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Book of the Week — Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto il Mondo 

“To dress was to be invested with a public identity, according to a system of fixed codes. In a largely pre-literate society, people learned to read the value of textiles and the meaning of their cut as signs of profession, wealth, social status, and geographical provenance….”

Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo
Cesare Vecellio (1521-1601)
Venice: Appresso Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598 Second edition
GT509 V43 1598

Cesare Vecellio was born in the mountainous region north of Venice, in a province called Belluno. Descended from nobility, his family included an array of distinguished characters, such as the celebrated Renaissance painter, Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian. Titian was considered the most important member of the sixteenth-century Venetian School, which appeared to have influence on many members of his family and their own pursuit of art. Following in the footsteps of Titian was Francesco Vecellio, his older brother; Marco di Tiziano, Titian’s nephew; and Marco’s son, Tiziano, who painted early in the seventeenth century. From a different branch of the family there were distant cousins, two brothers named Fabrizio di Ettore and Cesare Vecellio. Although Cesare was not formally trained by Titian, he had once accompanied him to Augsburg in 1548, and seems to have worked briefly as his assistant. Cesare did not become a prominent painter, but was famous in own right for the illustrations and subsequent woodcuts found in the publication of two notable works: Corona delle nobili et virtuose donne (1591) and Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo (1598).

“Wearing of the style illustrated here did not last long among women, though to begin with they had liked it because they thought it was new. In this they were wrong, however, for the same style had been worn long before, though with some differences, since then it was considered richer and grander than other styles. Some wore a balzo like this on their heads, in many diverse colors… This was of cloth of gold or silk, patterned with leaves and roses, and decorated with jewels and other trim…”

The sixteenth century saw the rise in popularity of the “costume” book. Between 1520 and 1610, more than two hundred collections of engravings, etchings, or woodcuts concerned with clothing or personal adornment had been published. These books reflected not only the great wealth of the mercantile classes, but also the enormous wave of travel and exploration in search of markets and raw materials. Some of the most recognized costume collections were those of Richard Breton, Ferdinando Bertelli, Jost Amman, Abraham de Bruyn, Jean-Jaques Boissard, Bartolemeo Grassi and — the best known of all, and in many respects the apex of the century’s achievements — that of Cesare Vecellio. The first edition of Vecellio’s costume book was printed by Damian Zenaro in Venice in 1590, with the title De gli Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mundo. It was an immediate publishing sensation. For the first time, a book had brought together vivid descriptions and accurate depictions of world costume throughout history. Aimed, in part, at artists who might use it as a pattern book, its appeal soon proved to be more widespread. The book recognized that clothing was as much an identifier of rank as it was “fashion” — constantly changing, crossing borders, and transforming the way people lived. 

“It is impossible to say or imagine how very rich and more than beautiful the clothing of this Great Lord is. As far as color is concerned, he appears now in one, now in another. Still, I will say what he usually wears: a dulimano of gold and a sottama of velvet, in whatever color he prefers. He wears many broccatelli and other kinds of silk, such as zendado, and very often white satin woven with silver. The sleeves of all his gowns are made of the same fabric as the body of the gown. On his head he always wears a turban of very beautiful sessa, and when he goes out, he wears two feathers in it, one on each side, laden with pearls and jewels…”

In early-modern Europe, ethnographic curiosity was channeled into books on clothing. Clothing wasn’t merely an expression of personal style or an imitation of fast-changing fashion. Clothing marked gender, age, marital status, economic rank, and regional identity. Unlike today, individuals were not free to dress as they pleased. In Venice and other European cities, sumptuary laws (laws that regulate consumption) controlled the fabrics, colors, and the cut of clothing in attempts to limit inequality among citizens. To dress was to be invested with a public identity, according to a system of fixed codes. In a largely pre-literate society, people learned to read the value of textiles and the meaning of their cut as signs of profession, wealth, social status, and geographical provenance.

Derived from the Latin habitus, or aspect, the word habiti signified the ways in which apparel invested bodies with meaning through the quality of the fabric and the tradition and conventions attached to dress. 

The headdress consists of a gold band around their forehead, attached to a veil; on top of this they wear a fazzuolo, richly needle-worked in gold and silk, which covers their head and shoulders. At the bottom of this fazzuolo hangs a very lovely fringe of silk and gold. They wear a sottana made of one piece of cloth without a bodice, floor-length and belted with a striped with sleeves that cover their arms. On top of this, they wear another half-length gown of silk, with full, slit arms, and their arms come through these slits; the gown falls to mid-thigh. Dressed in this way, they leave their houses, wearing no jewelry at their necks, or gold or gems anywhere else.”

In the first edition of his costume book, Vecellio emphasized the dress of his own region and arranged the images in a sequence moving away from his home. Due to its historical importance and priority in Italian life, the costumes of Rome — particularly ancient Rome — came first. His examples of earlier fashions, largely founded on the study of old works of art preserved in churches and public buildings, were the first to ever be published. Previous costume books had only ever portrayed contemporary dress. Naturally, Vecellio’s section on Venice and the Venetian region is the most reliable. It is also the largest, with a wide range of occupations and social strata and a great diversity of dresses that could be worn by wealthy women according to age and occasion. In fact, a great number of the people depicted and described throughout Vecellio’s book are women.

In all, De gli Habiti included four hundred and twenty woodcut plates, drawn by Vecellio and cut in wood by the Nuremberg-born master, Christoph Chrieger. This first edition consisted of two, unequal parts: Book One included three hundred and sixty-one illustrations dealing with Europe, while Book Two included fifty-nine illustrations surveying Asian and African dress.

Morocco, the metropolitan city of the kingdom of Fez, is full of very beautiful buildings, decorated with gorgeous paintings of fine azure and gold and made very skillfully of stones… These girls wear gowns of cotton or lisaro or other colored cloth. Their overgarment is a tucked-up white robe, and their headdress resembles the one shown in the print. From their ears hang triangular earrings of beautifully worked gold, decorated with very valuable jewels. They wear other jewelry, circlets of gold and silver of great value on their arms and at their elbows and their knees…”

Following the publication of his first book, Vecellio released a four-volume collection of lace patterns titled, Corona delle nobili et virtuose donne. Two of the volumes were dedicated to the Venetian noblewoman, Vienna Vendramin Nani. Lace was made by women in Venice, but worn by both men and women, in beautiful patterns and at a high cost. The popularity of lace helps explain the popularity of Vecellio’s Corona, which was republished in 1596, expanded by a fifth section, again in 1601, and many times over after Vecellio’s death. Like De gli Habiti, the book combined text and image — four hundred and fifty illustrations alongside practical advice about lace-making. Vecellio had an impeccable understanding for the reading demographic at the time: people who were interested in luxury textiles from all over the world.

Although Venice had lost some of its vast imperial power in the Mediterranean by the late sixteenth century, it was still a highly international city, particularly with regards to immigration and trade. Venice was also a center of book production, with four hundred and fifty-three printers, publishers, booksellers, and bookbinders working in the city over the course of the century. 

The clothing in the print shown here is very similar to that worn by the married women of ancient Rome, who (some claim) took the style from this one. These African women do not wear much velvet or brocade, except for women in the province of Abyssinia in Egypt and in Prester John’s Ethiopia. The clothing shown here is worn by the leading women of the country when they leave their houses. It is a colored camicia with wide sleeves, with a mantle in black or turquoise, knotted or fastened with a gold or silver pin…”

The second edition of Vecellio’s costume book, Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, was printed in Venice by Giovanni Bernardo Sessa in 1598. In this edition, Vecellio omitted the majority of his introductory historical text and shortened his captions considerably, so that the illustrations now appeared on every verso page, with each facing recto occupied by a brief Italian text at the top and a newly prepared Latin translation at the bottom. More importantly, the number of illustrations was increased to five hundred. The carefully drawn woodcuts show the costumes of the world known in Vecellio’s day: Italy, France, the Lowlands, Burgundy, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, the German lands, the Slavic lands, Hungary, the Balkans, the Aegean, North Africa, Arabia, Syria, Armenia, Persia, India, China, and the recently discovered New World, including indigenous tribes of Roanoke, Florida, Mexico, and Peru. The twenty images of American costume were derived from various travel accounts.

For your sixteenth-century armchair explorer, Habiti antichi could also be considered a travel book. Each of the images are explained in rich detail, from head to foot, with information about social customs, details about the cut, fabric, and trim of the clothing, as well as minute descriptions of coiffures, headdresses, and other accessories. Throughout the thick volume, Vecellio explores the poor and emerging mercantile class, famous leaders, kings and queens, slaves and pages, pirates, soldiers, peasants, courtesans, students, magistrates, clergy, and so much more. 

This style of clothing used to be and is still worn by the peoples of the West. It is made of cotton or wool patterned with pictures of animals of that country; otherwise they go naked. They used to cut off their hair in order to look different from the women, who wore their hair long since the men were beardless, it was hard to distinguish them from women.”

The section on the New World in the 1598 edition establishes Cesare Vecellio within the enormous interest in exploration and colonization shared by early modern Europeans from every region. For it, Vecellio included images and descriptions of the inhabitants — both men and women — of Peru, Mexico, Virginia, and Florida — the latter two depictions based on engravings in part 1 and 2 of Theodore De Bry’s America (the verisimilitude of many of de Bry’s illustrations is questionable; not least because he never actually crossed the Atlantic). As in the rest of his book, the brief Italian commentaries describe the materials, colors, and manufacture of the Americans’ clothing, as well as descriptions of various aspects of the American cultures. 

They set the Queen upon a platform decorated with painted animal skins, and at the back of it they make an arrangement of leaves and flowers for her. Then four men carry the platform; some go ahead of them, sounding trumpets, and two pages hold fans of bird feathers; a great number of unmarried girls carrying baskets full of fruit and flowers follow behind. The queen precedes them with her hair loose on her shoulders, wearing many necklaces on her neck, arms, and legs. They take great pleasure in painting their bodies; they cover their shoulders and private parts with tree leaves; and through their ears they wear fish bones.”

Habiti antichi embodies the mentality of a forward-looking Venetian artist and businessman at the end of the sixteenth-century. In many ways, Venetian cultural assumptions and the loyalties and aspirations of Vecellio’s entrepreneurial artist-publisher class shape his images and judgements of his own city and of other people. The extended section on Venice affirms the traditional values shared by its citizens and, simultaneously, celebrates the goods they make, consume and export. His pride in Venetian textiles coexists with wholehearted admiration for the sumptuous cottons and silks worn in Turkey, sold in the Middle Eastern market, and made in the New World. As a result, the book is a rich historical record of dress in Venice, Europe, the rest of the Old World, and the Americas — and of the mentality of Cesare Vecellio himself. 

Cesare Vecellio’s costume book was translated in full in 2008 by Margaret Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones. Their volume, The Clothing of the Renaissance features all the original text and woodcuts, as well as the New World entries. It is accompanied by an in-depth illustrated introduction by the translators plus a glossary of terms, appealing to all those interested in the history of dress, travel, antiquarian books, Renaissance art, and cultural history.


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