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Translating Fashion

Customs and Clothes in the Age of Exploration

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, January/February 2005 | Volume 26, Number 1

"How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behavior every where," says Portia about her English suitor in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

As a maritime power located between east and west, Venice was particularly poised to be a crossroad of world cultures. In the fifteenth century its fleet of forty-five galleys employed thirty-six thousand sailors and traveled as far as Romania and Antwerp, stopping at hundreds of ports along the Mediterranean and European coasts. As the age of exploration expanded trade routes to the New World, Africa, and India, exotic goods, customs, and people converged on Venice.

Books of costumes became popular in Europe during the sixteenth century as international travel sparked an interest in the clothing of different cultures. A Venetian printmaker named Cesare Vecellio took it one step further: he included detailed social commentary, describing not only contemporary Venetians and Italians, but those from ancient Rome through the early Renaissance. Unlike other costume books, which focused on European costumes, Vecellio included examples of dress and customs from China, India, the Middle East, and Africa as well as commentary on the art and architecture of Venice.

"Fashion is his topic, but he is really more interested in traditional dress and the values it sums up," says Ann Rosalind Jones. Jones, who is professor of comparative literature at Smith College, and Margaret Rosenthal, who is associate professor of Italian at the University of Southern California, are translating Vecellio's 1590 monograph, Degli habiti antichi et moderni di viverse parti del mondo (The clothing, ancient and modern, of various parts of the world).

"Vecellio's original commentary has never been printed in full and translated into English," Rosenthal notes. "Dover Press published a book of the woodcuts but did not include any of Vecellio's social commentary. This is going to be a huge resource for costume historians, theater people, or anyone interested in the history of fashion, ethnography, or travel who will now be able to take the image of the woodcut and match it to a description."

The new publication will include twenty prints from the New World from Vecellio's second costume book, Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo (Clothing, ancient and modern, of the whole world), published in 1598.

"Every culture has some connection between the way people live and the clothes they wear," says Jones. "In medieval culture, clothes declared one's status and role in societyÑjust by looking at someone you could discern if they were married, widowed, a peasant, or a lord. People read each other's clothing and knew, for instance, if someone was dressed in certain colors, they were a page in the household of a certain noble. In a way, it was the equivalent of a uniform. And clothing was not just external. When a nun gets up in the morning and puts on a nun habit, she is going through a ritual that tells her who she is."

A change occurred during the Renaissance as the merchant class became the newly rich and could afford to buy luxury items such as velvet cloth and gold thread. People began dressing in the costume of the class they aspired to instead of the one they were born into. But Venetian society was still very ordered. In an introduction to the new translation, Jones and Rosenthenal explain that Vecellio arranged the illustrations of Venice according to "its social hierarchy, including the uniforms of every state official from the doge to the senators through the professionals and merchants down to the galley slave and the porter, and in the case of women, from the wife of the doge through noblewomen and artisans' wives down to prostitutes and state-supported orphans."

Vecellio gives a detailed description of the clothing of the Ammiraglio, the Admiral:

This Admiral wears a wide gown of pavonazzo wool, full-length, with sleeves that also reach the ground and are narrow at the top . . . an undergarment of the same color, though sometimes red . . . and cinched with a velvet belt with silver buckles. On his head he wears the same cap as noblemen do, and scarlet stockings on his legs. This is a form of dress that makes a beautiful sight and an impression of no less gravity.

Fashion was controlled not just by social custom but by law. Nobles did not want others dressing as they did, so sumptuary laws were enforced to control imitation and curb excessive spending. Everything from the types and colors of fabrics to the style and cut of cloth were regulated. Officials would stop people on the street and ask if they had a right to wear fur or pearls on their sleeves or gold thread in their skirts. "There are court cases where people have spent too much money on a wedding or there is too much gold on the table," says Jones. Even the color of gondolas was controlled by law. Until the sixteenth century, the gondolas could be painted any color, but when private boats become exceptionally lavish, sumptuary laws were enacted mandating they be painted black, as they still are today.

Vecellio was born in Cadore, a town in the Dolomite Mountains north of Venice, around 1521. His family was well-known throughout the region and included several artists, among them Vecellio's brother Fabrizio and a cousin, the famous Titian. Vecellio began a career as a painter, accepting commissions from private patrons and decorating churches. He moved to Venice to work as Titian's apprentice, and traveled with him to Augsburg on at least two occasions when Titian was painting portraits of the Holy Roman Emperor's family. It was on one of these trips Vecellio is said to have met the German woodcutter Christoph Krieger, who moved to Venice and created the illustrations for the first book.

In it, Vecellio makes reference to their collaboration in a description of the funeral procession of a doge. The image is incomplete, Vecellio notes, because "my friend, an excellent printmaker of our times, has died." Krieger completed 415 of the 419 illustrations for the monograph, based on Vecellio's own drawings.

For his book, Vecellio gleaned information from early travel narratives, ambassadors' and voyagers' reports, guidebooks, merchants' descriptions of textiles and jewels, and his own travels. "Vecellio was very proud of that fact that he had done original research which is trustworthy," says Jones. "He would say, 'I got this image from a tomb in Venice' or 'I saw this in a painting in a villa in the Veneto region.'"

People came from all over Europe, the Middle East and as far as North Africa to conduct business in Venice, trading luxury items such as wine from France, spices from India, and silks and damasks from the Middle East. Merchants sold their wares in an outdoor market held on the Piazza San Marco every Saturday. The biggest outdoor market occurred during the Sensa, Venice's springtime festival celebrating the Feast of the Ascension. The festival began with the traditional "Wedding with the Sea," in which the doge, arrayed in velvet and a jeweled cap, would depart on il Bucintoro, his ceremonial boat, from San Marco across the lagoon to the Church of San Nicolo. He would cast a gold ring into the sea as he said, "Desponsamus te mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini," or "We marry you, oh sea, as a symbol of perpetual dominion," reaffirming the city's ties to the Adriatic. Vecellio describes the wedding season during the Sensa:

If ever the brides of Venice make an effort to look beautiful and to appear richly dressed, those who happen to be married during the Sensa do so most of all, during the two weeks that the holiday lasts and the greatest influx of people from various nations occurs. They invent and adorn themselves in the greatest vanities and splendor they can, given that they'll be seen not only by their fellow citizens but also by the many foreigners of every age and sex who come from nearby towns and from distant ones, as well, to see this grand display of goods. . . . They wear overgarments of white silk damask but leave their bodices and sleeves exposed, with all their borders and edges enriched with gold. . . . And from their hair floats a black veil of the loveliest transparent silk.

"It was the international gathering of the year, a couple of weeks of civic pride showing the rest of the world what Venice could do," says Jones.

To impress foreign visitors, rules were sometimes relaxed. In "Nobile Ornata" or "Noblewomen at Public Festivities," Vecellio discusses the fluctuating sumptuary laws: "When noblewomen are invited to banquets or spectacles at which some great person will be present, as often happens in Venice, they are allowed, without breaking any law or risking any judgment against them, to deck themselves out and adorn themselves as they please, although outside such occasions, their clothing is controlled by the Signori delle pompe (overseers of the sumptuary laws)." Most sumptuary laws were removed entirely by the seventeenth century.

As a crossroads of trade, Venice was a hub for Renaissance cosmopolitan life. "Vecellio is very proud of being a Venetian," says Rosenthal, "and the world is coming to him because it is the trading point between east and west. But at the same time he is never so arrogant that he cannot see when something is just that much more wonderful than what he has in Venice. When he talks about the Turkish court, he talks about their clothing, he talks of the sultan, he says he dresses in unimaginable splendor and does not liken it to anything he has seen before."

Vecellio was interested in products coming from the New World. "You would think he would take a European attitude of superiority in looking at the New World," says Rosenthal, "but quite the contrary. He says the finest materials have come from there and they are rare and delicate and probably the most sumptuous clothing found in the whole world."

Fashions were changing, and in some places, very quickly. In Naples, the citizens began to dress in Spanish style because the Spanish were powerful there. "This bothered Vecellio," says Jones. "He thinks each city-state should have its own characteristic style of dress and he really regrets the loss of traditional costume. Styles were changing and people were no longer representing their regional identities as clearly and as unambiguously as they had centuries earlier."

Vecellio's book records traditions already starting to fade away and gives a glimpse of customs on the horizon. "He is showing Venetians how people dress and live in other parts of the world," says Jones. "At the same time, the Venice he is talking about and celebrating is the Venice of yesteryear."

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.

Smith College received $75,000 from NEH to translate Cesare Vecellio's Degli Habiti Antichi et Morderni Di Viverse Parti Del Mondo.