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To be Noble in Italy:

Outward Displays of Grandeur as a Means of Class Identification

by Nanci Lamb Roider

European society of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was highly stratified and structured. The European population has been traditionally divided into three groups, those who pray (church men and women), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (the peasantry, or all others). Italy was the first place where a fourth group, the middle class, emerged. These people neither solely fought, worked, nor prayed; they earned a living by wage. Given this history of economic and social innovation, it is not surprising that Italy, too, would be the first area to embrace nobles created by unusual circumstance. "Italy" was a geographic expression long before it became a political reality, as the area was not united under a single ruler or ruling body.

This absence of formal overarching rule subsequently made for an absence of a fixed nobility or aristocracy. Given the open-ended nature of the Italian nobleman's status, it therefore became very important for these newly established nobles to identify their position for all others to see. How was this achieved? The most telling demarcations of noble status can be found in the sumptuary legislation of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the etiquette instruction available to the members of the upper classes, and in works detailing the desired and real acoutrements of a noble household. By setting themselves apart from the majority of society by appearance, demeanor, and surroundings, the status of "nobility" was triply reinforced.

Before exploring the ways in which Italian nobles set themselves apart form non-nobles, it is important to identify who, exactly, these people were. Unfortunately, there is no way to wholly define who comprised the Italian nobility, for Italy has no history of long-established nobility or aristocracy. As the rules of European society rarely adhere to the situations of Italy, we see the social definitions of greater Europe again at odds with the Italian experience.

The Italian noble class was a highly fluid group. Nobles in other parts of Europe were easily identified, as they lived off rents and other feudal incomes, and fought based on the requirements of knight service, rather than for money. The lifestyle of Italian nobles resembled that of their counterparts only in passing, for the Italians were frequently only glorified merchants. Most of the people who will be discussed in this paper come from the merchant stock; they or their immediate forefathers worked for a living for at least some part of their lives. This history of work led new Italian nobles of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to feel somewhat illegitimate. These feelings of illegitimacy were manifested in the perceived need to proclaim their status whenever possible. These feelings gave rise to the ostentatious fashions to be discussed later, as well as the emphasis placed on proper etiquette and social graces, and the elaborate home decorations and furnishings so favored by the newly wealthy.

Sumptuary legislation originated in the thirteenth century in Italian communes where non-nobles had been admitted to government. These new laws were designed first as a check against aristocratic power, as they hoped to limit the displays of the noble clans, thereby weakening the public's perceptions of their power. Given this goal, sumptuary laws soon became a symbol of republican egalitarianism and integrity. In time, sumptuary laws were adopted for other purposes, some based in economics, others apparently for the sake of legislation alone. The mid-fifteenth century saw the introduction of economically motivated sumptuary legislation, as cities such as Venice and Siena became concerned by the investment of money in such static items as clothing and jewelry. A sumptuary law passed by the Venetian Senate in 1360 justified restrictions on clothing, jewels, and other such items by arguing that such "expenditures cause our state to be less powerful than it should be because money which ought to be used in trade and to increase from time to time, now lies useless..."1

After the emergence of economically based sumptuary legislation, we find the emergence of morally based laws. The Church supported many of these laws, as it deemed them necessary to curb the proliferation of scandalous dressing habits, such as low cut bodices, outrageous sleeves, and generally body-baring garments. The Church also sought to regulate modes of dress for fear that luxuriousness would lead to moral decay. The practice of using silks, satins, cloth of gold or silver and the like ran contrary to the asceticism so favored by the churchmen of the day. The Church viewed sumptuary legislation as a first line of defense against the sins of the world. Cities did not always act to restrict the clothing of its denizens, but in time came to favor sumptuary legislation as a means of legislating morality, labeling prostitutes, and attempting to rid themselves of fashion deemed unattractive by the city leaders.2

Despite the fact that the history of sumptuary legislation deals primarily with restricting the dress and displays of women on moral, economic, and taste-based grounds, rather than the tastes and styles of the Italian nobility outright, we can still learn a great deal about their values in terms of appearance, show, and social habits. There is an overwhelming concern with head pieces and jewelry, shoes, sleeve and train lengths in the sumptuary laws of Renaissance Italy, thus leading us to easily deduce that ostentatious dressing was the norm among noblewomen of the day. Head pieces came under a great deal of fire throughout Italy and proved to be quite contentious items. Sienese women were limited to unadorned silver circlets weighing no more than two ounces, while the women of Bologna were forbidden to wear any type of gold or silver circlet at all.3 Genoese women were allowed to wear garlands of precious metals, but their entire wardrobe of gold and silver could not exceed £1000 in value.4

Shoes were also heavily regulated, as many noble women sought highly impractical footwear as symbols of their social status and rank. Women whose husbands required their income for economic survival needed to wear shoes suitable for working, walking, and general utility; ladies of luxury did not. As a result, many noblewomen bought platform shoes designed so only a small portion of the shoe connected with the ground, while the rest protruded ostentatiously from beneath their gowns. These shoes not only made the women appear taller than they actually were, but also allowed them to flaunt their own lack of functionality. Many women's shoes were so impractical that it was reported they could neither stand nor move without the support of their servants.5

Sumptuous dressing extended beyond the accessories of noblewomen, and could also be found in the styles of their dress and coat sleeves and trains. During the Renaissance, it was considered fashionable to wear dresses and overcoats with sleeves split to allow a contrasting fabric to be seen. Like the shoes of the day, a woman's social status could be readily surmised by examining her sleeves and coats. Women of lower social stations had no need for large, excessive sleeves, as their everyday tasks would have been hindered by long, flowing, billowy sleeves. Women of luxury were free from washing, cooking, and other menial tasks, therefore they could abide the inconveniences and impracticalities of large sleeves. The Sienese sought to limit the outrageousness of women's sleeves, deeming the split style "an ugly fashion."6 These sleeves they found so offensive were quite excessive, as they alone often required three or more arm lengths of fabric. The size of sleeves seemed to grow uncontrollably, until they were eventually limited to thirty-two lengths of silk or twenty-eight lengths of non-silken fabric.7 The lengths of dress trains were similarly legislated in Siena, where noblewomen were limited to short trains, and lower class women were forbidden them all together.8

As we can see from these laws, the noblewomen of Renaissance Italy dressed with monetary concerns in mind. They were pleased with their social status and wanted all others to be aware of it. This emphasis on outward appearance doubtless had its roots in the fluidity of the Italian noble estate. If a woman had not been born noble, it was important for her to openly declare her new status; if she had been born noble, it was also important for her to advise others of this. In a society where women held little political power and were often seen only as extensions of their husbands and families, the showiness of a woman's clothing became her only way of independently declaring her or her family's station in life and position of social power.

Another way in which nobles might accentuate their status was through their behavior and the use of proper etiquette. Giovanni Della Casa's 1551 work Galateo, A Treatise on Good Manners is a prime example of how good manners were taught.9 In his Treatise, Della Casa presents himself as a wise, older man seeking to smooth the social path of the young nobleman through the use of proper etiquette. He writes,

In as much as you are now just starting that journey
that is this earthly life which I, as you can see, have
for the most part completed... I have taken it upon
myself to show you...those places in which I fear
you may easily fail or fall...if you follow my advice,
you may stay on the right path towards the salvation
of your soul as well as for the praise and honour
of your distinguished and noble family.10

It is important to note here that, in addition to mentioning the benefits the young may may reap from this training, the benefits of his family are also highlighted, thus giving evidence to the notion of etiquette as a social barrier as well as a social aid.

Della Casa's advice to the young nobleman is sound. To name but a few of his pearls of wisdom, he advises him to temper his actions and demeanor to suit those with whom he is keeping company, to act in moderation, and to do "dirty, foul, repulsive, or disgusting things" only outside the company of others.11 Given that Della Casa felt called to write his treatise, we can assume that behavior we consider an integral part of polite society in the twentieth century was not so common in sixteenth century Italy. If nobles needed only to abide by these basic courtesies to flourish socially, the behavior of the common people must have stood in shocking contrast.

In keeping with the sumptuary legislation of the day, Della Casa's Treatise also remarks upon the expectations of a noble's dress. His seventh chapter is devoted to proper attire. He tells the reader that "everyone must dress well according to his status and age, because if he does otherwise it seems that he disdains other people."12 He goes on to say that

if everyone in your town wears his hair short,
you should not wear it long; and where other
citizens wear a beard, you should not be clean
shaven, for this is a way of contradicting
others, and such contradictions...should be avoided.13

By noting the importance of dressing in harmony with one's social rank and dressing in accordance of the norms of one's community, Della Casa casts light on many tensions of his day. As previously noted, sumptuary legislation was initially designed to be an equalizing force within a community, by wearing one's hair as others do, this equalization is maintained. Della Casa is correct in observing that, should a man refuse to wear his hair or beard as others do, he is sure to be regarded as rebellious, disruptive, or even a threat to the social order.

The influence of the later uses of sumptuary legislation as a means of curtailing the fashion of the upper classes, demarcating the lower classes (i.e., the striped shawls of prostitutes), and ordering spending habits, can also be found in Della Casa's writings. Though his Treatise was intended for the upper classes, his advice to dress with one's own class so as to avoid "tensions" with other classes can easily be applied to any member of society. Should a woman of the middling sort dress in billowing sleeves and wear platform shoes, she would be guilty of trying to present herself as a member of the highest social ranks. Surely she would be fined for her behavior, and, in some way, it would be made known that she had attempted to pass as one of her social betters. Likewise, should a noblewoman choose to forgo her luxurious wardrobe in favor of a more simple garb, for whatever reason, she would be disdained by the ladies of her own class, and could be regarded by those below her as making fun of them. More importantly, she would bring shame and suspicion upon her family, as others would wonder why the family could no longer support the extravagant dressing habits of their women. By "dressing down," one could inadvertently imply or belie the social and economic decline of one's family.

Even when nobles were not outside their homes in public view they sought to remind themselves and those around them of their privileged status. Urban dwellers achieved this through the use of sumptuous decorating touches and the commissioning of personal art; rural dwellers sought villas in which to reside, and then developed for themselves a new, more genteel way of life.

Primary sources such as those of the ledger entries of Neri di Bicci and Paolo Farinati attest to the desire of Italian nobles to surround themselves and cover their homes with private and custom works of art.14 These men made their livings painting commissioned friezes, cornices, and altar pieces for the wealthy men of Italy. Both men worked privately painting altar pieces, Great Halls, bedrooms, dining rooms, and select pieces of furniture. This desire for private art, sometimes adorned with the family crest, shows the nobles' interest in enjoying their earthly lives, and declares to others the great wealth and luxury in which these families lived. By commissioning art solely for their own pleasure and benefit, Italian nobles asserted their status in a permanent and visible way.

The furnishings of these noble households were often as sumptuous as the frescoes and friezes commissioned for their walls. A 1568 account of the movable goods of a nobleman's home in Verona gives us an excellent example of the style in which many noblemen sought to live. This home, as chronicled by the notary Gregorio Albertini, featured: carved and smooth walnut chairs, benches, chests, and beds, rugs, brocade tapestries, satin, silk, and velvet quilts and coverlets, wool mattresses, linen sheets, brass accessories, icons in gilt frames, and maps of the world.15 These may all be considered luxury items, as the servants in the same household were provided goods of a much less valuable nature. They slept on pine beds, had no floor coverings, and were not treated to fireplaces. Further, they had no furniture for its own sake, as the nobleman's family clearly did. They appear to only have been given the bare necessities of furnishings. The nobleman's choices of walnut furniture and fine fabrics are representative materials of his social class. To choose pine for his servants and walnut for himself shows a clear understanding of luxury goods, as opposed to utility goods, and allows him to reinforce his position of superiority and dominance.

Nobles who chose to reside outside the city walls desired sumptuous surroundings much like those of their urban counterparts, but they did not have to define themselves solely through outward appearance. The rural nobility enjoyed fine furnishings and decorating flourishes such as fish ponds, lavish gardens, and large villas, but these alone did not define their status.16 Rather, they reminded themselves and others of their status by creating a new lifestyle for themselves and their friends. The writings of Agostino Gallo paint a vivid picture of the idyllic life one could lead in the Italian countryside.17 Gallo reveals the ways of rural life through a conversation between Cornelio Ducco and Giovanni Battista Avogadro; Avogadro came to the country many years ago and spends the dialogue explaining to Ducco why the rural life is superior to urban life. Avogadro tells Ducco of the calm, earthy existence that a noble can find in the countryside; he rises at dawn, spends several hours hawking with friends, breaks for a small snack, reads, plays cards or board games, sings, dances, naps, visits friends, and plays harmless tricks.18

He also boasts that he does not have to worry about urban rules, see unsightly people or events, or contend with the everyday hassles of city life. Given that he is noble, he can employ others to work his fields and prepare his food, thus his days are free for him to do only as he pleases. He notes that he and his friends have "complete peace, real freedom, tranquil security, and sweet repose."19 Ducco goes further with his descriptions and tells Avogadro of the restriction one can avoid by living in the city. As an urban noble, Ducco could not go out without servants, without wearing the proper attire, or paying respect to those he disdains. Further, his social life was bound by the limits of city's curfew. In the countryside, Ducco can go out with or without servants, does not have to be dressed in any particularly manner, is free to greet or ignore whomever he chooses, and is unhindered by curfew concerns.20 In the country, Ducco seems to be arguing, one's noble status is not bound up in appearance or behaviors as it is in the city; status in the country is merely known and unquestioned. Ducco's villa and leisurely lifestyle, as opposed to his clothing or retinue, are his bond of nobility.

This examination of the outer signs of noble status give us a good overview of what Italian nobles of the Renaissance did to maintain their social rank and remind others of their status. Because nobility was a fluid and occasionally fleeting rank, these overt efforts to present themselves in the most noble of lights was often one of the few defenses against a decline in social status that the new noble could employ. Public displays of wealth allowed others to identify him as a nobleman, and allowed him to identify others of his rank. This show of solidarity among the nobles reinforced their own self-worth, and served as a means of marking those who had not yet achieved noble rank.

Other works consulted:

Duby, Georges, ed. A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Goy, Richard J. The House of Gold: Building a Palace in Medieval Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.


1 "The Senate Limits the Value of Wedding Gifts, Dresses, Ornaments, and Luxuries Generally, 1360." Major Problems in the History of the Italian Renaissance. Eds Benjamin G. Kohl and Alison Andrews Smith (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1995) 378.

2 Diane Owens Hughes. "Sumptuary Law and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy." in Kohl and Smith, 362-373.

3 Hughes, 364.

4 Hughes, 365.

5 Hughes, 370.

6 Hughes, 369.

7 Hughes, 370.

8 Hughes, 363.

9 Giovanni Della Casa. "Treatise on Good Manners, 1551." in Kohl and Smith, 443-52.

10 Della Casa, 443-44.

11 Della Casa, 444-45.

12 Della Casa, 447.

13 Della Casa, 447.

14 Kohl and Smith, 374-75.

15 Gregorio Albertini. "An Aristocratic Home in Verona, 1568" in Kohl and Smith, 375-77.

16 Agostino Gallo, "The Advantages of Villa Life, 1553" in Kohl and Smith, 452.

17 Gallo, 452-56.

18 Gallo, 455-56.

19 Gallo, 455.

20 Gallo, 453.


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