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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.

An Example of 16th Century Artisan Self-Fashioning – Master Shoemaker Jens Pedersen from Odense 

Shoemaker Jens Pedersen, 1583. Photo credit: Odense Bys Museer

In the process of gathering source material for my PhD research I came across a beautiful and decorative glass window in the shoe makers guild house in Odense, dating from 1583. Jens Pedersen had commissioned and donated the stained-glass window, picturing himself with his wife and two other shoemakers, probably a journeyman and an apprentice.

I was immediately caught by the details in the illustrations, and how the stained glass gives insight into the workshop of a shoemaker. Then I became intrigued by the variety of fashions and styles of garments that Jens Pedersen and his wife are wearing. They are each portrayed with three different outfits, showing off many kinds of decorative and colourful fashions and styles. The glass window shows different styles of hats and caps, and the construction of the clothes is also quite clear.   

A work scene from Jens Pedersen’s workshop is depicted in the middle of the frame. He as the master artisan, is sitting at a table wearing a black doublet and hose with some kind of linings, together with black stockings. On his head, he is wearing a black hat. The two working men are wearing white, probably linen shirts, black hoses and yellow stockings. They are all wearing ruffs around their necks. The workshop scene shows how the master artisan is cutting leather, and the journeyman and apprentice are sewing leather shoes together. The depiction not only gives insight into the working environment of the artisans, but also reveals a social hierarchy through the clothes worn by the master artisan and his workers. Were these the actual clothes shoemakers wore, when they were working in the workshop? And does this paint a realistic picture of an early modern artisan workshop?

Jens Pedersen must have had an agenda and an interest in showing himself off in the best possible way, and he is clearly aware that fashion can be a tool for promoting his own role as a prominent master shoemaker and burgher in the city of Odense. Especially the depictions outside the workshop signal honour and respect, and he is clearly using fashion as a tool for making himself stand out, and to shape his identity as a prominent and important burgher. His way of establishing himself as an important burgher can also be seen in the way he is using symbols, his wife with a wine jug and himself with a spear symbolling his participation in the city defence work.

His donation to the guild house shows that he proudly associates himself with the tradition of shoe making and of the guild. But at the same time, he distances himself from the coarser work of making shoes through his dress. Perhaps he also thought that the public placing of the window in the guild house could help shape an understanding of shoemakers as being fashionable, and in this way getting more patronage and additional commissions. No matter what, this is an excellent example of artisan self-fashioning, and I look forward seeing if there are similar examples out there.


Literature:

Andersen, Vivi Lena: Between Cobbles, Bunion, Shoelast and Fashion. Shoes from 1300-1800 from Archaeological Excavations in Copenhagen, phd-dissertation submitted for University of Copenhagen, 2016.

Troels-Lund, Troels: Dagligt Liv i Norden: i det Sekstende Aarhundrede. vol 2. Gyldendalske Boghandel: Copenhagen, 1914.

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.