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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!

At home with a tailor – a multifunctional workspace

In 1622, the tailor guild’s statutes in Elsinore stated that customers should ‘get their finished work in agreed time’ and tailors were not allowed to have unfinished work laying around for too long. If the tailor was too slow, the owner of the commission could complain to a guild meeting, and the master had to pay fine not only to the guild, but also the the guild’s poor. The only acceptable reason for slow work was ‘illness or other legal matters’.[1] In case of complaints from customers, the work was to be inspected by two other master tailors, and if the garment was found ‘poorly sewn’, damaged, or if the tailor had ‘taken too much off than necessary’, the tailor had to keep the work and pay the expenses himself.[2]

A tailor, from Das Ständebuch by Jost Amman, 1560. Image: Wellcome Collection.

These passages originate from the tailor’s guild statutes in Elsinore and illustrate how tailors in Elsinore aimed to be reliable, trustworthy, and perform their best work. But the 1622 statutes do not only state the process of working as a tailor, they also regulated how finished garments should be sold in town. According to the statutes, a tailor could only sell garments from the ‘one place where he himself lives’.[3] This could explain why the tailor Jacob Robbersen, who was a member of the tailor’s guild, had a wooden board hanging outside his door, but other than that artisan inventories do not give much evidence on the physical space around the production of clothing.[4]  


The place of work

In light of the Refashioning the Renaissance, inventories are especially good at illustrating artisan’s personal wardrobes. However, a unique inventory from a tailor in Elsinore gives us also insight into the work environment around the production of clothes.

Page from the tailor’s guild statues in Elsinore, 1622.

An insight into a tailors work environment in the household is demonstrated in the inventory of Peter Folckertzen, a tailor whose inventory was drawn up on a summer day in 1650.[5] The inventory does not only give us an understanding of the private possessions found in the household, but it also sheds light on the space that they occupied when the inventory was made. This can give us a sense of the daily life in the household, and how a tailor’s work was performed in this period.

Page from Peter Folckertzen’s inventory from 1650.

From the inventory, we see that prior to his death Peter lived in Elsinore, where he owned a property in Frands Skriverstræde and a garden in town. The house consisted of several rooms, including a small chamber, a steggers (a sort kitchen), sallen (a larger room) and a basement that kept six empty beer barrels. Peter did not live in the property by himself. He oversaw a household consisting of himself, his wife, their children, and his journeymen who also lived in his household. From the inventory we also get information on his family relations as it was noted that Peter’s heirs were in Holstein.


A room for daily life?

According to the inventory, it looks like sallen was a central space in the house. For example, it housed materials for household work, such as spinning: two old rock (spinning wheels), two haspel (thread winder), and a garnvinde (yarn winder). But it also seems to be the place where Peter and his two journeymen worked during the day producing clothing. This is illustrated by the furnishing of the room, which included two shredderstoele (tailor chairs) and a verckfad, an artefact to store needles and threads. Furthermore, it contained an elaborate measuring stick, an alen (ell-wand) that was made of ebony ‘with some silver and bone’, three tailor’s scissors, one for each of his journeymen and one for himself, and a prenn, an awl to create holes in fabric. There were also four old særke (shifts), but nothing suggest that these were commissioned work.

Figure 5: The Tailor’s Workshop, 1661, Quiringh van Brekelenkam. Image: Rijksmuseum.

The room was not only reserved for work, as the furniture of the room suggest that it had a multifunctional purpose. Children and apprentices slept there, and closets, benches, and leather chairs indicate that it was a central room for daily life. Being both the place for work and sleep, it is noteworthy that sallen was the most decorated room in the house, which could suggest that this was also the room where guest and customers could be received. On the walls were five unidentified but valuable contrafeier, (often a portrait), and an old piece which was described as ‘about Juno, Venus and Pallas’. This painting hung together with five other small tauffler (paintings). It is likely that the painting named ‘about Juno, Venus and Pallas’ was similar to the painting with the same title, painted by Hans von Aachen in 1593, that depicts the three goddesses (figure 6). It was not only paintings that adorned the room. Hanging above the table was a small angel, and on the wall was a small mirror. Sallen was also the place for reading, writing, and entertainment, as it housed items such as 12 small old books, a Luther’s bible in German (folio), a board game, and an inkhorn.

Pallas Athena, Venus and Juno, Hans Von Aachen, 1593. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Other inventories give evidence on tools and property in relation to the craft, and few other inventories give evidence of textiles and unfinished work the tailors left when they died. However, in comparison they do not give such a vivid insight into the material surroundings of artisans working from home. Nevertheless, all these small evidences allow us not only to get insight into the household of artisans, but also—more importantly—show how work, such as making clothes, was an important task in the household occupying the central room in the house.

[1] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626-1641, 74 v

[2] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626-1641, 74 r

[3]Danish National Archives, Helsingør Rådstue, Tegnebøger 1626–1641, 74 r

[4] Danish National Archives, Helsingør Byfoged, Skifteprotokoller, 1621–1625, 521 v

[5] Danish National Archives, Helsingør byfoged, Skifteprotokoller, 1648-1650, 213 r – 215 v