by: Costanza Menchi
In the early 1930s, Italian writer Gianna Manzini noted that the renowned Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son, Don Garzia, acts as “a program, a prophecy,” the document of an epoch. It is, in fact, in the Renaissance that we can find the first manifestation of a “discourse on dress” and a ‘rhetoric’ of ‘la bella figura’ (literally: beautiful figure, meaning: giving a good impression). Thus, the Renaissance is the key moment in history for understanding the roots of Italian fashion.
Fashion in the Renaissance became scientia habitus and a political and a state affair via the Sumptuary Laws. In the 16th century, numerous authors, such as Baldassar Castiglione and Cesare Vecellio, expressed an existing concern for appearance, while it was in this period that the body became a vital component of identity as individuals, beginning with the members of the Medici family, began to see themselves as the ‘agents’ of their own fate.
In the Renaissance, the act of “fashioning” had connotations different from modern ones. Clothes were seen as to transform the wearer, while dressing in particular, elegant clothes gave people a form. In the mid-16th century, Cosimo de’ Medici became a duke and his wife Eleanora duchess, by putting on the robes of state. From Eleanor’s wedding dress of 1539 to her burial dress of 1562, the Spanish-born duchess wore ceremonial to advertise both the Florentine silk industry and Duke Cosimo’s loyalty to the Spanish Emperor Charles V. Here we have identified some of the early meanings of modern fashion: dressing becomes, in this period, a way of advertising, of communicating an identity.
Our primary evidence for Cosimo and Eleanor’s newly achieved ducal status is portraiture. Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino understood the importance of dress in crafting Eleanor’s public persona, and for this reason he made the virtuoso depiction of clothing and jewels (some of them attributed to Cellini) central to his four portraits of her in ceremonial dress. In these portraits, Bronzino depicts Eleanor as an icon of Spanish nobility and, together with her two eldest sons, as a symbol of a fecundity at the base of the Medicean dynastic ambitions. Thus, just as Eleonora’s public appearances in lavish dress were carefully staged, Bronzino’s images of her in this clothing were part of Duke Cosimo’s political culture, in which he presents his duchess as he wished her to be seen.
Eleanor, Cosimo and the members of the Medici family represented in those official portraits were not just showing off their personal refined style and taste but the richness of the city of Florence. Through their wardrobe and clothing choices, they adopted different ways and tricks by means of which ideas, ideology and power could be conveyed through appearance.
Today, Florentine heirs of that tradition are still recognized worldwide for the superb “Made in Italy” fashion, textiles, leather goods, jewels and accessories, which still let people wearing them making a good impression during public and private occasions.