Trailing a long, brocade train behind her, the golden-haired, corseted princess entered the room. She repeatedly teased a young, sword-bearing suitor by extending a red rose, and coyly pulling it back. This was the opening scene from a performance piece at the inauguration of La Trama e l'Oro, an exhibit on Italian Renaissance garments and ceremony, on display at the Stewart Museum at the Fort on Ile Sainte-Helene, Montreal, until February 23rd 2004. From Montreal, it is off to New York, its only other North American stop.
The wedding dress of Eleonora de Medici, based on the painting "Matrimonio tra Vincenzo Gonzaga ed Eleonora de Medici" by Jacopo da Empoli, late 16th century, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (Italy).
By invitation of Mrs. David Stewart, President of the Stewart Museum and longtime supporter of Italian arts and heritage, about one hundred museum friends and collaborators enjoyed the inauguration event as it unfolded in sheer splendour.
"I immediately ac-cepted the title of the exhibit, when I heard it," says Stewart, who speaks Italian fluently. For her, there was no question about the appropriateness of the name (which translates as the weave [or texture] and gold), as it describes the precious nature of the workmanship and fabric of the garments, as well as the frequent use of gold thread in the textiles.
The exhibit showcases reproductions of garments and jewelry worn by recognizable, historical personalities, as depicted in select Renaissance paintings. The paintings, from private and public collections (some of which are housed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the Royal Museum of Vienna), served as historical data upon which the reproductions were created. Many of the reconstructions took as long as three years of painstaking research and trials to bring them to completed form.
Under dimmed lighting, wafts of baroque melodies set the mood for a voyage, back to the sixteenth century. Through the darkened, tunnel-like exhibition space of the museum, guests serenely glided from display to display, as if moving through a metaphorical passage of history. The guests mingled, sipped Italian wine, and feasted at a buffet table where luscious clusters of red and white grapes cascaded from wooden crates.
Dedicated to the history of Canada, the Stewart Museum may seem like an improbable venue to host an Italian-themed exhibition. But Guy Vadeboncoeur, Chief Curator and Associate Director of the museum, explains that the contributions of late Italian Renaissance bankers and merchants towards the voyages of explorers - like Giovanni da Verrazzano and Amerigo Vespucci - establish an important historical link between the New World and Western European civilizations. In fact, it was Verrazzano who put New France on the map by calling it first Francesca, and then Nuova Francia (New France); and it was Amerigo who lent his name to the body of land we now refer to as America. "Historically, it was an excellent reason to show the exhibit," Mrs. Stewart affirms.
A wide audience of museum-goers will delight in this unique presentation revealing the conspicuous fashion tendencies of the Italian ruling class during the 1500s. "The Italian community is very proud of Italy and anything Italian - it is very sensitive to anything which comes from its homeland," Consul General Gian Lorenzo Cornado notes. He believes that while the exhibit will strike a chord with those of Italian origin, it will also be embraced by the general community - art and history buffs of all backgrounds.
"Passion for il bello [all things beautiful] is what drove the Italian Renaissance," says Italian Trade Commissioner Sergio La Verghetta, "and that same passion is what motivated the people of King Studio in Mantua, Italy, and the Italian textile companies that collaborated with them, to magically transform paintings of 500 years ago into real, physical pieces of craftsmanship and technique - like the costumes shown in this astonishing exhibition."
Evidently, in Renaissance days, nobles showed little restraint when dressing for ceremony. Luxurious silk, lacework, linen, and gold-thread embroidered brocades were essential fabrics for palace sartors. Noble persons had one objective when stocking their armoires: to impress upon similarly important peers, as well as the lower rungs of societal hierarchy, their wealth, power and privilege.
The highlight of the exhibit is the boldly-patterned ceremonial dress of Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo dei Medici, recreated in both a miniature version and a full-size model. The lowered waistline, cone-shaped bodice, and two-piece construction of sleeves - where the top half is fuller than the bottom half - are characteristic design elements that are repeated in other women's garments in the collection.
A print of the portrait by the leading court painter of the Florentine School of the mid-sixteenth century, Agnolo Bronzino, shows Eleonora wearing the original dress. The image, placed in proximity to a reproduction of the garment, testifies to the accuracy of modern production capabilities in capturing Renaissance-like detail.
Judging by the museum displays, it was not only noblewomen who liked to dress with pomp; noblemen also wore voluptuous garments to distinguish themselves as members of an elite group. Gender was not a determining factor, it seems, when it came to the showy, elaborate attire characteristic of the Italian Renaissance.
At the exhibit, a ceremonial costume worn by Vincenzo Gonzaga IV, Duke of Mantua, had guests stopping in their tracks to marvel at the imposing, sartorial masterpiece - a floor length, ivory-coloured cape topped by a black and white, plumed mantle, all worn over white leggings.
Probably more so than in any other era, clothes were used to indicate a person's importance: big egos warranted big clothes. Museum notes reveal that the average height for women during the Renaissance period was a petite five feet.
An attention-getting display shows a reproduction of the ceremonial dress of the "first lady" of the Italian Renaissance, Marchioness Isabella d'Este Gonzaga. Apparently, even Renaissance women had body-image issues to contend with: historical hearsay suggests that Isabella, in a compensatory attempt to match her physical height to her social standing, was the first woman in her courtly circle to wear high heels.
After experiencing La Trama e l'Oro, it is amusing to contrast the politically correct modesty of this day and age against the unself-conscious ostentation of a rich and optimistic period, when nobles basked in self-exaltation and vanity. Still, there is something vicariously satisfying in admiring the frocks of rich and influential people, even if they are from long ago. And, like so many other influences of that era, the design sensibility of the Italian Renaissance continues to live in our contemporary psyche.
"The Italian fashion system strives to incorporate the creative and finishing touches of the artisan into modern industrial production," La Verghetta explains, "by developing the machinery and processes necessary to maintain that approach in all Made in Italy' fashion and design."
No civilian garments remain intact from the Italian Renaissance period. Only small swatches of original fabric have been salvaged and conserved. But thanks to the modern-day efforts - of the Italian government, patrons of the arts, curators, Italian textile manufacturers, and artisans - to recreate fabrics and compile this splendid exhibit, we now have the opportunity to feel - if only for a fleeting moment - the lush texture of that fashion era.
Montreal image and etiquette consultant Loretta Di Vita has a degree in fine arts and is inspired by art, fashion, pomp and ceremony.