It is my great pleasure to turn my blog over today to Deborah Swift who is here to take us back to 17th century Italy to discuss the noblewoman in the Renaissance. Deborah is a historical fiction author whom I greatly admire, and she shares a love of the 17th century. Her latest release is the Poison Keeper, a book I have been eagerly looking forward to since first hearing about it!
Over to you, Deborah!
Portrait of a Noblewoman in Renaissance Italy
A guest post by Deborah Swift
Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman from 1580 shows us Italian fashion for a wealthy woman of the time. She wears a high collar and a starched ruff with a picot edge. The gown is stiff and encrusted with embroidery and jewels. It was probably a wedding dress, because crimson and dark red were popular colours for a bride. Red was not worn by lower members of society. Sumptuary laws were designed to curb extravagance and the purchase of excess clothing at all social levels, but the laws were particularly strict when it came to luxury clothing at the lower social levels, because it was a way of reserving status for the upper classes.
Craftsmen and traders and their women were forbidden to wear most expensive silk and velvet fabrics, such as this crimson red, or purple, as well as certain accessories that were commonly worn by aristocrats, such as embroidered or scented gloves, jewels or feathers in hats, or gold-worked slippers or purses.
Even in this portrait, this woman obeys the sumptuary laws because women were only allowed to wear more than one necklace if one was a cross or rosary. This led to more and more elaborate crosses, encrusted with jewels and enamels as well-off women made an attempt to stretch the laws and outdo their neighbours.
Sumptuary law documents of the time give us a valuable historical record of how the restrictions on clothing were imposed. A notary would record the questionable garment in a special register giving the name of the owner, the type of garment, and the colour and quality of the fabric. The owner had to pay a small fee, and the item would then have a lead seal attached to it at the hem or cuff. The seal permitted the owner to wear it for three more years before it had to be reassessed or before it was sold on in the second hand markets.
Surprisingly, it was men as often as women who were caught in contravention of the law, as men’s clothing was just as elaborate as women’s. For men and women, a deep intense black was also a mark of status as it faded quickly, and soon became grey.
Often a neighbour would report another citizen for breaking the law, particularly after any kind of dispute. In Siena, any adult could submit a secret report by filing an accusation in the wooden box in the palazzo Pubblico. In Florence, state officials were known to apprehend women on the street and tear off forbidden jewellery or decoration.
Invisible Platform Shoes
Chopines had two effects, firstly to make the wearer literally higher than her servants or women of a lower class, and secondly so there would be more yards of costly fabric in their clothing, thus showing off their wealth. Every yard of material was woven by hand, and material with a woven pattern, or a pile such as velvet, was particularly prized. The chopines, although elaborately decorated, were supposed to be invisible, and just convey the impression of extra height. Chopines were difficult to walk in and often caused hazard and injury to the wearer. So much so that in 1618 the Venetian ambassador suggested all women should wear men’s shoes.
The Symbolism of the Weasel
Hanging from this noblewoman’s belt is a weasel, and this was a popular accessory at the time. It was called a ‘Zibellino’ or flea-fur – a weasel pelt, with a sumptuously jeweled head. It symbolized fertility and a future pregnancy because weasels were thought of as we would think of rabbits – i.e,.they multiply quickly. Weasels were often worn by women as a magic talisman to promote pregnancy – not so the ermine which was a symbol of purity and virginity. It is not a fashion I shall be adopting in a hurry!
Lavinia Fontana was one of the first professional female artists of her era.
I hope you have found this interesting and thank you to Cryssa for hosting me.
The Poison Keeper
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell her the hidden keys to her success. But the day Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under his thrall, insists that she should be consort to him.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how courage and love can overcome vengeance.
Deborah Swift is the author of 12 previous historical novels. She used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, so enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something she was used to in her work as a scenographer. Deborah likes to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events. Her first novel The Lady’s Slipper was shortlisted for the Impress Prize for new novelists, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a Millennium Award Winner.
Deborah is based in North Lancashire on the edge of the English Lake District, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.
She is a member of the Historical Writers Association and the Historical Novel Society and mentors fledgling novelists via The History Quill.
Find Deborah on Twitter @swiftstory or on her website www.deborahswift.com