A fascinating mirror of Italian society at the beginning of the Seicento
190. [Commedia dell’Arte]
Album with representations of Italian, mainly Venetian, costumes and characters. Illuminated manuscript on parchment. Italy (Venice ?), first quarter of the seventeenth century.
125-127 x 190-195 mm (oblong).  single leaves mounted on paper guards, compensation guards added at regular intervals. Foliation in pencil, corresponding neither to the number of leaves nor their respective position within the album. Twenty-two miniatures in full colour with occasional use of gold and silver. One miniature with a paper flap (fol. 7). Headings written in gold, in a regular antiqua capitalis hand. Mid-twentieth-century dark blue morocco, signed by the Italian binder Bernasconi. Title lettered on the spine, inside dentelles. Three paper flyleaves at beginning and end, marbled pastedowns and first flyleaves. In a modern marbled slipcase. Well-preserved manuscript. Most miniatures in fine condition, only minor rubbing, two miniatures (fols. 5 and 13) partly smudged, occasional staining, several repairs around the edges of the leaves.
The album is composed of twenty-two miniatures, painted on the recto of each leaf (versos blank). While the first two miniatures (fols. 1 and 2) are set in frames and have fully articulated backgrounds, the others follow a simpler scheme. A stripe of beige-pink sets the stage for a défilé of figures.
Fol. 1r: 'Come si bace li piedi del papa';
fol. 2r: 'Come le done si petinano nel sol per rossir li suoi capeli';
fol. 3r: 'Gentildona venetiana & Donzela venetiana';
fol. 4r: 'Procurator di Venetia & Magnifico di Venetia';
fol. 5r: 'Duco di Venetia & Duchesa di Venetia';
fol. 6r: 'Cortegiano de la corte del papa & Comendatore in Padoa';
fol. 7r: 'Cortesiana & Vedoa Feraresa';
fol. 8r: 'Caposta di Padoa & Procurator in Padoa';
fol. 9r: 'Cortegiana romana & macarela';
fol. 10r: 'Un evesque de France allent en prossession';
fol. 11r: 'Generale de Larmata di Venetia & Concilio di Venetia';
fol. 12r: 'Medico';
fol. 13r: 'Gondola di Venetia';
fol. 14r: 'Come li batuti vano nela processione';
fol. 15r: 'Arlequin & Isabella & Franquatripa';
fol. 16r: 'Un contadino sacando otirando lato duna capra';
fol. 18r: 'Charlatano';
fol. 19r: 'Mascarata';
fol. 20r: 'Come si porta il vino nel tempo di vendemi';
fol. 21r: 'Un pescator il quale va pescando pece sopra il fiumo';
fol. 22r: 'Come duy fachini giocano a la m[ora]'.
A fascinating manuscript containing twenty-two fine, full-colour miniature drawings of Italian costumes for men and women of different social ranks, scenes of local life, ceremonies, and characters from the Commedia dell'Arte. Twelve of these drawings depict Venetian scenes or dress, suggesting the album may have been executed in the Veneto region, particularly in Venice or Padua, leading centres not only for manuscript production and publication, but also for fashion and the trading of textiles.
At that time, the vogue to buy similar drawings or miniatures from print shops or booksellers, or to commission a personalized costume collection from local artists, was widespread among foreign travellers in Venice and other Veneto cities like Padua. In the age of pre-Grand Tour travels, such albums provided a sort of 'book of memories', illustrated with scenes from local life, especially its ceremonies and dress. These albums were thus produced according to a traveller's individual preferences, and the drawings were rarely signed by the artists. Notably, such travel albums, and particularly those produced in the Venetian milieu, often included representations of courtesans in addition to drawings of noble or wealthy women. “Visitors often purchased visual representations of courtesans' dress in the Venetian marketplace, and then placed them, together with colored miniatures of other Venetian fashions of both men and women, in personal albums as memories of their visits” (M. F. Rosenthal, “Cutting a Good Figure,” p. 52).
Another group might be said to form around rather cheeky representations of courtesans. Two such illustrations are of especial note. The first is a drawing of a woman dyeing her hair blond, an allurement closely associated with Venice, as attested by Titian's nudes. The second shows a courtesan – ironically juxtaposed with a widow – with a moveable flap for a skirt. This conceit derives from Bertelli's Diversarum nationum habitus, though the flap is lacking in many copies of the printed book. When the flap is lifted, the woman is seen to be essentially naked, wearing only a pair of stockings with fancy ribbons and some high-heeled shoes.
The remaining miniatures show various figures in a seemingly arbitrary order, including some depicting figures from the Commedia dell'Arte, which are of the greatest interest. Developed in sixteenth-century Italy, the Commedia dell'Arte is a type of theatre characterized by improvised dialogues based around plot outlines and featuring a set of stock characters. Fol. 15 presents three of the most famous among these latter. Harlequin is the darling of the audience: witty, often impertinent, and full of jokes; he and Franquatripa – whose name signifies 'nonsense', and who's a real good-for-nothing – belong to the 'Zanni' or simple folk. Isabella is most often the beautiful girl whose adventurous path to a happy union with her beloved forms a central plotline. Closely related is the miniature entitled 'Charlatano' (fol. 18). Charlatans entertained with fantastic stories, often about illnesses and miraculous cures for which they held in stock a wide selection of 'medicine' on sale for the audience. Like the comedians they performed in city and town piazzas. Another aspect of the fascination with theatre and costume is illustrated by the masquerade (fol. 19), a popular pastime of the wealthy Venetians, which of course reached its annual peak at Carnival.
The miniatures in the second part of the present album, among which the flagellants certainly stand out, present other strata of society: a peasant woman and her male counterpart, a fisherman, two vineyard workers, and two servants at leisure. This last miniature shows the pair engaged in a round of mora, a popular Italian game in which two players simultaneously hold up one or several fingers, each player trying at the same time to predict the number of fingers shown by the other. Taken together, the miniatures, which may originally have belonged to a larger series, offer a cross-section of Venetian society at the beginning of the seventeenth century, as indicated by the fashion style. With its faithful representations of costumes, typical traditions, and social habits, the album is a truly precious historical document.
The focus on dress also relates to contemporary printed costume books, including Bertelli's Diversarum nationum habitus and the De Habiti antichi et moderni by Cesare Vecellio, which first appeared in Venice in 1590 and subsequently went through many editions. Both Bertelli's and Vecellio's works offer a veritable mine of information on clothing, textiles, and luxury goods such as jewellery.
Similar albums are highly sought after by collectors for their rarity and the beauty of their visual representations. Famous examples include the ms Egerton 1191 of the British Library, which was produced in Venice or Padua in the 1570s, and the album known as Mores Italiae, held by the Beinecke Library (ms 457), which was executed in the 1570s for a foreign student matriculated at the University of Padua.
M. A. Katritzky, “Scenery, Setting and Stages in Late Renaissance Commedia Dell'Arte Performances:Some Pictorial Evidence”, Ch. Cairns (ed.), Scenery, Set and Staging in the Italian Renaissance: Studies in the Practice of Theatre, Lewiston, NY 1996, pp. 209-288; U. Ilg, “The Cultural Significance of Costume Books in Sixteenth-Century Europe”, C. Richardson (ed.), Clothing Culture 1350-1650, Aldershot 2004, pp. 29-47; T. Storey, “Clothing Courtesans. Fabrics, Signals, and Experiences”, ibid., pp. 95-108; M. A. Katritzky, The Art of Commedia: A Study in the Commedia dell'Arte 1560-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records, Amsterdam 2006; M. F. Rosenthal, “Cutting a Good Figure. The Fashions of Venetian Courtesans in the Illustrated Albums of Early Modern Travelers”, M. Feldman (ed.), The Courtesan's Arts. Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Oxford 2006, pp. 52-74; Eadem, “Fashion, Custom and Culture. Two Early-Modern Illustrated Album,” M. Rippa Bonati - V. Finucci, Mores Italiae. Costumi e scene di vita del Rinascimento: Costume and Life in the Renaissance, Cittadella 2007, pp. 79-107; A. Vitali, La moda a Venezia attraverso i secoli. Lessico ragionato, Venezia 2009; S. Goltz, “A Venetian Sixteenth-Century Costume Book as an Authentic Visual Record”, M. Aldrich - J. Hackforth-Jones (eds.), Art and Authenticity, Farnham 2012, pp. 50-61; P. Jordan, The Venetian Origins of the Commedia dell'Arte, London 2014; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 190.