ERC EU logo


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).



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.