Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2016
Eugenia Paulicelli Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy: From Sprezzatura to Satire Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 278 pp.; 8 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $149.95 (9781472436047)

The historical study of clothing has surged during the past two decades as scholarly disciplines including art history began to shift toward the cultural contextualization of objects and, consequently, accept the category of material culture as worthy of attention on its own merits. Simultaneously, the near obsession with fashion and celebrity designers has soared. Museum curators have frequently contributed to these developments by staging exhibitions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s highly successful Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011) immediately leaps to mind—that both attract nontraditional audiences and reinforce the increasingly elevated status of fashion. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), has combined her expertise in French culture and fashion generally to provide a model of interdisciplinary scholarship for students of dress through her many shows, books, a journal (Fashion Theory), and an annual symposium at FIT on the body, art, fashion, and society. Within the framework of early modern studies, a consideration of the history of fashion and costume has also been trending. This investigation is, of course, hampered by the lack of garments themselves as tangible evidence, leaving scholars to depend on paintings, sculpture, prints, and written evidence in the form of literary descriptions and archival material. Major contributions have been made to an understanding of clothing by scholars such as Carole Collier Frick in Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes, and Fine Clothing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) and by Luca Molà’s The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); both draw on primary documents relative to the textile and sartorial trades. Eugenia Paulicelli’s Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy: From Sprezzatura to Satire raises the question about the degree to which the field of dress history before the eighteenth century necessarily should include a sustained consideration of the visual arts.

Paulicelli states her objective at the outset: “to emphasize the centrality of Italian literature and culture for understanding modern theories of fashion and gauging its impact on the shaping of codes of civility and taste not only in Italy but beyond its borders in Europe and the West . . . to underscore the political meanings that clothing produces and has always produced in public space” (3). She divides the book into three parts, all linked by the theme of cultural typologies. The first is titled “The Cultures of Fashion,” and its opening chapter sets the tone for the book by starting with a quotation from Roland Barthes before reviewing the etymology of moda (fashion) and moderno (that which is current) and distinguishing costume (stability) from fashion (change/modification). The second chapter features Baldassare Castiglione’s renowned The Book of the Courtier (1528), which discusses princely behavior in Renaissance Italy. It is in the latter that the elusive term sprezzatura used in Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy’s subtitle is examined, also in relation to today’s current vogue for the term. Part 2, “The Fabric of Cities: Nations, Empire in Costume Books by Cesare Vecellio and Giacomo Franco,” considers the role of clothes in determining a collective national identity. In Part 3, “Beyond Sprezzatura: Fashion as Excess,” Paulicelli presents two case studies related to satire: one focuses on the seventeenth-century Venetian nun Sister Arcangela Tarabotti who verbally rebelled against the monastic life in a series of essays, and the other on Agostino Lampugnati’s The Rented Carriage or of Clothing and Fashionable Habits (1648–50). There are substantial footnotes throughout and an extensive bibliography. Published in Ashgate’s “Visual Culture in Early Modernity” series, the volume is well produced with respectable illustrations.

As Paulicelli announces early on, Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy is almost exclusively embedded in the realm of literature and theory, and art historians may view this as a drawback in a book about what is, after all, a physical object to which everyone with vision, if not literacy, was privy. Members of all social classes who inhabited the early modern world, and Italy in particular, were visually saturated in sartorial imagery (even if limited by sumptuary laws in terms of their own dress): paintings dominated most church interiors; sculptures were placed in their exteriors and in public spaces; financial or physical involvement with the textile industry fueled the economies of many Italian cities. The chapter on sprezzatura in Castiglione’s Courtier is a case in point, mired in what is at times a tangled semantic analysis of sprezzatura (effortless self-confidence or virtuosity) and the related notion of grazia (grace). While Paulicelli does discuss Castiglione’s discourse on the debate made famous by Horace concerning the merits of painting versus poetry (ut pictura poesis), visual realizations of sprezzatura and grazia are not interwoven with her literary analysis save for one illustrated portrait by Titian. The portrait of Castiglione by Raphael of Urbino (ca. 1514), in which the author wears the monochromatic colors he advocates, is alluded to briefly by Paulicelli but not shown. (The Courtier is self-described as a verbal portrait.) Yet in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550 and 1568), Giorgio Vasari repeatedly mentions the grazia of Raphael’s paintings (as Ita MacCarthy has proposed in “Grace and the ‘Reach of Art’ in Castiglione and Raphael” [Word and Image 25 (2009): 33–45]). Moreover, the terms sprezzatura and grazia can refer to the act of painting itself (which, incidentally, Castiglione deems as a suitable activity for the courtier) in relation to the artistic depictions of clothing that filled the world of the viewer then and by which we remember it now.

The same emphasis on the word is seen in the chapter that Paulicelli devotes to Cesare Vecellio’s illustrated compendium titled The Clothing [Habiti], Ancient and Modern, of Various Parts of the World published in Venice in 1590 and 1598, increasingly well-known due to the recent English translation by Margaret Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones (The Clothing of the Renaissance World: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas: Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi et Moderni, essay and translation by Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, London: Thames and Hudson, 2008). The publication contained some five hundred of Vecellio’s black-and-white woodcuts of clothes accompanied by his written commentary; taken together they are vehicles for essentially recreating and categorizing the global history of dress. Such a systematic approach together with an interest in the habiti and possessions of the exotic “other” mirrors the contemporaneous phenomenon of the Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities), assembled by collectors such as the Medici dukes. Much semantic analysis and theorizing is again brought to bear in Paulicelli’s discussion of Vecellio’s commentary accompanying each image. However, the relationship of the clothes depicted to their prototypes in fresco, tempera, or oil painting is not really described. Yet Vecellio himself states that he intended his book to serve “anyone in my profession through my art and industry” (Jones and Rosenthal, 52). In that sense the volume functions in a manner similar to pattern books of designs that had circulated among artists for centuries. Cesare was a younger relation of the more famous Tiziano (Titian) Vecellio, whose legendary brushwork brilliantly captured the rich texture and colors of the fabric for which Venice was so renowned, and Cesare, also a painter, knew him personally. Vecellio says repeatedly in his commentary that painted images are often the sources of his woodcuts; for his plate 91, he writes: “I will discuss this style of dress here because I think it will please you to see it. The portrait in which I saw it was by the hand of Giovani Bellini, a rare and excellent painter of those times” (Jones and Rosenthal, 143). His use of both “discuss” and “saw” in consecutive phrasing calls attention to the interrelation of word and image, an examination of which would greatly enhance Paulicelli’s chapter on Vecellio and “mapping the world.”

While reading Paulicelli’s volume, I continually wished that she had written it in consultation with someone specializing in the visual arts. The results could have been stunning. (One of Paulicelli’s stated objectives is to examine the role of clothing in public space. What better evidence is there of coded social hierarchies than a nuanced reading of the painted settings for portraits and extraordinary scenes of piazze by Vittore Carpaccio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, et al.?) In sum, those in Paulicelli’s own field of comparative literature may delight in her approach while others coming from visually oriented disciplines might tend to find it frustrating. Nonetheless, with patience one can extract valuable observations about fashion and costume especially in the first three chapters. At the very least, her emphasis on texts in Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy begs the question: can fashion indeed be written?

Charlotte Nichols
Associate Professor, College of Communication and the Arts, Seton Hall University