The Art of Power Dressing in Renaissance Florence

On the 500th anniversary of the birth of Cosimo I, what do the Medicis’ burial clothes say about fashion and influence?

Florence is a city that cares deeply about its artistic heritage. From the Ferragamo Museum and the Gucci Garden, to the exquisitely packaged perfumes and cosmetics of the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy, it is a city that understands the value of its histories of design and making. Built for centuries on the twin pillars of art and commerce, it also celebrates fashion that sits at the juncture between the two. The Medici banking dynasty is central to histories of Florentine art. While recent biographies of the family suggest the idea that the Medici ‘fathered’ the Renaissance is a myth, much of the artistic and architectural heritage of the city – as well as some of its key institutions – would be very different had the Medici not ruled from the 14th to the 18th century.

This month, the Uffizi Gallery is hosting a triptych of events to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. Cosimo ruled at a transitional time, when the administration of the Florentine city-state was transforming from a republic into an aristocratic court. His immediate predecessor had been granted the title of hereditary Duke after a period of upheaval, granting noble status to a family whose background was in finance and trade. Earlier Medicis supported or commissioned works by leading artists of the day including Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Fra Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Cosimo’s artistic legacy can be felt in works by Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini and Giorgio Vasari, as well as the institutions he founded, such as the Accademia Fiorentina and the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. 

But a more unexpected legacy is left in his burial clothes, which were painstakingly restored over a 10 year period along with those of his wife Eleonora di Toledo and son Garzia. The Palazzo Pitti, once the Ducal home of Cosimo and Eleonora, now houses the Museum of Costume and Fashion where these clothes are on permanent display. Founded in 1983, this was the first Italian state museum to focus on the social significance of fashion. Initially interred in the Medici Chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo, these funeral clothes helps us understand politics, power and patronage in Renaissance Florence, and highlight what the clothing of the dead can teach us about the living.

The burial clothes of Don Garzia de' Medici, doublet with breaches and surcoat, 1562. Courtesy: Uffizi Gallery, Florence 

The sartorial tightrope that Cosimo had to tread at this transitional time is stitched into his garments. On display is his doublet, the remains of his trunk hose and codpiece, and his cappa magna (cape) of the Order of St Stephen: a dynastic military order he founded in 1561. The cape of undyed moiré silk has echoes of heraldic pomp, featuring large tassels and the cross of the Order in red satin. But underneath, his simple satin doublet and wool hose show that while Cosimo was no great trendsetter, he was able to shrewdly use his clothing to underscore his rule. 

Ideas of modesty prevailed in Florentine clothing. Growing from the ideals of the former Republic, dress was viewed as an appendage to your civic role and responsibilities. Florentine fashion was the style of bankers and merchants rather than emperors and kings. Cosimo negotiated these ideas that equated luxury and ostentation with tyranny, favouring simple but local woollen cloth and sober colours. As the artist and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini noted, ‘This Lord had more of the merchant about him than the duke.’

Elizabeth Currie at the V&A Research Institute is the author of Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). She explains that Cosimo was aware of clothing’s potential to convey political messages: ‘During his reign, Cosimo was noted for dressing soberly when he appeared in public but in portraiture he often projected a much more authoritarian stance. He carefully controlled his own sartorial image and that of his family through portraits by the court artist Agnolo Bronzino.’

Outward expressions of modesty were not only a reflection of civic and mercantile pride, but were embedded into the city’s recent past. In 1497, Just 40 years before Cosimo began his rule as the second Duke of Florence, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola had warned of the social and artistic excesses of the age, and encouraged citizens to burn their sinful objects from cosmetics to artworks, literature and fine clothing in what became known as the bonfire of the vanities. 

Eleonora di Toledo, the daughter of Viceroy of Naples, was a Spanish noblewoman who married Cosimo in 1539. She died in Pisa in 1562 at the age of 40, and on display are the gown, crimson velvet bodice and silk stockings she was buried in. In life, this ensemble may have been complimented by gold and pearls, detachable sleeves and an overgown. Much more comfortable in luxury fabrics, Eleonora was also credited with popularizing Spanish styles for women at the court.

Reconstruction of the burial dress of Eleonora di Toledo, 1562. Courtesy: 

Reconstruction of the burial dress of Eleonora di Toledo, 1562. Courtesy: Uffizi Gallery, Florence 

The Florentine wool and silk guilds were influential bodies, and the export of cloth was vital for the economy. ‘Alongside banking, the wool and silk industries were key to Florence’s extraordinary wealth.’ Currie explains. ‘The city’s strong international trade links and ability to create innovative products, both reacting to and shaping consumer demand, made it a leader in these activities.’ Eleonora had dresses of taffeta and silk satin as well as brocaded velvets for official occasions. These sumptuous textiles were manufactured by her personal weavers and were exquisitely captured by court artist Bronzino, who was reportedly paid the same salary as her dressmaker. 

Perhaps most poignantly, Eleonora’s burial clothing sheds light onto the precarious boundary between life and death in the 16th century. Eleonora’s body was dressed hurriedly: the lacing of her gown missed eyelets and a stocking was inside out. The velvet bodice overlapped, showing the ravages of illness on her body. At a time of regular plague outbreaks, contamination was a very real fear, and Eleonora’s funeral clothing serves as a stark reminder of an age of high mortality and brutal epidemics.

Garzia, the seventh child of Cosimo and Eleonora, died at the age of 15, just five days before his mother. His burial doublet, trunk hose, cloak and beret survives him, an outfit which in life would have been completed with stockings. The common silhouette of doublet and padded trunk hose is evident in Giovanni Moroni’s portrait The Tailor (1565–70), which also illustrates the growing importance of tailoring as a craft. Garzia’s crimson satin doublet is decorated with lines of gold cord, complete with fashionable details such as the tall collar and slightly padded ‘peascod’ belly. The ensemble reflects the confidence of a new generation through bolder style choices, unafraid to show his noble birth. The patterned damask of the cloak was again the product of Florentine looms. The sleeves were usually ornamental and it could be slung over one shoulder, illustrating Count Baldassare Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura – the art of appearing effortlessly nonchalant – an idea that has proven to be remarkably resilient in fashion-conscious circles. 

The clothing of both Eleonora and Garzia speak to a biography told in textiles. A patch on the elbow of Garzia’s doublet and repairs on the neckline of Eleonora’s bodice show these were items that were lived in and worn often. These hints of wear and tear remind us of the body beneath the clothing, and illustrate the immense value of textiles in a pre-industrial era which would be repaired or remade rather than discarded. 

Agnolo Bronzino, Allegorical Portrait of Dante, 1532-33, oil on canvas, 1.3 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Clothing supported economies and livelihoods but was also an important tool of the theatre of power. During his lifetime Cosimo issued a series of sumptuary laws which restricted what certain people could wear, an attempt to instill a sense of order and hierarchy, as well as build allegiances and mark out Medici supporters through their dress. He also attempted to revive the long, cloak-like lucco, a garment that symbolised Republican ideals (illustrated in Bronzino’s allegorical painting of Florentine poet Dante, from 1532–33), using the trappings of the city’s republican past to forge continuity with its increasingly authoritarian future.

The Medici channelled their wealth into art, architecture and clothing, something today’s art dealers and collectors might recognize. The opening of the 58th Venice Biennale last month illustrates the strong ties that still exist between the worlds of fashion and art patronage. Louis Vuitton and Gucci have provided space and sponsorship respectively, and Virgil Abloh has furniture designs on display. Dior artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri hosted a charity ball inspired by Rococo painter Giambattista Tiepolo with the Venetian Heritage Foundation in celebration of the opening. Guests arrived on speedboats adorned with Venetian masks proving that, far from being entombed in history, the intertwining of art and fashion, wealth and spectacle is a process that is alive and well. 

Main image: Giovanni Moroni, The Tailor, 1565-70, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She was the presenter of BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Her latest book is The Fashion Chronicles: style stories of history’s best dressed. Find her on Twitter and Insta @AmberButchart

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