Cesare Vecellio lived from approximately 1530 to 1601. He was related to the very famous Veneitian Renaissance painter Titian Vecellio. Cesare trained as a painter, and likely worked for some time assisting Titian in his workshop. In 1570’s Cesare began creating woodcuts.
Woodcut is the oldest form of print-making. In the process of making a wood cut, first a design is drawn on a piece of paper. It is then transferred onto a block of wood - typically a treated block of pearwood. The block is then carved out with some type of chisel, gouge, or knife, to remove parts of the block that should not be inked. In the finished product, the design stands in relief to the carved-out background, like a rubber stamp. Ink can then be rolled on evenly, and the woodcut can be pressed onto a sheet of damp paper.
In his lifetime, Cesare published two books on costume: The Clothing, Ancient and Modern, of Various Parts of the World in 1590, and The Clothing, Ancient and Modern, of the Whole World in 1598. The first included 428 images, and the second included 503.
One of the biggest differences between the two was that the latter included the costume of indigenous peoples of the Americas, or “The New World”. These works were very ambitious, and truly took tremendous effort to complete. Not only did he publish costume from around the world, but he also ventured into fashion history, beginning the book with the costume of Biblical times.
Cesare also published a collection of four books about Venetian lace patterns in 1591. It was very successful and continued to be printed even after his death - possibly because it included 450 highly detailed woodcut prints and advice about making lace.
Cesare’s books on fashion were not the first of their kind. Early in the sixteenth century, books featuring drawings or paintings of fashion, or even sewing patterns, were already being produced. However, by the 1550’s, there was a clear rising interest in books that displayed costume from around the world. This was due to a new popularity for curiosities and strangeness. In addition, world maps were starting to become a part of everyday life, and sometimes these maps included costumed figures from around the world.
What was unique about Cesare’s books, however, were his detailed descriptions of the dress. His descriptions often included information on the customs, culture, and even diet of foreign people. Sometimes they even included remarks of his admiration for the costume. Especially when it came to viewing forgein figures, Cesare’s readers could feel like they traveled the world without leaving their homes. It should be noted that Cesare is transparent about not having personally seen every costume in person himself, but at times had to rely on the accounts of peers or even viewing paintings.
All of that introduction leads me into this object from the FIT Library's Special Collections: which is this lovely print of a Burgudian Nobleman from the 1598 book, The Clothing, Ancient and Modern, of the Whole World. This is the only page of the book that the Special Collections possesses.
I also very briefly want to touch upon Burgundy, as this is a region that changes drastically over the few centuries leading up to 1598. This is a map reflecting Europe “during the time of Queen Elizabeth”, and we can see Burgundy up here essentially in France, also close to Switzerland and Germany. Here is Venice, Italy, where Cesare is writing from. Clearly Burgundy is nowhere near as far away than The New World, but still, most people during this time did not travel far from their hometowns.
I was very fortunate in my search online, and discovered a complete version of the book that was digitally uploaded to Google Books, so I actually was able to obtain Cesare’s original description of the costume. It’s written here, in Italian on top, and in Latin below. Less fortunately, however, there was no English translation of it that I could find - although in the Main Stacks of our library, there is a completely translated version of the 1590 book. And that book had a glossary in the back containing some translations of esoteric Venetian-dialect sixteenth century italian fashion terms. So I used that and Google translate to create this rough translation:
“The Noble Burgundians wear velvet caps on their heads, rich in beautiful feathers, gold and silk cords, and beautiful collars, and long ruffles, gold chains, and a silk band like the soldiers wear. They wear some velvet jerkins with long slashes & adorned with golden edging & and for them cuts you can see the colored satin doublets that still have sleeves. They put over their shoulders a short satin jacket with sleeves hanging empty, or long velvet up to the belt, with sleeves crossed by many strips of the same. They wear wide padded breeches of polychrome velvet damask, with small thighs, which cover their knees, and they wear socks, full of silk, of twisted silk, or hand-knitted wool from Flanders, and put French-style shoes on their feet.”
I have him clearly labeled here. Going from head to toe, he wears a high-crowned hat with a decorative band and feather. He has a ruff around his neck, and I believe also around his wrists. The word used for these ruffs in the original Italian print is “Lattuga”, which in modern-day Italian literally translates to “Lettuce”. That was an instance where that glossary came in handy. He’s wearing a long-sleeved doublet underneath a slashed velvet jerkin, with scalloped edging around his waist. On his shoulder is a garment called a “tabarro”, which refers to a short jacket one would intentionally drape with an empty set of extra sleeves. His padded breeches, or “bracconi”, are very round and come down to his knees. Underneath, he wears long stockings which are cross-gartered at the knee, and “french style” shoes. His accessories include a silk band around his chest, described as being “like soldiers”, and gold chains around his neck - and of course, one could never leave the house without a sword. Given his wealth and status, we might assume that our Burgundian Nobleman was at the height of fashion.
However, interestingly enough, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Within the very same publication are these woodcuts depicting noblemen from Spain, France, and Holland. Perhaps the most striking difference in these men’s dress are their legwear. Their trunk hose are all very short, ending at their upper thighs. Indeed, nearly everything else differs from the Burgundian man as well, from their hats, to their doublets, outerwear, and accessories.
When we examine portraits of noblemen dated from 1598, we recognize these silhouettes as being nearly identical to those the slide just before.
When it comes to the Burgundian, in order to find portraits more his style, we actually have to look several decades earlier.
In fact, the Burgundian nobleman finds himself in more familiar company among these two men than with those other, very “leggy” noblemen. The first, also from the 1598 publication, was labeled “obsolete costume of French noblemen”. (Ouch.) And, following up on a clue from the written costume description, the man on the right is a 16th century French musketeer. Their silhouettes are incredibly similar - and we can also better understand the inspiration behind his silk sash.
The precise reasons why the Burgundian court was decades behind the times is beyond the scope of my presentation, but I will maintain that our nobleman would still have been wearing very expensive and luxurious textiles. Based on the illustration and description, it’s likely that his breeches resembled this 16th century cope hood - embroidered and couched on cut velvet weave, with gold and silver threads. In addition, although his Jerkin is slashed down the front and does not button, it somewhat resembles this velvet jerkin, circa 1610 - especially in the scalloped sleeves and waist.
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “De Gli Habiti Antichi Et Moderni Di Diversi Parti Del Mondo, Libri Due ...” metmuseum.org. Accessed October 16, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358319.
Vecellio, Cesare. Vecellio's Renaissance Costume Book: All 500 Woodcut Illustrations from the Famous Sixteenth-Century Compendium of World Costume. New York: Dover, 1978.