Understanding the Roots of Italian Fashion
by: Costanza Menchi
As the sophisticated Italian writer Gianna Manzini noted early in the 1930s, the renowned Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanora di Toledo with her son Don Garzia acts as if it were “a program, a prophecy,” a document of an epoch. It was in the Renaissance we first find a manifestation of a “discourse on dress” and on the rhetoric of the bella figura (literally beautiful figure; or making a good impression). The Renaissance is the key epoch for an understanding of the direction taken by Italian fashion in the 21st century.
Fashion in the Renaissance became scientia habitus as well as a political and a state affair via the Sumptuary Laws. In the 16th century numerous authors, like Baldassar Castiglione and Cesare Vecellio, expressed an existing concern for appearance, and the body was a vital component in the construction of an identity by individuals who saw themselves as agents of their own fate, first of all the members of the Medici family.
In the Renaissance time, the act of “fashioning” had connotations different from modern ones. Clothes were seen to transform the wearer and to dress in particular clothes, gave the person a form. In the context of court life in mid-16th century Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici became a duke and his wife, Eleonora, a duchess, by putting on the robes of state. From her wedding dress of 1539 to her burial dress of 1562, the Spanish-born Eleonora wore ceremonial dress designed to advertise both the Florentine silk industry and Duke Cosimo’s loyalty to the Spanish Emperor Charles V.
Our primary evidence for their new ducal status is portraiture. The Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino understood the importance of dress in crafting Eleonora’s public persona, and 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 depicted Eleonora as an icon of Spanish nobility, and together with her two eldest sons, as a symbol of fecundity and of 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 presented his duchess as he wished her to be seen.
Eleonora, 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.