Beneath the veil

Costume and life in the renaissance. © Yale University, Beinecke Library

The veil today seems representative of a backward-looking Islamism. But we also find it in Western culture. At the close of the 16th century, for example, it was part and parcel of the seduction games of Venetian courtesans. By Susanne Leuenberger

​We only see her from behind: a well-proportioned bathing belle by the seaside at sunset, clad in a yellow thong. "Kisses from Italy" says the 1970s picture-postcard. The sun always shines south of the Alps, it seems to tell us – and more to the point, the sender wants to let us know that he already has his place in the sun, in full enjoyment of the voluptuous, sensual Mediterranean pleasures to be had by the petit-bourgeois adventurer from the North.

Long before mass tourism came to the bel paese, there were already saucy pictures of southern beauties adorning the diaries of students and sojourners to the south. In the outgoing 16th century, Venetian ladies revealed their décolletés even though their faces remained veiled in accordance with the societal customs of the day. “Just as we bring holiday snaps home today, students in the Renaissance documented their journeys with pictures. Particularly popular were flirtatious, exotic depictions of Italian women”, says Henri de Riedmatten of the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich.

In the mid-16th century, the alba amicorum began to make an appearance. One example of these ‘friendship albums’ belonged to a Breton student who in 1575 went to study in Padua. Like many of his fellow students he had been given his album by his family before leaving home. The young man used it to document his friendships, experiences, and things that interested and astonished him. Co-students made drawings of their family coats of arms in it, and his professors entered handwritten dedications.

This album also contains 105 pictures in which we see Italian clothing fashions – local trends from Venice and Padua. These watercolours were offered at markets by local artists. Sometimes students commissioned the miniaturists to draw a particular scene. So some of the pictures were made on the street. They show priests and professors in their respective clothes and, above all, women: unmarried girls (donzelle), married ladies (gentildonne), widows and old women. And courtesans.

Veiled faces and bared breasts

The alba amicorum enjoyed its boom years from the 1580s onwards. Today, the pictures of local women we find in them are being analysed by Riedmatten together with the art historian Victor I. Stoichita from Fribourg. “Fashion back then used to change quickly. Black was not necessarily a sign of mourning, but referred to the Venetian origins of the woman wearing it”. The extent to which women covered or exposed themselves signified their respective social status.

Position in the social hierarchy was signified by revealing or hiding one’s face. Unmarried women wore dark, thick veils over their faces; women in mourning covered their faces with a bright, transparent cloth, but married women showed their full face when they went walking in the streets. “When a woman married, she gained public status. That is why she was able to show her face”. Despite their veils, the young women shown in the pictures still reveal a lot. “There are even written sources that describe how some women wore clothes that exposed their breasts”, says Riedmatten.

Nevertheless, these stereotypical images depict more wishful thinking than they do reality. “The owners of these books stylised themselves as adventurers, and this also meant constructing an idealised Italy”. Besides the ‘misses’ and the elegant ladies, the courtesans were another popular subject in travel diaries. A raised veil, flirtatious gestures or a mischievous smile behind the semi-transparent mourning veil betray that the women depicted were girls of ‘easy virtue’.

In around 1600, the university city of Padua drew more than 1,500 students from 22 nations. They came from France, Germany, Scandinavia and England to study not just law, but also subjects like astronomy, which was taught by Galileo Galilei, for example. Nor were physical needs ignored. There were many prostitutes at that time in Padua, Bologna and nearby Venice, says Riedmatten. “When students were banned from Padua for several months in 1582, the prostitutes complained loudly about having too little work”, he says. Among the prostitutes themselves, the courtesans formed a kind of elite.

Waywardness and innovation

Riedmatten is particularly interested in the dressing-up games of the courtesans. “These pictures don’t show any subjects. Those depicted are models: faceless, stereotypical and interchangeable”. Of course, says Riedmatten, the illustrations testify to the male viewpoint of the man who commissioned and owned the pictures. The seductive woman whose gaze remains hidden to the male observer is a “common Western modality of beholding”. But his primary research interest is not a critique of the gaze from a gender-theory perspective, though his methodologies do include aspects of gender studies.

What he’s seeking in the serial nature of these bare-breasted, faceless women in their deindividualised depictions is traces of waywardness and cultural innovation. The courtesan was a figure without any clear status in mediaeval society, says Riedmatten, and so she was not bound by any dress rules. Instead, high-class prostitutes made use of all the other styles of dress and disguise. Sometimes they would wear the robes of a donzella, another time they might imitate a gentildonna, a noblewoman, or a woman in mourning. “With their games of disguise, courtesans varied the norms of dress”. And by transgressing sartorial norms, they sometimes made a fashion statement.

It was the precarious, uncertain status of the courtesans that prompted individualism in fashion and cultural change, says Riedmatten. “Some courtesans attained prestige and fame as muses of the nobility. Some of them lived in palaces on the Grand Canal”, he says. To be sure, the cortigiane were a small minority among the prostitutes. Most of them were poor and died young, often of the plague, which was rampant at the time.

Susanne Leuenberger is an editor at the Reformierte Presse.

(From "Horizons" No. 102, September 2014)