Cesare Vecellio (1521 – 1601), a Venetian painter, engraver and publisher (and the less recognised cousin of Titian), published his first illustrated costume book in 1590. Entitled The Clothing, Ancient and Modern, of Various Parts of the World, Vecellio’s extensive monograph is a rich historical study into dress from Europe, Africa and Asia in the sixteenth-century. This second edition, published eight years after the original, brings with it a New World section, prompted by geographical exploration and colonization of the Americas. Vecellio’s introductory index lays out his immense global coverage, with an impressively detailed list of the known world, subdivided into further sections by gender, class and occupation. The additional inclusion of a second table, this time meticulously indexed by garment, in both Latin and Italian, suggests he created these volumes to be read, studied and enjoyed by a diverse readership. Vecellio’s visual profiles, made up of over 500 original woodcuts and illustrations, complement the often-humorous commentaries dedicated to each figure. Naturally, the Venetian section is the most comprehensive, outlining character types as diverse as the ‘doge antico’ (old doge), the ‘pizzicamorti’ (corpse-bearers) and the ‘spose nobili moderne’ (noble modern brides). In each case, the inhabitants of Venice, and all subsequent regions, are categorized and defined by their clothing and bodily adornments. In this way, Vecellio adheres to the accepted mode of defining identity by a set of material signifiers. Yet simultaneously, Vecellio’s project is rather modern in its inclusion of such a diverse collection of costume from faraway places that is representative of a fast changing world.
Vecellio’s book is surprisingly easy to follow, even without a grasp of Italian or Latin. This gives credit to the illuminating woodcuts, which skilfully evoke each persona through meticulous observation of fabric, gesture and posture. The depicted fashion minutiae allow the reader to identify a wide range of costumes – from the plain and domestic, to the exotic and extravagant: everything is worthy of inclusion. We meet noble brides, old brides, ordinary brides, modern brides, brides outside the house, and brides en route to a temple, all with their own distinct ensembles and attitudes – who knew so many types of bride existed! We encounter over thirty types of hats, each painstakingly labelled in the introductory index. Every accoutrement is placed under Vecellio’s scrutiny: his intricate vocabulary illuminating the various textiles and garments in circulation at that time. The artist also seems to have gone to great length to pinpoint the figures’ various stances. Some are depicted from behind, some stare ahead pompously. Others are still, whilst others have been captured mid-motion. There is a distinction made between those who are idle, and those whose occupation demands activity. This makes for a very naturalistic portrayal, yet simultaneously relies on stereotypical caricatures to enhance their significance. In the same way, Vecellio’s evidence is sourced from first hand observation, as well as other visual sources, such as painting, architecture and earlier costume books, rendering the work not wholly reliable as a source for the dress historian. However, these sketches must be approached with an acceptance of the work’s reliance on visual conventions: this only furthers our understanding of social identity as it was seen then.
The inclusion of annotated pages by ‘Angelo Antonio Cervelli’, is further evidence that this book was read, re-read and used as an important document of popular dress. However, what is not clear is whether readers took Vecellio’s work as documented fact or fabricated fiction. To the modern reader, Vecellio’s work can be both instructive and enchanting. By charting the ‘constantly changing’ nature of clothing, and the hybridization of fashions across borders, we are reminded of a loss of national identity by globalization that is arguably still relevant today.