I was recently asked to be an allied researcher on the ACIS project Textiles, Trade and Meaning in Italy: 1400-2018, particularly in relation to the clothing and textiles at the court of Mantua under Isabella d’Este. As part of this project I was asked to write a short piece on Isabella’s underwear, as part of a collection of short essays that will accompany the portrait of the Marchesa by Titian on the Isabella D’Este Archive (IDEAS).
Now Isabella was living at the time in the early sixteenth century when the undergarments that my work usually focuses on – bodies and farthingales – were not yet found in the wardrobes of Italy’s elites (although bodices as an outer-garment were certainly available). So that left me to write about Isabella’s main undergarments – her chemises or smocks.
To write about this topic firstly I needed to get an idea of what sort of chemises Isabella actually owned. This is where this great edited volume came into play:
The volume contains many inventories relating to the Gonzaga family of Mantua, including Isabella’s household and wardrobe inventories that were taken after her death.
My contribution to the project is not up on the website yet, but in the meantime I wanted to share my English translations of some of the chemises in Isabella’s post-mortem inventory from 1539. Please note that these are my english translations of some of the text from the Gonzaga volume, so all credit goes to Daniela Ferrari for transcribing and publishing these records from the original papers.
- Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 234)
Una camisa da bagno de banbaso, lavorada de oro
A bathing chemise of linen, wrought with gold
una camisa de cambraglia granda, lavorada de oro
A large cambric chemise, wrought with gold
una camis da homo de cambraglia, lavorada de oro
one men’s cambric shirt, wrought with gold
due camise de bambaso, lavorate di seda negra suso le crespe
two linen chemises, with black silk trimmings under the pleats/folds
una camisa di tela batiza lavorada di seda negra, inzipado il colar
one chemise of fine linen cloth with black silk work, around the collar
[tela batiza = cloth used for baptisms, so a fine linen cloth]
una manica de camisa de cambralia, lavorata de oro seda de più colori,
one sleeve of a cambric chemise, wrought with gold silk of more colours
quatro grombiali di cambralia, lavorati cum oro, listadi al longo, videlicet uno di seda negra,
four cambric smocks, wrought with gold thread, striped vertically, one of which is black silk
uno par de maniche large, listade cum lavorerii di seda negra
one pair of large sleeves, with stripes of black silk
Of interest here is Isabella’s bathing chemise. These chemises may have resembled those worn by the bathmaids in the image from this fifteenth-century bible from the Library of the National Museum in Prague. Perhaps the gold work in these chemises refers to the neckline and straps that are visible on these garments. Isabella may have worn this chemise or one like it when she visited the hot springs at the thermal spa of Abano south of Padua in 1532 (Shaw, 275).
- Camise (from Stivini, Le Collezioni Gonzaga, 240)
Due camise di tela de renso, lavorate di seda zizola, videlicet una a traverso e una al sbiasso,
Two chemises of Rheims linen, worked of silk dyed with the fruit of the jujube, one embroidered crosswise and the other biaxially
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate di seda cremesina, videlicet una al longo e l’altra al traverso
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought of with silk dyed with kermes, one with the embroidery lengthways and the other horizontally (sideways).
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, listadi al longo
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue silk and striped vertically
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda incarnada
one chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with bright red silk
una camisa di tela di renso, lavorata cum seda morella,
one chemise of cloth of fine linen, wrought with mulberry red silk
due camise di tela di renso, lavorate cum seda turchina, videlicet le cositure maestre,
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, wrought with turquoise blue coloured silk on the front.
quarantaotto camise di tela di renso, da notte, lavorate cum seda negra,
Forty-eight nighgowns of Rheims linen, wrought with black silk
decesette camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda negra
seventeen chemises of Rheims linen, Spanish style, wrought with black silk
due camise di tela di renso, all spagnola, lavorate cum seda biancha
two chemises of cloth of fine linen, Spanish style, wrought with white silk
The chemises embroidered with silk threads of various colours around the collars and cuffs may have resembled a contemporary men’s shirt in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Daniela Ferrari, Le Collezioni Gonzaga: L’inventario dei beni del 1540–1542, ed. Daniela Ferrari (Milan: Silvana, 2003)
Christine Shaw, Isabella d’Este: a Renaissance Princess (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019)
*** Many thanks to Professor Carolyn James and Jessica O’Leary for their assistance with these translations.