The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Five

Costumes and Fashions

But in proportion as distinctions of birth ceased to confer any special privilege, was the individual himself compelled to make the most of his personal qualities, and society to find its worth and charm in itself. The demeanor of individuals, and all the higher forms of social intercourse, became ends pursued a deliberate and artistic purpose.

Even the outward appearance of men and women and the habits of daily life were more perfect, more beautiful, and more polished than among the other nations of Europe. The dwellings of the upper classes fall rather within the province of the history of art; but we may note how far the castle and the city mansion in Italy surpassed in comfort, order, and harmony the dwellings of the northern noble. The style of dress varied sc continually that it is impossible to make any complete comparison with the fashions of other countries, all the more because since the close of the fifteenth century imitations of the latter were frequent. The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient, and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artist. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy. The nation was, and is, vain; and even serious men among it looked on a handsome and becoming costume as an element in the perfection of the individual. At Florence, indeed, there was a brief period when dress was a purely personal matter, and every man set the fashion for himself, and till far into the sixteenth century there were exceptional people who still had the courage to do so; and the majority at all events showed themselves capable of varying the fashion according to their individual tastes. It is a symptom of decline when Giovanni della Casa warns his readers not to be singular or to depart from existing fashions Our own age, which, in men's dress at any rate, treats uniformity as the supreme law, gives up by so doing far more than it is aware of. But it saves itself much time, and this, according to our notions of business, outweighs all other disadvantages.

In Venice and Florence at the time of the Renaissance there were rules and regulations prescribing the dress of the men and restraining the luxury of the women. Where the fashions were more free, as in Naples, the moralists confess with regret that no difference can be observed between noble and burgher. They further deplore the rapid changes of fashion, and--if we rightly understand their words--the senseless idolatry of whatever comes from France, though in many cases the fashions which were received back from the French were originally Italian. It does not further concern us how far these frequent changes, and the adoption of French and Spanish ways, contributed to the national passion for external display; but we find in them additional evidence of the rapid movement of life in Italy in the decades before and after the year 1500.

We may note in particular the efforts of the women to alter their appearance by all the means which the toilette could afford. In no country of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was so much trouble taken to modify the face, the color of the skin and the growth of the hair, as in Italy at this time. All tended to the formation of a conventional type, at the cost of the most striking and transparent deceptions. Leaving out of account costume in general, which in the fourteenth century was in the highest degree varied in color and loaded with ornament, and at a later period assumed a character of more harmonious richness, we here limit ourselves more particularly to the toilette in the narrower sense.

No sort of ornament was more in use than false hair, often made of white or yellow silk.81 The law denounced and forbade it in vain, till some preacher of repentance touched the worldly minds of the wearers. Then was seen, in the middle of the public square, a lofty pyre (talamo), on which, besides lutes, diceboxes, masks, magical charms, song-books, and other vanities, lay masses of false hair, which the purging fires soon turned into a heap of ashes. The ideal color sought for both natural and artificial hair was blond. And as the sun was supposed to have the power of making the hair this color, many ladies would pass their whole time in the open air on sunshiny days. Dyes and other mixtures were also used freely for the same purpose. Besides all these, we meet with an endless list of beautifying waters, plasters, and paints for every single part of the face--even for the teeth and eyelids--of which in our day we can form no conception. The ridicule of the poets, the invectives of the preachers, and the experience of the baneful effects of these cosmetics on the skin, were powerless to hinder women from giving their faces an unnatural form and color. It is possible that the frequent and splendid representations of Mysteries,82 at which hundreds of people appeared painted and masked, helped to further this practice in daily life. It is certain that it was widespread, and that the countrywomen vied in this respect with their sisters in the towns. It was vain to preach that such decorations were the mark of the courtesan; the most honorable matrons, who all the year round never touched paint, used it nevertheless on holidays when they showed themselves in public. But whether we look on this bad habit as a remnant of barbarism, to which the painting of savages is a parallel, or as a consequence of the desire for perfect youthful beauty in feature and in color, as the art and complexity of the toilette would lead us to think--in either case there was no lack of good advice on the part of the men. The use of perfumes, too, went beyond all reasonable limits. They were applied to everything with which human beings came into contact. At festivals even the mules were treated with scents and ointments, and Pietro Aretino thanks Cosimo I for a perfumed roll of money.

The Italians of that day lived in the belief that they were more cleanly than other nations. There are in fact general reasons which speak rather for than against this claim. Cleanliness is indispensable to our modern notion of social perfection, which was developed in Italy earlier than elsewhere. That the Italians were one of the richest of existing peoples, is another presumption in their favour. Proof, either for or against these pretensions, can of course never be forthcoming, and if the question were one of priority in establishing rules of cleanliness, the chivalrous poetry of the Middle Ages is perhaps in advance of anything that Italy can produce. It is nevertheless certain that the singular neatness and cleanliness of some distinguished representatives of the Renaissance, especially in their behavior at meals, was noticed expressly,83 and that 'German' was the synonym in Italy for all that is filthy. The dirty habits which Massimiliano Sforza picked up in the course of his German education, and the notice they attracted on his return to Italy, are recorded by Giovio. It is at the same time very curious that, at least in the fifteenth century, the inns and hotels were left chiefly in the hands of Germans, who probably, however, made their profit mostly out of the pilgrims journeying to Rome. Yet the statements on this point may refer mainly to the country districts, since it is notorious that in the great cities Italian hotels held the first place. The want of decent inns in the country may also be explained by the general insecurity of life and property.

To the first half of the sixteenth century belongs the manual of politeness which Giovanni della Casa, a Florentine by birth, published under the title 'Il Galateo.' Not only cleanliness in the strict sense of the word, but the dropping of all the habits which we consider unbecoming, is here prescribed with the same unfailing tact with which the moralist discerns the highest ethical truths. In the literature of other countries the same lessons are taught, though less systematically, by the indirect influence of repulsive descriptions.

In other respects also, the 'Galateo' is a graceful and in- telligent guide to good manners--a school of tact and delicacy. Even now it may be read with no small profit by people of all classes, and the politeness of European nations is not likely to outgrow its precepts. So far as tact is an affair of the heart, it has been inborn in some men from the dawn of civilization, and acquired through force of will by others; but the Italians were the first to recognize it as a universal social duty and a mark of culture and education. And Italy itself had altered much in the course of two centuries. We feel at their close that the time for practical jokes between friends and acquaintances --for 'burle' and 'beffe'--was over in good society, that the people had emerged from the walls of the cities and had learned a cosmopolitan politeness and consideration. We shall speak later on of the intercourse of society in the narrower sense.

Outward life, indeed, in the fifteenth and the early part of the sixteenth centuries, was polished and ennobled as among ¦ no other people in the world. A countless number of those small things and great things which combine to make up what we: mean by comfort, we know to have first appeared in Italy. In | the well-paved streets of the Italian cities, driving was universal, while elsewhere in Europe walking or riding was the custom, and at all events no one drove for amusement. We read in the novelists of soft, elastic beads, of costly carpets and bedroom furniture, of which we hear nothing in other countries. We often hear especially of the abundance and beauty of the linen. Much of all this is drawn within the sphere of art. We note with admiration the thousand ways in which art ennobles luxury, not only adorning the massive sideboard or the light brackets with noble vases, clothing the walls with the movable splendor of tapestry, and covering the toilet-table with numberless graceful trifles, but absorbing whole branches of mechanical work--especially carpentering--into its province. All Western Europe, as soon as its wealth enabled it to do so, set to work in the same way at the close of the Middle Ages. But its efforts produced either childish and fantastic toy-work, or were bound by the chains of a narrow and purely Gothic art, while the Renaissance moved freely, entering into the spirit of every task it undertook and working for a far larger circle of patrons and admirers than the northern artists. The rapid victory of Italian decorative art over northern in the course sixteenth century is due partly to this fact, though the result of wider and more general causes.