John Trussler, The Habitable World Described, Or the Present State of the People in all parts o the Globe, from North to South; together with The Genius, Manners, Customs, Trade, Religion, Forms of Government, & of the Inhabitants, and every thing respecting them, that can be either entertaining or informing to the Reader, collected from the earliest and latest Accounts of Historians and Travellers of all Nations; With some that have never been published in this kingdom; And nothing advanced but on the best Authorities (1788-97)

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Summary

The Courtauld Library holds volume sixteen of Rev. John Trussler’s expansive scope of books entitled, The Habitable World Described… It focuses on Italy: namely, the Papal States, Sicily, Naples, and Malta. It is just one of twenty volumes, the first of which was published in 1788 and the last in 1797; each attempts, with the addition of engraved copper plates and maps, to describe the ‘entire known habitable world’. It was produced in the late eighteenth century, a period when British territorial expansion overseas was in full swing and travel accounts played an important role in disseminating information, mainly concerning areas claimed and conquered, to a larger European public beyond the scientific community. An interesting mix of science and sentiment, Trussler’s interest with pre-unification Italy was not uncommon. Italy in the late eighteenth century, with its art and architecture of classical antiquity, fascinated numerous British travellers, as had continental Europe as a whole.

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Response

Trussler was concerned with the geography, politics, and social structures of the places he visited, not to mention the people, although dress played a minor role in his descriptive accounts of them. References to dress in Trussler’s account are far from abundant, which leads one to deduce that Stella Mary Newton, to whom this book belonged, was primarily concerned with encouraging her students to venture into the mind-set of the different periods studied in the Courtauld postgraduate dress history course, through first-hand, eyewitness accounts, such as that of an eighteenth-century traveller like Trussler.

In one mention of dress, Trussler described the outfits of the Sicilian nobility during the Festival of Saint Rosalia in Sicily, held on the 14th July: ‘The assemblies, at the viceroy’s palaces…gave me an opportunity of seeing the whole corps of mobility collected together. The men are rather a comely race; but the ladies are little favoured by nature. Two girls, under eight years of age, heiresses of great families, and already betrothed, made their appearance in the ballroom, decked out in the very excesses of the mode: their flowy dresses, their diminutive size, and affected gravity, in dancing a minuet; joined to the fatherly care, their future husbands anxiously took of them, reminded me of dolls ready to move around a table by clockwork.’

I was disappointed that Trussler failed to mention in detail the clothing worn by the men – since this omission suggests he associated dress with women and femininity. However, his description of the movement of the little girls’ dresses, which flowed as they danced, draws attention to its tactile qualities, which is of central concern to our contemporary understanding of dress as an object and idea, performed not only through the clothing itself, but also its representation.

Cesare Vechellio, Habiti Antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo (1598)

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Summary 

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.

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Response

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.

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