type of account book produced by traders, artisans, hospitals and other institutions at the State Archive. In our case, I was able to find a few account books that will help us better analyze and understand the data from the inventories. These books are usually journals written by peddlers, shoemakers and mercers, and they record all the transactions made in their shops or stands.

The account books from Florence.

The final stage of the research was carried out in Siena. For this city, I could profit from the experience of Paula Hohti. Part of the material for the 16thcentury had indeed already been identified by Paula, and my work here consisted of continuing the analysis of the collection, the Curia del Placito. The Curiain Siena had the same role as the Magistrato dei Pupilliin Florence. However, Siena was more fruitful from the point of view of the artisan’s inventories, since we were able to gather 203 inventories of which 185 were used for the database. To these, it is possible to add the auction records of the cases where the Sienese government had authorized the tutor to liquidize some of the assets of their underage protégés. These lists of goods—despite being very often partial—are particularly useful in understanding the value of items, since they report the selling price, as well the items that were chosen for being sold, thus considered as a reserve of value.

A page from the auction records of Bartolo macellaio from Siena (ASSi, Curia del Placito, Vendite di immobili dei pupilli, reg. 1334, c. 1r, 10 January 1630).

As it is possible to see from Chart 1, the distribution of the inventories is not equal, and this is of course due to the typology of the collections, to the role of the institutions that recorded the inventories, and to the population and size that characterized the cities, all of which will be considered when comparing them. Not equal is also the temporal distribution of the artisan’s inventories, which are of course linked to health issues among the population, as well as to local events or to problems related to the preservation of the documents. (see Charts 2, 3 and 4).

 

Temporal distribution of artisan’s inventories.

What’s next?

After this first phase of archival research, it is time now to implement the database! The inventories from Siena and Florence have been already transcribed, but Venice is still an open field. So…let’s get out the reading glasses and make sure that by next spring also the inventories from the Serenissima will be fully transcribed. Stay tuned!