by Katy Bond
When Cesare Vecellio published his celebrated book of world dress in 1590, the Earth’s horizons must have seemed to the Venetian artist, to be ever-expanding. First published under the title, ‘Degli habiti antichi et oderni di diverse parti del mondo’ (‘Of the clothing, ancient and modern, of diverse parts of the world’), his work claimed to offer its readers an encyclopaedic reference for the appearances and cultural habits of people the world over. Having been republished as a facsimile edition – with English translations – by Thames & Hudson in 2008, Vecellio’s invaluable research is now easily accessible to the historian interested in early modern clothing.
Even if sixteenth-century costume is not for you, The Clothing of the Renaissance World serves as an excellent “coffee-table book”. A weighty tome, it is also a visual delight containing reproductions of 503 of Vecellio’s woodcuts and many more colourful accompanying images. For the more engaged reader, the book offers a comprehensive introduction by Rosenthal and Jones about the author, his life, and the Venice of his day. Translations of Vecellio’s commentaries bring to life the aesthetic tastes and cultural perspectives of a Venetian artist, whose enthusiasm for garments, textiles and the people who wear them is palpable. A glossary of clothing and textile terms used by Vecellio is, thankfully, also provided.
Rosenthal and Jones beautifully weave in elements of Vecellio’s own experience of Venice, remembered as La Serenessima, arguing that it was the city’s trade and manufacture of luxury textiles that first stimulated Vecellio’s delight in picturing dress. The editors also draw attention to Vecellio’s career as a painter and conclude, somewhat haphazardly, that his book was intended to be a tool for fellow artists. Through the emblematic force of dress, and its ability to impart “richly meaningful signs of shared cultural identity”, Vecellio’s book was able to explore the boundaries of patriotic kinship and cultural identification.
The Clothing of the Renaissance World offers a new and exciting lens through which to view culture, society and politics as it was seen by a sixteenth-century Venetian craftsman. Above all, it reaffirms the value of dress as an important historical tool. Since its publication in 2008, scholarly interest in Renaissance costume books has risen to great popularity. A richly illustrated treasure, it will also look impressive on your bookshelf.
Where can I read it?
Cambridge University Library has a copy, but if you’d like this for your own bookshelf it’s available in hardback.