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Defence, Honour, and Dress

By Victoria Bartels

In early modern Europe, one could argue that all types of dress and apparel offered protection. Clothing acted as a barrier between the physical body and the outside world, shielding it from over exposure and external threats. The link between protection and fashion was most pronounced, however, in the Renaissance male wardrobe. Men’s dress often included literal objects of defence, such as swords, daggers, and protective garments. Notions of masculinity in this period stemmed from medieval chivalric ideals, thus, protecting oneself and one’s household became traits associated with male honour. Violence on the street or in the market, workshop, or tavern were common occurrences in early modern Italian life. Thus, weapons became both fashionable and functional, and were understood as symbols of one’s masculinity.


Image 1. Giovanni Battista Moroni, A Knight with his Jousting Helmet (‘Il Cavaliere dal Piede Ferito’, Conte Faustino Avogadro (?)), ca. 1554-58, 202.3 cm x 106.5 cm, National Gallery, London.

Since citizens were legally permitted to carry arms, weapons were considered a crucial part of the upper-class man’s wardrobe. However, the practice of owning arms was not restricted to the elite. Many of the Refashioning inventories collected from Florence, Siena, and Venice include weapons, and the men who owned these items cut across different social classes. We know from the data, for instance, that swords were owned by men working in a variety of occupations. Some examples include a smith, silk merchant, painter, greengrocer, potter, barrel-maker, barber, trumpet-player, and linen weaver. Bladed weapons, such as swords and daggers, were the most common objects owned, but knives, crossbows, pole arms, and firearms were also recorded. Protective clothing was also present in the documents. These were typically garments fashioned from mail armour or sleeveless vests of thick leather worn underneath clothing to protect the body from would-be attackers.

Swords were undoubtedly the most popular weapon owned by men in this period. In his colourful autobiography, the Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini used the word “sword” a total of seventy-eight times.[1] Documentary sources often describe them quite vaguely, solely listing the word “sword” (spada), but they occasionally also recorded a weapon’s adornments, especially if they were noteworthy or valuable. An example of this can be found in the inventory of a Florentine linen merchant by the name of Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri, who owned “a half sword with a silver hilt” (una mezza spada con manica d’argento), while an apothecary from Siena possessed “a sword with rather modern finishes” (una spada con finimenti assai moderni).

Although described quite generally, various models of swords existed, thus, affecting how they were worn and used. Early swords from the medieval period possessed double-edged blades, making their primary function to cut and hack.[2] By about 1530, however, most swords worn by civilians were prized for their pointed blades, and although they could still cut, thrusting was considered their primary objective.[3] These “thrusting” swords were lighter to wield than previous bladed weapons and had hilts with bars and loops meant to protect the wearer’s hand.[4] The catch-all term for this type of side sword was the “rapier,” although no standardized form existed until the mid-sixteenth century.[5] Other models of swords were also prevalent in society. For instance, in 1612, a Venetian innkeeper’s inventory boasted “two scimitars in the Turkish style with their [accompanying] large sword belts (due samitere alla turchesca con suoi centuroni).”

Image 2. Venetian, Scimitar, 1550, steel, gold, silver, copper alloy, enamel, Wallace Collection, London.

Coming in a close second to swords, daggers were also widespread in this period. Given their smaller size, daggers were easier to wield than swords and therefore, required less training to use. The dagger derived from the scramasax, a versatile short knife used by the Saxons for a variety of jobs.[6] Like swords, dagger styles evolved over time to accommodate changing needs in battle. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, knights carried daggers with double-edged blades and by the fifteenth century, the typical model was replaced by the rondel dagger, taking its name from the circular pommel adorning its grip.[7] Left-handed daggers for parrying became the go-to short-bladed weapon in the sixteenth century, as the interest in fencing peaked. Other types of short-bladed weapons, such as the stiletto and the notoriously dangerous sfondagiaco, were also popular options.

Image 3. Italian, Parrying Dagger, ca. 1550-75, Steel, gold, brass, wood, Length 40.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As both swords and daggers became more regular fixtures in men’s dress, they were commonly fashioned in sets. Accessories for weapons could also be customized. Sword belts, scabbards, and hilts, along with their fabrics and metal workings could be tailored to complement existing outfits. If a patron had the financial means, they could also adorn their weapons with etchings, precious metals, or even jewels. In 1601, for instance, Medici goldsmith Giacomo Biliverti created a matching set of sword and dagger hilts adorned with 680 diamonds.[8] Even with a more modest income, one could add a touch of luxury, as a Sienese candle maker is recorded to have owned “two swords with silver handles” and “a dagger with a silver handle” in 1595. English moralist Philip Stubbes railed against this new practice in his 1583 Anatomie of Abuses saying

 “their Rapiers, Swordes and Daggers, gilte, twise or thrise over the hiltes with good Angell golde, or els argented over with silver…” are “a great shew of pride … an infallible token of vaine glorie, and a grievous offence to God.”[9]

Image 4. An imperial example of a lavish sword. Antonio Piccinino, Rapier of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, 1550-70, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Garments made of mail armour were also present in some of the inventories examined. The Venetian baker Foresto Foresti, for example, pawned a jacket of mail and received a hefty sum of sixty lire in exchange for the garment. A colleague of Foresti working in Venice also pawned a pair of mail sleeves. Mail could be easily hidden under clothing or added to the lining of a jacket or vest. In the 1492 inventory of the Medici guardaroba, for instance, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492) had several mail garments, as well as a doublet “full of mail.”[10] Having been utilized for centuries, mail was invented toward the end of the Iron Age.[11] Modern efforts to reconstruct mail determined that a typical iron shirt contained anywhere from 28,000–50,000 links, depending on its size and length.[12] As a result of the intricate and time-consuming method of construction, mail garments were often reused and recycled, causing pieces to contain sections of mail from disparate periods.

Image 5. German, Sleeve of Mail, 16th century, Steel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Image 6. Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Gentleman with His Helmet on a Column, ca. 1555-56, Oil on canvas, 186.2 cm x 99.9 cm, National Gallery, London.

As discussed above, male dress practices were heavily influenced by contemporary notions of gender. Although they served as status symbols for upper-class gentlemen, numerous inventories demonstrate that weapons were also sought out by working-class men. By investigating weapons and defensive-wear further, much light can be shed on the social and cultural norms responsible for shaping male fashion in early modern Italy.

[1] Cellini, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (Star Publishing, 2012).

[2] Robert Wilkinson-Latham, Phaidon Guide to Antique Weapons and Armour (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1981), 105.

[3] Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2000), 99. Wilkinson-Latham, Phaidon Guide to Antique Weapons, 110.

[4] Wilkinson-Latham, Phaidon Guide to Antique Weapons, 110.

[5] Tobias Capwell and Sydney Anglo, The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520-1630(London: The Wallace Collection, 2012), 33.

[6] Wilkinson-Latham, Phaidon Guide to Antique Weapons, 140.

[7] Wilkinson-Latham, Phaidon Guide to Antique Weapons, 140.

[8] Angus Patterson, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire (London: V&A Pub., 2009), 60.

[9] Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses, ed. by Margaret Jane Kidnie (Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in conjunction with Renaissance English Text Society, 2002), 105.

[10] Timothy McCall, “Brilliant Bodies: Material Culture and the Adornment of Men in North Italy’s Quattrocento Courts,” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 16, no. 1/2 (Fall 2013), 471.

[11] Alan R. Williams, The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 29.

[12] Alan R. Williams, The Knight and the Blast Furnace, 30.

Tracking down tintori in the Florentine state archives

By Victoria Bartels

Image 1: “Dying Wool Cloth,” from Des Proprietez des Choses by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 1482, British Library, Royal Ms 15 E. III f.269.

In 2019, I was hired for three months by the Refashioning Project to identify archival sources that document the activities of cloth dyers (tintori) in Florence between the years of 1550–1650. The aim of this research was to support and complement the project work on colour and dyes, and in particular to provide new qualitative evidence that allows the team to gain a better understanding of the dye practices and dyestuffs that were in circulation in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italy.

So how can we find out about dyes and dyers’ practices in early modern Florence?

An obvious place to start the archival search would have been the dyers’ guild records. However, since the lower-status artisans were not permitted to have their own guild in sixteenth-century Florence, I focused my research on the records of the Arte della Seta and the Arte della Lana, two Florence’s most prestigious and profitable organisations that worked in silk and wool, respectively. [Image 2] 

Image 2: Andrea della Robbia, Coat of arms of the Arte della Lana, 1487, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence.

The suppliche (or supplications) were a particularly fruitful source that derived from the tomes of the wool guild, the Arte della Lana. [Image 3] These written requests that discussed illegal infractions pertaining to the laws surrounding the manufacture, regulation, taxation, and exportation of wool in Florence and its dominion, were usually sent by either craftsmen working in the wool trade or ordinary inhabitants who had illegally made, transported, smuggled, purchased, or sold woolen fabrics without the proper licensing or permissions.

Image 3: Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Arte della Lana, vol. 445, fol. 50v.

The suppliche also include a number of cases involving dyers who were charged for illegal or dishonest activities regarding the dyestuffs or dye methods that they had used. One of the most frequent citations bestowed upon dyers was the use of prohibited materials in dye-baths, such as logwood from the New World (legno Campeggio) [Image 4], a new dye source used to produce black, which was outlawed by Cosimo I’s second son Duke Ferdinando I (1549–1609) in 1594 due to the product’s instability and the perceived damage it caused to the textile. If a fabric was suspected of having been dyed with logwood, it was deemed malatintura and consequently subjected to a barrage of tests by guild experts. [Image 5]

Image 4: Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Arte della Lana, vol. 445, fol. 65v.

Image 5: Fritz Coler, Waidgießer, 1529, Amb. 279.2° Folio 20 recto (Landauer I), Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg.

Another charge that dyers faced was the fraudulent use of inferior materials in dye-baths, thus, allowing them to turn a bigger profit and cheat customers. This appeared to occur more frequently when dyeing fabrics red, as there existed a hierarchy of animal and plant-based pigments on the market, some of which included chermisi (crimson dye), robbia(madder), grana (kermes, or ‘grain’), and verzino (brazilwood). [Image 6]

Image 6: Florentine school, Woman with a Dog, 1560–70, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Failing to register dyed materials with the Arte della Lana was probably the most often-cited offense in the records. The guild vehemently controlled all stages of wool production and required that workshops mark and register the items they produced for domestic and foreign consumption. If caught trying to circumvent the proper channels, dyers could be subjected to torture, fines, jail, and/or banishment. [Image 7]

Image 7: Rinovazione della Provisione Sopra le Pannine da Tignersi di Guado per Nero, con augumento di pene, 1639, Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Arte della Lana, vol. 451, un-paginated folio.

Our search on the dyers continues. You can soon read more about colour and these themes in the forthcoming articles “Innovations and Imitations of Fashion: Colour and Novelty in Early Modern Italian dress” and “Faded shades or new fashionable tints?: Colour in Renaissance Italian middling class dress” by Paula Hohti Erichsen… stay tuned!

Considerations from the Venetian State Archive: Reflecting on Data

By Umberto Signori

Umberto worked with us for two months, assisting Stefania Montemezzo in the data standardisation and transcriptions for the database. Read more about the database on Stefania’s project page.

Inventory of Francesco di Giosafa, merciaio (5 January 1551).

Like many kinds of historical documents, post-mortem inventories from the early modern period might at first sight be taken for handy repositories of straightforward facts. The use of “object-based” research methodologies, which are traditionally used in elaborating such inventories, has been a tendency of scholars of consumption practices to identify a “modern” type of consumer, and to expand our understanding of the emergence of various “consumer societies” along with expanding connections across the globe. According to this point of view, probate inventories are utilitarian documents that seem to have no hidden motives or ulterior designs to stand in the way of modern data-mining operations, whether large or small in scale.

Indeed, this was my first approach in working on the inventories kept in the Venetian State Archive which were used for the database. As an expert researcher told me at the early stages of this experience, making a database may get you the buzz at the beginning, but it requires a lot of patience in the end. In fact, when I started, I was thrilled by the idea of understanding how a method-oriented database works (something that, in my previous attempts to work out a proper system of categorisation for my research project’s database, I had found very difficult). Eventually, the actual data transcription and standardisation for the database is a bit laborious and time-consuming. The final outcomes of such a quantitative approach can be very rewarding: they can show if the members of the middle ranks of Venetian society (especially the artisans and the shopkeepers) were fashionable consumers, up to date and demanding or not. They can also demonstrate whether the evolving tastes of Venetian consumers for fine things pervaded many levels of society. Yet, the stages that precede the final one may appear quite static and monotonous. Are the final outcomes of the database the only thing that really matter?

Even though it appears that an inventory can give us only a static picture of a patrimony at a precise moment in time, it is important to realize that the “reality” at stake in the inventories was a fabrication: they functioned as a rhetorical tool. Thus, the inventories do not state the reality sought by the historians. While we were transcribing the early inventories’ data (which were all male inventories), I noticed that they contained a lot of female clothing and garments. I started to wonder what really an inventory recorded: the deceased’s properties or his own possessions? At first sight, it appears that post-mortem inventories did not distinguish the exclusive personal use of objects from the general ones. It is usually impossible to distinguish between what had been personally acquired and used by the deceased and what instead had been used by other members of his family, or had just been collected as money equivalent-objects. My main questions while transcribing were these: how did the procedure of making an inventory actually work in the Early Modern period? Did the inventories just portray in a static way objects possessed at one moment in time?

Once the transcription had been done, we started the actual data standardisation, which was more focused on cataloguing the transcribed information, including the materials, decorations, conditions, and colours of the clothing, accessories and jewellery recorded. The data recorded at this stage that struck me more was about the condition of the object: whether it was used, new, old, or broken, and whether it was pawned or not. The number of times I was recording the data “used”, “old” or “pawned” amazed me. This made me more aware of the existence of a second-hand goods market in the Early Modern Venetian society, something that I hadn’t really realized before starting this work. As many studies on second-hand exchange have already demonstrated, in Early Modern period all the items of clothing, and not only the precious ones, then, could be easily sold or pawned. Indeed, shifts in fashion, as well as the adaptability of the textiles, lining and accessories (objects which were recorded very often in these inventories), might have made this “old” items recirculation faster, and without much expenditure.

Furthermore, it is very interesting to notice that these inventories made a marked distinction between clothes and accessories which were “used”, “old” or “broken”. Before the French Civil Code of 1804, which established the absolute, exclusive and private property as the main form of property legally possible, the regime of early modern possession clearly separated property rights into two distinct levels, an eminent right and a usage right, that could be divided and attributed to several individuals. This regime of property usually accorded the primacy to the actual possession over formal deeds. This meant that, in case of disputes concerning property ownership, the real use of an object could legally prevail over the presentation of formal entitlements. This awareness is of important interest to material culture historians because it raises many new questions on the relationship between the possessors and their objects. It has been widely assumed in the consumption historiography that clothing or jewellery consumed automatically become a “possession” of someone or of a household. Certainly, that immaterial transformation from commodity to possession is what distinguished some goods as the “possessions of one’s own”. One might in fact be interested to understand whether the probate inventories, with their “used” or “broken” indications, even gave room to the possessors to prove their rights over the goods. Others might be stimulated to look more deeply in how the action of possession of individuals, who were not the full owners of the objects and who found themselves in a “delicate” situation in respect to the management of heritage, could claim their property rights.

Far from being static documents, inventories could allow us to view material worlds of artisans, workers, shopkeepers and their relations to possessions. Therefore, even during the transcription and standardisation stages the work can be stimulating and thought-provoking. Of course, so as to study the relationship between the possessors and their objects the inventories need integrating with other sources, like last wills and testaments. Despite the fact that the inventories alone cannot be enough to run out all these topics, they might constitute an extraordinary opportunity to shed light on the actors’ interpretation of material culture.

Umberto Signori hard at work with the Refashioning the Renaissance database.