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Did ordinary Italians have a ‘Renaissance’? Discover how artisans lived and connected with culture from my new book!

1 February 2021


Italian Renaissance is known mainly through art works, decorative objects, and fashion manufactures that were owned, used and admired by the high-ranking wealthy elites. Before we started the Refashioning the Renaissance project, few scholars had been interested in studying how the lower classes experienced the Renaissance culture. So how did ordinary Italians, such as shoemakers, barbers and bakers and their families, connect to the Italian Renaissance culture through their artefacts, cultural practice and appearance?

We can admire the richness of Renaissance material culture in many surviving Renaissance images, such as in the early sixteenth-century image of an orderly and affluent household by Vittore Carpaccio on the left. A painting by Vincenzo Campi, created in 1580, on the right, however, provides a rare visual window to the material world within reach of modest peasant or working families. Depicting a moment on 11 November, after the end of the harvest, when many families in the countryside traditionally moved house, the painting shows chests, metal buckets, and other household wares piled up on the back of a donkey. Open to public view, such possessions revealed much about a family and how it wished to present itself.

My new book Artisans, Objects and Everyday Life in Renaissance Italy: The Material Culture of the Middling Class, published recently by Amsterdam University Press, explores—for the first time in depth—the question of, could people lower down the social scale participate in the marketfor luxury goods and novelties and engage in Renaissance culture?

Post-mortem inventories are an important archival source for material culture and fashion historians to investigate what kind of material artefacts people owned. Here, on the left, we can see an inventory of the sixteenth-century baker Pietro, listing all the belongings he had owned at the moment of his death, and, on the right, a fifteenth-century Florentine fresco painting showing the process of taking a household inventory.

Using a rich blend of archival evidence from sixteenth-century Siena, such as post-mortem inventories illustrated above, it explores how local artisans and tradesmen and their families conducted their lives in Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century; how they acquired a wide range of artefacts, furnished their homes, and managed their domestic economies and consumption; what types of luxury items and small personal belongings were exchanged and circulated in dowries at artisan levels; and how families of artisan rank socialized in their homes and celebrated their weddings.

Marriages and wedding celebrations were important occasions when luxuries were acquired and circulated. The bride’s dowry, transported to the new home in a wedding chest, included a number of luxuries even at the lower social levels, such as fine linens, gold embroidered scarves and snoods, jewellery and furniture. Even the modest stone-cutter Salvatore’s wife’s dowry, as appears in the document above, included such treasured valuables. Fine white, decorated household linens were an sign of the family’s status and an important store of household wealth. Chests of linen were often placed on display after the ceremonial dowry procession.

As one of the greatest challenges of studying non-elite groups is the difficulty of providing and defining appropriate categories so that it is clear what terms such as ‘artisan’, ‘small shopkeeper’ or ‘middling class’ denote, this book does not only offer new knowledge about social and cultural practice at the lower levels of society, but it also provides an important foundation for our Refashioning the Renaissance project to define what we mean when we study the lower social groups and their clothing, fashion and appearance.

Ordinary artisans, such as shoemakers, innkeepers and tailors, usually enjoyed a modest position in society. Some artisan groups, however, such as skilled master tailors, tried to claim new status and worth in the sixteenth century through greater involvement with the intellectual properties of their work, or their association with ‘design’.

By focusing in my book on the material culture and lives of men of different economic and professional statuses among the artisan ranks, some of whom were immigrants and poor, others modestly prosperous and powerful, and learning what their particular economic and material conditions were, who they connected with, what they owned, and what kind of lifestyles they led, I hope that this monograph allows the reader to understand the diversity and richness of artisans’ and shopkeepers’ cultural experience in sixteenth-century urban Italy, and makes visible the artisans’ individual experiences – their hopes and happiness, industry and inefficiency, fortunes and failures.

Many kinds of art and decorative works, textiles, clothing items and household wares were available ready-made, both new and used and in varying prices, for a range of consumers through street-sellers, local shopkeepers and auctions. Here, a sixteenth century peddler is selling cheap prints, while a number of household articles are available at the 15th-century Bolognese marketplace. Many families had to pawn some of their personal belongings, in order to borrow money for their purchases. Pawnbrokers had a common presence in the local marketplaces, as appears from the detail of the marketplace image.

Book launch

Please join me and Prof Evelyn Welch, Prof John Styles and Dr Patricia Allerston for a launch of my book “Artisans, Objects and Everyday Life in Renaissance Italy: The Material Culture of the Middling Class”, hosted by Aalto University. The event will take place on Zoom on Wednesday, 3 February 2021 at 17:30 GMT at:

I would have very much liked to offer you a glass of sparkling wine and celebrate the event with a toast, but, since this is not possible now, you are welcome to bring along a glass of wine, a cup of tea or anything else, if you like.

There will be a 50% discount code available for anyone wishing to buy the book.

Join the event by clicking the image.


Image 2: Vittore Carpaccio, Birth of Mary, ca. 1502–1504. Oil on canvas, 129 x 128 cm. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Image 3: Vincenzo Campi, St. Martin’s Day, also known as Trasloco (‘Moving Home’), post 1572. Painting, 227 x 163 cm. Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona.

Image 4: Inventory of the Pietro, a baker in San Pietro alle Scale, 1542. Archivio di stato di Siena, Curia del Placito 706, no. 62, 8 February, 1541/42.

Image 5: Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Inventory of a Legacy of the Magistrates, late 15th century. Fresco.Florence, San Martino dei Buononimi.

Image 6: Giovanni di Ser Giovanni (Lo Scheggia), The Story of Trajan and the Widow (detail). Cassone panel, tempera & gold on panel, ca.1450. Private Collection.

Image 7: Listing of dowry items belonging to the wife of Salvatore sculptor, CDP 677, 13, 1, 1528.

Image 8: Master of the Life of the Virgin, The Birth of Mary (detail), 1470–1480. Oil on panel. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Image 9: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government (detail of a shoe shop), ca. 1337–40. Fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

Image 10: Lorenzo Lotto, Scenes from the Life of Saint Barbara (detail), ca. 1523–24. Fresco. Trescore Balneario, Suardi Chapel.

Image 11: Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor, 1565–70. Oil on canvas, 100 x 77 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Image 12: Anonymous, Print Seller after Annibale Carracci, 17th century. Etching, 28 × 19 cm. Musée du Louvre, D.A.G., Paris.

Image 13 & 14: Manuscript illumination from Matricola della società dei drappieri, 1411. Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna.

Historical knitting through citizen science

Knitted stockings were one of the important Renaissance technological innovations. While woollen stockings were widely available across social classes, stockings knitted of fine silk yarn were expensive luxury products and one of the key fashion accessories worn by the European elites from the sixteenth century onwards.

William Hogarth: Detail from The Tavern Scene (A Rake’s Progress), between 1732 and 1735. Oil on canvas. London: Sir John Sloane’s Museum.

Pair of 17th century knitted silk stockings, Turku Cathedral Museum.

The popularity of both woollen and silk stockings is indicated by the fact that, already at the end of the 15th century, there were thousands of professional knitters in Europe. Yet, despite their prominence in this period, there is no clear surviving documentation about how hand-knitted stockings were made or what they actually looked and felt like in real life. Restoring this lost historical material world by reconstruction can make invisible history visible and bring these items and the technology to life.


Reconstruction through citizen science

In 2019, our Refashioning project set up a citizen science project, in order to examine the process of stocking-making through historical reconstruction.

Towards this end, we recruited 35 voluntary knitters to carry out three different reconstruction projects. One of these was to remake a simple artisan stocking based on examples found in excavations in Copenhagen; another one to create a stocking based on an early modern English recipe titled “The order how to knit a Hose” (1655), and the third one to replicate an extant hand-knitted 17th-century silk stocking, today conserved at the Turku Cathedral Museum.

Citizen science pre-holiday party in 2019.

The most ambitious and complex of these projects was the reconstruction of the fine silk stocking, because making a fine silk stocking required a high level of skill. Together with the group of our knitters, we set ourselves to work out collectively how we could replicate the Turku stocking as accurately as possible. So how can one reconstruct a historical silk stocking?


Reconstructing a knitted silk stocking

Our silk stocking reconstruction project started at the Turku Cathedral Museum where our team members first measured the stocking and took close up images of it. With the museum’s permission and the help of the conservator, we were also allowed to take a tiny fibre sample at the edge of the stocking so that we could do scientific testing. With these technical details, our knitters began to examine the structure of the stocking and work on the knitting pattern.

Taking a sample from the stocking.

Two women studying a magnified picture of a knitted stocking.

Our pattern group members counted every stitch of the original stockings to create the knitting instructions for the reconstruction.

After this initial stage of technical analysis, our team began investigating where we could find right kind of silk yarn. We carried out a fibre analysis at Aalto University nanomicrosocpic lab of the original sample that we had taken in Turku. The results showed that the stocking had been made of bombyx mori -a traditional silk that had been produced by mulberry silkworms.

Silk yarn form Nido di Seta.

We found a silk farm in Calabria, Italy, called Nido di Seta, that still produces hand-reeled bombyx mori silk, and we travelled there to investigate how this silk was actually made, and how many silk cocoons should be used at once to get the right thickness for our silk yarn. We were also able to order our silk yarn for the stockings from this farm.

At the same time, we also tried to figure out what colour the stocking had orginally been. We sent our fibre sample for our colleague at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and he made a dye and mordant analysis of the sample. The results showed that the stocking had been originally black according to the fashion of the time.

When all these preparations had been completed, our knitters could finally begin to try the silk and the knitting needles, and start knitting the stockings. We also asked them to take notes during the knitting process so that we would have some experiential documentation to analyse after the project. 

Now that the project has been running for 1,5 years, we have already nine ready-made stockings. The only thing we still have to do to the stockings is the finishing processes and dyeing.


What have we learned from this project so far?

This project has shown that knitting a silk stocking was technologically challenging. It takes about 200 hours, or even longer, to knit just one silk stocking. This is because the yarn is very thin and the stocking is knitted using very fine 1mm knitting needles.

Secondly, we learned that getting optimal kind and quality of silk yarn was challenging at a time when silk was processed by hand from the beginning to the end. Our own silk yarn, for example, was not of the highest quality, because the summer was quite rainy and as a result part of the silk was glued together, as we can see in this picture.

Thirdly, we have learned that dyeing was a challenging process in the seventeenth century. Good intensive black in this period, when all colours were dyed using natural dyestuffs, was one of the most difficult colours to achieve. The dye experiments that were carried out in a Burgundian Blacks research workshop , organized in by the ERC funded ARTECHNE project and Claudy Jonstra in the Netherlands in 2019, for example, showed how a black that was initially beautiful had turned into brown overnight.

Dyed stockings at the Burgundian Blacks Collaboratory workshop.

In the light of these material and technological challenges, it is not surprising that silk stockings were expensive luxury products and one of the most important innovations of fashion that high-ranking elites used to set themselves off from the rest of the crowd in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Even though the laborious production process and the high cost made silk stockings rare among our artisans, our data shows that sometimes even lower ranking artisans and shopkeepers were able to wear silk stockings. For example, Giovanni Neri, a shopkeeper from the neighbourhood of Pantaneto in Siena, who died in 1588 in, owned a pair of white stockings ‘of silk and knitted’ that belonged to his wife[1].

Notes and further reading:

[1] Archivio di stato, Siena, Curia del Placito 263, 188, 76v.

Carlo Belfani, Calze e maglie. Moda e innovazione nell’industria italiana della maglieria dal Rinascimento a oggi (Mantua, 2005).

Andrea Caracausi, ‘Beaten Children and Women’s work in Early Modern Italy’, Past and Present, no. 222 (Feb 2014), pp. 95–128.

Jeremy Farrell, Socks & Stockings (London, 1992).



Farewell to Michele!

Our Refashioning project is way over half-way through and it has come time to say farewell to the second member of our project, our postdoc researcher and dear friend Dr. Michele Robinson.

During her 2,5-year fellowship in our project, Michele has been leading our project work on prints and printed information of dress. She has identified and documented hundreds of early modern recipes that related to materials and making, such as recipes and instructions of how to dye fabrics or skeins of wool, remove stains from crimson silks and linens, and how to care for textiles at home. Many of these recipes were included in ‘Books of secrets’, also available for ordinary consumers in cheap printed media.

The dataset that Michele created, consisting of 677 recipes, many of them transcribed, provides an important basis for our material experimentation and reconstruction.

Paula Hohti Erichsen, Michele Robinson and Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen studying a recipe book at the Wellcome Collection.

We first tested these in 2019,  when Michele organized an international two-day experimental workshop at Aalto University, titled ‘Dirty Laundry’. This allowed us and our guests to experiment with early modern recipes  for stain-removal, home-based dyeing, and keeping textiles clean. Michele has recently written  a journal article on the topic, which will be published Open Access in Costume.

In addition to providing important data for our project, Michele has carried out extensive research on early modern artisan dress and fashion, based on Italian sources. She has combined various archival sources in a particularly creative way to explore themes, such as cross-cultural influences in artisanal dress, and the presence and cultural meaning of pearls among artisan groups across Siena, Florence and Venice, 1550–1650. As part of this research work, Michele organized many important related academic events, including a workshop in London in 2018, where we discussed our documentary sources and studied early modern recipe books at the Wellcome collection, as well as an extensive four-panel session on lower class dress at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Conference in Toronto in 2019 where our project presented the preliminary results of our work for the first time. These events have offered us important platforms to discuss the use of our sources and contest our ideas on dress and fashion at lower social levels.

Michele has been the heart and soul of our project. Her extraordinary ability to continuously invent and introduce new ideas in a creative way, to carry out academic discussions in an intellectual, inspiring and constructive manner, and to produce research results of an extraordinary high standard, has shaped the direction of our work in important ways and given our project depth that it would have otherwise lacked.

In addition to her academic contribution, Michele has had an important management role in our project. Her amazing ability to be always prepared, organized, and on time meant that she not only assisted the PI in managing the overall project, but she also helped many other team members to plan their work and get things done.

Michele has been a wonderful team member. Her kindness and sense of humour has made it such a pleasure to work with her.

Dear Michele, we all thank you for your contribution and friendship.  Our whole team wishes you all the best of luck for your future, and we hope to see you back in Europe very soon. We will miss you very much!