Facebook circa 1595: Fashion Plates of the 16th Century

July 9, 2012

From the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier

Sadly, LACMA (the museum currently holding this wonderful book) has since changed their collections and removed all of the photos of the book’s contents from their website. The only places to find pictures now is elsewhere on the web where smarter researchers and bloggers downloaded the pictures rather than linking directly from the now-defunct museum archive pages. I am leaving this post here in the hopes that LACMA will one day re-post photos, but until then, you’ll only get to see my vague translations for pictures you can no longer see. :(

I explore hundreds of online museum items a week, digging up historical sources for my research, and sometimes I start feeling like I’ve seen it all. Then–it never fails–I find something amazing. For example, this:

Vedua di Bolloga, circa 1595
“Bolloga” may in fact be Bolonga. There was a  wealthy Vedua family living there in the 16th century

Renaissance Fashion plates! Or, more accurately, Renaissance portraits of real people. It’s thrilling to see such early sketches depicting what people were really wearing. They are not quite as detailed as a professionally painted portrait in oils, but these simple gouache pictures provide a fascinating look at late 16th century fashions.

Le Ceuallier de Angleterre an son habit de lordre, circa 1595
“lordre” is probably “l’ordre” which means of the order, so this Englishman is wearing the “dress of his order.”

These images all come from the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier. Amicorium is Latin for “of  friends,” so this Italian folio is titled Album of Friends of a German Soldier. Albums amicorum are early versions of autograph books which originated in Germany. Usually these albums have heraldic marks or notes only, but some are elaborate portrait collections like this album. Albums amicorum are the Facebook of the 16th century. A traveler would sketch a picture of a person and then “tag” the picture with their name or title, so when he returned home, he would have a record of people he’d met. And golly did this German soldier meet some interesting people in some beautiful fashions!

Here are some of my favorites:

Unknown noblewoman (possibly of Naples or Rome) looking in a mirror, circa 1595

Cortegiana Veneta, circa 1595
“Courtier in Mourning.” The modern spelling is “Cortigiana” which can mean either courtier or courtesan

Donzela Ferarese, circa 1595
“Donzela” is Portuguese and “Ferrarese” is Italian. Together they mean “Maiden of Ferrara

Sposa Venetiana…terra, circa 1595
A “Venitian Bride” and she’s wearing a white wedding gown!

Gentildona Venetiana come vano nele lor case, circa 1595
If this phrase is actually spelled “come vanno nel loro case,” then this is a sketch of a “Venetian Gentlewoman as she goes into their home”

Donzela di Napolli, circa 1595
“Maiden of Naples” with a beautiful pastel color palette.

Donzela Veronese, circa 1595
“Maiden of Verona.” Perhaps this is what Shakespeare’s Juliet would have looked like! It’s from the correct decade and everything. I love the veil on her collar/headdress.

La Consorte del Castelan di Roma, circa 1595
“The Consort of the Castellan of Rome.” A castellan is “the governor or captain of a castle.”

This album has a variety of origins: the titles are mostly in Italian mixed with French or Portuguese terms, the artist is supposedly a German soldier, and a few of the portraits are of English nobility. I have tried to roughly transcribe and translate the handwritten names for you. I think knowing who you’re looking at makes history much more real! If you find any mistaken identities (some of those letters can be darned tricky), let me know.

Did you notice how severely divided and high the front of their hair was styled? Though their dress styles vary vastly by region, their hairstyle is the one thing these ladies all have in common. Also, if you look at the rather swayed-back ladies, you will notice how long their skirts are in proportion to the rest of them and even in comparison to the other ladies. This is because many of these fashionable Italians would have been wearing tall chopines under their lengthy skirts.

A satirical etching card of a courtesan with a flap that lifts to reveal her underpinnings, circa 1588

Both “ladies of good character” and courtesans wore chopines which were both a status symbol and a fetish. These tall shoes made more room to display fancy, expensive fabrics.

This album amicorum reminds me of the sketch books I see lots of people carrying around at events. I have a little notebook of my own that I take everywhere in my purse so I can jot down quick doodles and notes, though I do not collect autographs of the people I sketch…yet. I’m going to start my own album amicorum next time I travel somewhere exciting. I think it will be a little more intimate and fun than just posting pictures on Facebook!

(Also, notice how most of the portraits in this album face left? That indicates that the artist  of this album was probably right handed!)

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