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The Renaissance of the Mask: from plague doctor beaks to velvet visards

2 December 2020

2020 is unlikely to be recorded in the history books as a particularly fashionable year, as many of us have turned to neck-up ‘zoom-ready’ looks, elasticated waistbands, and slippers for comfort. But it has been sartorially remarkable for the almost-overnight success of one formerly niche accessory: the mask. As countries mandate their use in public spaces to combat the spread of Covid-19, many of us have started to wear masks for the first time, and they have become an essential part of one’s outfit. Choice of materials and maker has become important as consumers are chastised for their mask selection. Designers have capitalised on the opportunity to brand and monetise the public health crisis, while those of us with sewing skills have started cottage industry production lines to provide them for friends and family. Single use non-biodegradable masks are filling landfills by the billion, and the medical industry is asking us to reserve the highest quality of N-95 masks for healthcare professionals. Cloth masks with bright prints, beaded ties and even ruffled edges have become big business, and, you can turn to Vogue to discover the most stylish (and expensive) options on the market. Wearing – or not wearing – a mask is a political, medical, and ethical act, but it can also be a fashion statement. Masks might be ‘new’ accessories in the wardrobes of this generation, but they have a long history.


Masks for Plague

Doctor Schnabel von Rom,’ (Nuremberg: Paulus Fürst, 1656), engraving, 30.1 x 21.6cm, British Museum, 1876,0510.512 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

Perhaps the most iconic early modern masks are the beak-shaped facial coverings associated with plague doctors. Purportedly designed by Charles Delorme (1584–1678), physician to three French kings (Henry IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV), early modern PPE comprised a long overcoat, gloves, boots, a waxed leather hat, goggles, and a conical mask filled with perfume.[1] These masks responded to the belief that plague and other diseases were spread through pestilential air or ‘miasma’, which if inhaled could corrupt the body.[2] Fragrant herbs and vinegar could counteract this foul air, and so the mask’s function was to filter scents. But there is little evidence that Delorme or his peers actually used such masks, and the earliest account of the use of a beak mask comes from the 1661 Danish account of the 1656 plague of Rome. In a description of clothing worn by doctors during epidemics, the Copenhagen doctor Thomas Bartholin (1616–1680) wrote that plague doctors in Rome wore pressed linen garments in order that disease not stick to their clothes, and a beak mask to hold fragrance. A broadside depicting an Italian doctor named “Doctor Beak” (Doctor Schnabel) in this garb was also printed in Nuremberg in 1656, suggesting that this Italian plague outfit was a peculiarity in Northern Europe, and was perhaps even a source of satire. Adopted as a costume in the Commedia dell’arte and at the Venice carnival, and represented in the popular video game Assassin’s Creed, the plague doctor mask has become a culturally dominant image of the early modern mask, even if there are few contemporary sources that corroborate its use in Europe.

A digital reconstruction of the Ingolstadt mask. You can explore the mask in 3D here.

The material record is just as problematic. Fewer than five plague doctor masks are preserved in European museum collections, some of which are missing and all of which have somewhat dubious provenance. Masks held by the Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin and in the German Medical Museum in Ingolstadt are said to date to the late seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, although both were purchased in the early 2000s, and there is no evidence that these types of masks were ever used in Germany or Austria, so whether these are costumes, forgeries, or the genuine article still needs to be determined.[3]


Masks for Fashion and Protection

While more research is needed to sort historical fact from fiction regarding plague masks, we do know the early modern men and women wore masks for protection, style, and pleasure. Looking through inventories in the Refashioning the Renaissance database, we discover that some Italian artisans owned masks during the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. The 1607 inventory of Florentine carpenter Tommaso Guadagnini, for example, records that he owned a black satin mask (‘Una maschera di raso nero’) and the Florentine clog-maker Jacopo di Bastiano had a black velvet mask in his possession (‘Una maschera di velluto nero’) when he died in 1609.[4] These stylish masks were probably constructed of pasteboard or leather and covered with black silk or velvet, making them a relatively affordable and highly visible way of wearing fine fabrics without having to purchase the yards of textile required for a full garment.[5]

Woman in a black visard, Album Amicorum of a German Soldier, 1595, LACMA M.91.71.7.

As Randall Holme explained in his encyclopaedic The Academie of Armory, there were two kinds of commonly worn fashionable face coverings – one kind ‘covered only the Brow, Eyes and Nose, through the holes they saw their way; the rest of the Face was covered with a Chin-cloth.’ Holme tells us that these kinds of masks were usually square with a flat top or rounded, and were ‘generally made of Black velvet,’ just like Jacopo the Clog-maker’s mask. The other type, called a ‘vizard,’ covered the “whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the Nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside over against the mouth.”[6] A few examples of these masks, still with their small beads attached, survive both in full size and in miniature. Any discomfort we experience breathing through a cotton mask held on with elastic is relative when you consider that the alternative could be gripping a bead between your front teeth!

Visard made of velvet and silk over pressed paper lining with a black glass bead found in the wall of a 16thC building in Northamptonshire England, Portable Antiquities Scheme, NARC-151A67.[7]

Visards were fashionable accessories, designed to hide their wearer’s face. Samuel Pepys recorded that on Friday 12 June 1663, he and his wife saw a play at the Royal Theatre. Just as the theatre began to fill up, they noticed that Lady Mary Cromwell ‘put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.’ Straight after the play, Pepys took his wife to the Royal Exchange shops where she purchased ‘a vizard for herself.’[8]

Woman on a horse wearing black visard, Album Amicorum of a German Soldier, 1595, LACMA M.91.71.28.

Worn indoors, these masks might conceal specific facial expressions, allowing their wearer a degree of privacy, but outdoors they had an additional function. Holme tells us that masks helped protect their wearer from the sun, enabling them to maintain a pale complexion.


Masks for Mischief

Pietro Longhi, Pietro Longhi, The Perfume Seller, c.1757, Oil on canvas, Venice, Ca’ Rezzonico.

As they concealed their wearer’s face, mask-wearing was also associated with bad behaviour. Italian cities passed laws about mask wearing as far back as 1268, when people wearing masks were forbidden from throwing eggs (both real eggs and novelty eggs filled with perfume). James Johnson has argued that masking was often a conservative act, ‘preserving distance, guarding status, and permitting contact among unequals through fictive concealment.’[9] But this did not stop critics from assuming that mischief-making and mask-wearing went hand-in-hand, and in 1608, a Venetian statute prohibited anyone from going around the city either on foot or by boat while wearing a mask, except during carnival. In his 1585 description of ‘All the Professions of the World,’ Tomaso Garzoni allied masks with deceit: “Nothing here is true or real but instead false and masked.” Garzoni despaired at the way that masks enabled people to disrupt the social order: ‘Don’t you realise that masks … teach artisans to leave their workshops? And doctors to leave their studies? And scholars to pawn their books to visit prostitutes?’ Garzoni even suggested that masks were invented by Satan, who had appeared in disguise to Eve in the Garden of Eden.[10] A satirical Dutch print from c.1600 makes a similar point by depicting devils dressing women in masks and farthingale rolls. In the very centre of the scene, a masked devil holds a pair of shears and a pile of black round facemasks, allying mask-making with demonic deception.

Maerten de Vos, ‘The Vanity of Women: Masks and Bustles,’ ca. 1600, engraving on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001.341.1 (Image in the Public Domain).



Masks were actually made by skilled professional craftsmen. In Venice, where by the late seventeenth century masks were worn in public six months of the year, the maskmakers (maschereri) were a faction of the Painters Guild and dated back to 1436. While many visards were simply made, a number of early modern artist treatises describe complex methods of making masks for costume, carnival, and for sculpture. The fifteenth century Florentine Cennino Cennini described how to take a life mask using an iron hoop, plaster of Paris, and small brass breathing tubes.[11] In his Vocabolario Toscano dell’arte del disegno (1681), Baldinucci described making masks out of cartapesta (soaked paper pulp)[12] The anonymous author of BnF Ms. Fr.640 even offered a quick method for making ‘Impromptu Masks’: ‘Mold some paper & put it on the face of somebody who is making an ugly grimace. Let it dry & take your pattern to paint from it.’[13]

Impromptu Masks made according to the instructions from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 by Juliet Baines, Lynn van Rijnsoever, Herre de Vries and Fleur van der Woude, Students in the MA Conservation and restoration of cultural heritage – University of Amsterdam Course: Kunsttechnologisch Bronnenonderzoek, Spring 2015, Instructor: Dr. Marjolijn Bol. Photograph: Tianna Uchacz.

Through our archival research, the Refashioning the Renaissance project has also uncovered a source from Venice that shows how new and old masks might be sold ready-made. A 1555 inventory of the belongings of Venetian rag-dealer Antonio Rossatti q.Bernadini reveals that he had a whole store of new and second-hand masks in his shop, including 81 ‘Sailor’s Masks,’ (mascare da matelo) 75 ‘Masks with beards,’ (mascare con la barba), 120 used women’s masks (mascare da dona usade), 41 ‘Very old’ masks (mascare strazade), 154 cut masks (mascare taiade), and 42 masks for young people (maschere da zovene).[14]

Early modern men and women wore masks despite social critique, and experimented with different shapes, styles, and materials. Now that the mask is experiencing its own renaissance in fashion, we can look to these former styles for creative inspiration. The next time you put on your cloth and elastic face mask, imagine swapping it for a mask decorated with a false beard, or popping a glass bead into your mouth and heading out the door in a velvet-faced visard.

[1] Estelle Paranque, ‘The Celebrity Physician and the Plague’, Wellcome Collection blog, 23 June 2020.

[2] Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy, (Oxford, 2013), 77.

[3] M.M. Ruisinger, ‘Die Pestarztmaske im Deutschen Medizinhistorischen Museum Ingolstadt’ N.T.M. 28, 235–252 (2020); Stefan Bresky and Sabine Witt: ‘Vorsicht, Ansteckung?’ Historische Urteilskraft, vol. 2, 2020, 94–97 and the abridged version of the article on the DHM Blog.

[4] Magistrato dei pupilli, Archivio di Stato, Firenze, 2716, 131v and Magistrato dei pupilli, Archivio di Stato, Firenze, 2716, 271r.

[5] Evelyn Welch and Juliet Claxton, ‘Easy Innovation in Early Modern Europe’, in Fashioning the Early Modern: Dress, Textiles, and Innovation in Europe, 1500–1800, ed. Evelyn Welch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 87–110.

[6] Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory, or, A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon… (Chester, 1688), Book 3, 13.

[7] For more, see here.

[8] 12 June 1663, The Diary of Samuel Pepys ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, (University of California Press, 2000), 181.

[9] James H. Johnson, Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (University of California Press, 2011), xii.

[10] Tomaso Garzoni, The Universal Assembly of All the Professions in the World, Noble and Ignoble (1585), as cited in Johnson, Venice Incognito, 79–80.

[11] The Craftsman’s Handbook, Il Libro dell’ Arte by Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini. Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 124–7.

[12] Filippo Baldinucci, Vocabolario toscano dell’Arte del disegno, (Florence: Per Santi Franchi, 1681), 29.

[13] Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020), Folio 84r.

[14] Archivio di Stato, Venezia, Cancelleria inferiore, Miscellanea, 39, 44, 1555. 12v–13r.

Una corona di ambra falsa: Imitating Amber using Early Modern Recipes

To make cleere stones of Amber:

Seeth Turpentine in a pan leaded, with a little cotton, stirring it until it be as thick as paste, and then poure it into what you will, and set it in the sunne eight dayes, / and it will be cleaer and hard inough. You may make of this little balles, haftes for knives, and manie other things.[1]



Take the yelkes of sixteene egges, and beat them well with a spoone: then take two ounces of Arabicke, an ounce of the gumme of Cherrie Trees: make these gummes into a powder, and mire them with the yelkes of the egges, let the Gummes melt well, and poure them into a pot well leaded. This done, set them six daies in the sunne, and they will become hard, and shine like glasse, and when you rub them, they will take up a straw unto them, as other amber stones doe.[2]

These two recipes, taken from the 1595 English translation of Girolamo Ruscelli’s wildly popular Secrets of Alexis Piemontese, promise seemingly simple ways to make amber stones using turpentine and cotton, or eggs and gum. Part of the section of Secrets called “Divers waies for to die threed, yarne, or linen cloth, teaching how to make the dying of colours, and also to die bones and hornes, and to make them soft, unto what forme and fashion a man will,” this imitation amber is presented as a decorative and stylish stone, suitable for decorating knives or forming “little balls” presumably to set in jewellery.

Last month, the Refashioning team tried out these two recipes as part of a workshop I organised about Imitations in Early Modern Fashion. Before we even began the workshop, my first challenge was sourcing historically appropriate materials. For example, what does Ruscelli mean by Turpentine? And where to find cherry tree gum? Through Instagram, I managed to find an artist who had collected some cherry tree gum last year in England, and was fortunate to be able to buy some from her. As for Turpentine, lengthy searches of scientific literature and many hours of watching YouTube tutorials about varnish making revealed that early modern turpentines came from a variety of trees, but were much thicker than our painting supply store distilled versions. I was able to source two different kinds of thick turpentines to experiment with: Venetian Turpentine, and Canada Balsam (which resembles the Strasbourg Fir Balsam used in early modern Europe, that is currently in low supply). More worryingly, turpentine has a very low flash point, and so heating it up is a dangerous challenge. We were lucky to be able to conduct our experiments in Aalto’s Biofilia lab, where we could carefully control the temperature and work in a fume hood.

The Refashioning Team and invited guest Timothy McCall, with James Evans (lab manager) at Aalto Biofilia.

The ingredients assembled ready for the two amber experiments.

The first recipe, using turpentine and cotton, was rather successful. The turpentine was incredibly sticky, and once we started to heat it up in the fume hood we were nervous about it igniting, but the smells were lovely, evoking a pine forest. The turpentines deepened in hue and became more viscous as they were heated, and the cotton seemed to provide some amber-like striations, as well as giving the gooey turpentine more structural integrity. The recipe suggests that once you have formed the mixture into balls that you leave it to dry in the sunshine for eight days, but in the absence of Italian sunshine in Helsinki, we left it indoors. Even two weeks later, the “amber” is a little sticky, but the colour and tone of both the Venetian Turpentine and the Canada Balsam is a convincing substitute for a piece of “true amber” purchased from a stone seller. The success of this recipe is perhaps unsurprising – “true amber” is fossilized resin, so the scent and appearance of heated turpentines would be very similar.

Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen pours Venetian Turpentine into a beaker.

Can you spot the true amber? (Back left: Canada Balsam Imitation, Back Right: Venice Turpentine Imitation, Front: “True” Baltic Amber).

The second recipe, entitled “Another,” comes immediately after the first in Piemontese, but its results were very different. We decided to halve the recipe (sixteen eggs seemed excessive, and we wanted to conserve our limited cherry gum supply), but some of the instructions were hard to interpret – how were the gums supposed to “melt well” once already mixed with eggs? The eggs started to scramble in the heat, and we ended up making a sort of sticky cake. This raised more questions – Given that the first recipe specifies that the stones will be “cleere” was the recipe right to call for egg yolks instead of egg whites? Should we have melted the gums before mixing them into the egg, even though Ruscelli seems pretty explicit about the order? How is the egg supposed to set? The mixture looked very different to the first amber – it was not clear, but opaque and glossy with little spots of gum in it (which might have imitated a stone, but was certainly not clear amber). After a few days, this “amber” had gone mouldy, and had to be discarded.

This second egg and gum amber seemed to cook. More research and trials needed!

Such outcomes prompt many new research questions about materials, process, and intended results. But this experiment, part of a series of hands-on investigations into imitation materials used in fashionable clothing and accessories in the early modern period, helped us to interrogate what it means to successfully imitate a material. Amber was valued in the early modern period for its smell, sheen, colour, and rarity, but intriguingly Ruscelli offers another means of testing the material in the second recipe. He notes that not only with these imitations be hard and “shiny like glasse,” but it will also be able to hold a charge: “when you rubbe them, they will take up a straw unto them, as other Amber stones doe.” Nowadays, scientists recognise this as the triboelectric effect, and even today experts still recommend that buyers of amber test that the stones are “real” by rubbing them and testing for a charge. Ruscelli’s suggestion shows that these kinds of material properties and responses were valued in an imitation as much as appearance. Any imitation stone that could mimic this effect would be a very successful piece of fake amber. It is important to note Ruscelli’s recipes do not suggest a binary opposition of “real” and “fake,” but compare the created stone to “other Amber stones,” so we must keep in mind that mimetic materials were not always considered inferior, and in fact could be highly valued for their artificially crafted properties.

Sophie Pitman demonstrates the triboelectric effect of amber, filmed by Piia Lempiäinen


Found in the Baltic regions then known as Prussia, and traded through Lübeck and Bruges, amber was a rare commodity in early modern Europe. As Rachel King has argued, amber objects in early modern Italy represented a “relationship to the north,” as to acquire amber in Southern Europe, you either needed to purchase it through well-connected mediators, or be given it by a generous gift-giver.[3] King suggests that amber beads arrived in Italy unstrung, and were then assembled into corone (rosaries), made into buttons, or attached to garments.[4] The Italian market for amber rosaries and other accessories grew from the mid-sixteenth century, probably because the Italian sumptuary laws lifted the complete ban on wearing amber in the 1490s. By the 1630s, people were hunting for amber in Italy, to apparent success in Sicily and Bologna (King suggests that most of these finds were not “true amber” and many coincided with archaeological excavations of ancient works), so given the popularity of the material and its relative scarcity in the region, it seems no surprise that Italians would have desired a way to create amber in the workshop such as the recipe offered by Ruscelli.[5]

Archival evidence suggests that amber, including “false” amber, was owned and worn by members of the artisan classes in the early modern period. The Refashioning the Renaissance Project database of over 600 artisan inventories from Florence, Siena, and Venice contains many mentions of amber, and one explicit mention of false amber. The 1646 inventory of Bernardino Ciampi, a cutlery-maker (coltalinaio) from Siena, records that he owned a rosary of fake amber with two crosses and silver medals (Una corona di ambra falsa con due crocette e medaglie di argento).[6] Given that he was a cutlery maker himself, perhaps he might have been inspired by Ruscelli’s suggestion to try making “ambra falsa” for knife handles, as well as for a rosary?

Knife and fork with carved amber handle in the form of a man, 17th Century, German, 16cm, Rijksmuseum, BK-NM-567&8.

Some of the artisans in the Refashioning the Renaissance database also owned amber objects that were real (or presumed real by those taking the inventories). A Sienese cap-maker owned amber paternoster beads as well as a rosary of amber and coral with a St Jacomo of amber (1 coroneta de ambra chani et corali cum un san Jacomo de ambro in un bosolo).[7] A butcher from Florence owned a black amber rosary with silver buttons or beads (1  corona di ambre nere tramezzato di bottoncini di argento, sette bottoni grandi di argento).[8] Giovanni Meulo, a tailor from Sienna, owned a pearl necklace with black amber buttons or beads (Una collanina di perle a postine con bottoncini di ambra nera). In Italian, the gemstone jet is referred to as “black amber” or ambra nera. Made from highly-pressurized and decomposed fossilized wood, jet’s Italian name etymologically connects it to amber. Such naming calls attention to the fact both stones come from trees (wood and resin).[9] Francesco Sala, a Venetian wool manufacturer, even owned gold and amber earrings.[10]

A strand of beads, possibly including amber stones. Detail from Petrus Christus (active by 1444-1475/6), A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, oil on oak panel, 100.1 x 85.8cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975.1.110).

By examining archival sources alongside recipe books and surviving objects, and reconstructing processes of making “amber stones,” we can start to appreciate the fashionable materials of early modern Europe not just as commodities, but as stylish objects that evoked craft skill, international trade, and sensory experiences. Even on our first attempt at following the two recipes, we managed to create some successful amber-like stones with the first recipe, and with further trials might be able to understand how to interpret the second egg and gums recipe and create something equally successful. Imitations of fine materials like amber were not merely inferior or deceptive substitutions, but could be convincing alternatives that offered similar tactile and sensory experiences and visual effects.

[1] Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of Alexis: containing many excellent remedies against divers diseases, wounds, and other accidents, translated by William Ward, (London: 1595), part III, 251v-252r. The text was first translated in English from 1562-66.

[2] Ibid, 252r.

[3] Rachel King, “Whose Amber? Changing Notions of Amber’s Geographical Origin”, Gemeine Artefakte. Zur gemeinschaftsbildenden Funktion von Kunstwerken in den vormodernen Kulturräumen Ostmitteleuropas: Ostblick 2; 2014, v 1618- 8101

[4] Rachel King, in Christine Göttler and Wietse de Boer (eds). Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe. Intersections: Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2013, 153-176.

[5] Rachel King, “Finding the Divine Falernian: Amber in Early Modern Italy,” V&A Online Journal, 5, 2013,

[6] 1646 Inventory of Bernardino Ciampi, Archivio di Stato, Siena, Curia del Placito, 283, 273, f.134v.

[7] 1551 Inventory of Antonia Baldigara r.ta Giovanni Marco q. Nicolò, a cap-maker. Archivio di Stato, Venezia, Cancelleria inferiore, Miscellanea, 38, 57, 3v, 4r

[8] 1570 Inventory of Della Casa, a butcher. Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, 2709, fol. 19r.

[9] 1637 Inventory of Giovanni Meulo, a tailor. Archivio di Stato, Siena, Curia del Placito, 279, 29, fol. 115v. James Howell, Lexicon Tetraglotton: An English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary (London, 1660), 330v. Thanks to Katherine Tycz for this reference.

[10] 1640 Inventory of Francesco Sala, a wool manufacturer. Archivio di Stato, Giudice di Petizion, Inventari, 357, 24, Venezia, fol. 8v

Put a stamp on it: early modern embossed textiles

20 December 2019

During the early modern period, people embraced decorative embellishments on clothing like never before. Glance at any portrait from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and you will see clothing with a wide range of surface decorations ranging from elaborate geometric and floral patterns, large slashes and small pinks cut into fabrics, to applied ribbons, braid, pearls, gemstones and spangles.

One method of fashionable surface decoration was stamping or ‘printing’ into textiles, embossing motifs into a fabric using heat and pressure. It seems to have been a technique embraced by the artisanal classes, for we find dozens of mentions of fabrics described as ‘stampato’ (stamped) in inventories from Florence, Siena, and Venice, particularly after the turn of the seventeenth century. For example, in 1627 the Florentine Linen merchant Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri owned a pair of stamped sleeves and a white silk doublet that was both stamped and slashed, and furnished with gold ribbon (‘Un giubbone di raso bianco stampato et trinciato fornito con un nastrino d’oro’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, 2718/2, 13v, 1627). An inventory taken on 27 February 1634 recorded that the tailor Piero di Giovanni had 30 braccia of yellow stamped mockado in a nasty condition in his shop (‘30 braccia di mucaiardo stampato giallo cattivo’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r). Giovanni also owned a doublet stamped with waves (‘stampato a onde’).

One page of the inventory of Piero di Giovanni, 27 February 1634, Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r

My current research on imitation textiles explores these stamped fabrics, which survive in relatively large numbers in museum collections. By the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, stamping became firmly associated with furnishing fabrics, so often these textiles are assumed to be fragments of wall hangings or furniture, but I am interested in finding out the uses of stamped textiles in clothing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Extant textiles show a wide range of stamped designs ranging from the relatively small and simple floral motifs to large fleurs-de-lis and heraldic crests. Which designs were used for clothing, and what was the cultural importance of this method of design?

Fragment, 17th century, silk, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of John Pierpont Morgan; 1902-1-462-a,b

One fabric that was often stamped to great effect was velvet, a fabric with a raised pile usually made of silk, but for those lower down the economic and social spectrum often made of mixed fibres such as wool, linen, or hair. Stamped patterns could imitate more costly methods of patterning, such as woven brocades or cut pile velvets, as in this example.

Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin, linen, and buckram, Victoria and Albert Museum, 348&A-1905 and a detail of the stamped satin.

But stamped fabrics were also enjoyed in their own right, as the method provided a means of changing the way light glances off the surface of the textile, as was likely the effect of Giovanni’s wavy doublet. The effect is strikingly different on soft wool, smooth silk, and plush velvets. A white stamped satin doublet and hose from the Victoria and Albert Museum gives us an idea as to what Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri’s stamped silk doublet might have looked like, and shows that sometimes stamping was a technique not used to imitate woven or cut pile fabrics but instead was embraced for its ability to give texture to a shiny satin.

‘Découper et Gaufreur,’ in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, L’Encyclopédie. [38], Arts de l’habillement : [recueil de planches sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts méchaniques, avec leur explication, (Paris, 1751-1780), Plate II.

In the eighteenth century, a rolling press to print or emboss pieces of stuffs, like velvet vests (‘pour gaufrer des morceaux d’étoffes, comme vestes de velours’) was included in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1780). Detailed illustrations show how fabric is pressed between one plain roller and an engraved roller to imprint a repeating design across the upper surface of the textile. In earlier periods stamping was probably done by hand, using heated metal stamps. During a workshop at the School of Historical Dress in London, we experimented with stamping some velvet using the tines of a fork, heated over a hot plate. At first it was hard to calculate the correct amount of heat to create a clear imprint in the pile without burning the fibres, but once we had practiced a few times on offcuts of velvet we felt confident enough to stamp a hatched pattern quite successfully into our doublets.

Using a fork heated over a hot plate, we experimented with stamping a simple pattern onto velvet at the School of Historical Dress in August 2019. Photo by Sophie Pitman.

Explorations into these kinds of innovative, imitative, and inexpensive methods of decoration in clothing enable us to reconstruct the ways non-elite members of society were engaging with fashionable clothing in the early modern period. Our experiments with stamping will be published and put on display in due course, so check back on the Refashioning website for more information over the coming year.