Dressed (or undressed) for success

Researching the life of an "honest courtesan," Margaret Rosenthal unfolded a closet full of 16th-century sartorial secrets.
by Carol Tucker
Engraving of a fashionable 16th-century courtesan.

Veronica Franco, like other 16th-century Venetian courtesans, lovedto flaunt her lavish costumes.

The sumptuous garments were both a sign of wealth and prestige and astatement of beauty and identity, according to Margaret F. Rosenthal,associate professor of Italian and an authority on Renaissancecourtesan fashions.

In one famous oil painting attributed to Tintoretto, Franco isbedecked in a rich crimson gown with a frothy linen undergarment,known as a camicia. The low-cut, tight-fitting silk bodice isembroidered with silver thread and pearls and fringed with a ruffledborder. Her throat and bosom are adorned with precious jewels, and adark blue silk scarf is draped about her shoulders. Her thick reddishhair is swept up into a horned coiffure, exposing hoop earrings tiedwith tiny bows.

Like some of today's sultry fashions, 16th-century garments werecarefully slashed - to expose costly underlayers of rich-colored silkand linen undergarments. Everything from the sleeves to the skirt wasdetachable - the "ultimate separates." A woman could make subtlechanges to her clothes and never be caught wearing the same outfittwice - a handy trick considering the price tag.

"When you think about how jeans are slashed today, it's consideredsexy. In the Renaissance, the clothing revealed more fabricunderneath as a status symbol - making it more ornate," saidRosenthal, author of The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizenand Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice.

The courtesans dressed as ornately as aristocratic women - not tolook like them but to show off their own wealth and success,Rosenthal said.

"These were extremely expensive outfits. It was a sign of stature towear them, and the courtesans added their own flare," Rosenthal said."They often set the fashion."

While conducting research on the courtesans of 16th-century Venice,Rosenthal grew intrigued by the women's costumes. The dress of theperiod, she realized, helped form a national and regional identity.

This month, Rosenthal presented a lecture on the Venetian courtesan'scostumes to about 600 members of the Costume Council, a support groupof the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In her research, Rosenthal is studying two unpublished manuscripts -both illustrated "travel albums" from the 16th century. One islocated at the Doris Stein Research Center for Costumes and Textiles,based at LACMA, where Rosenthal is a visiting scholar; the other ishoused at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at YaleUniversity. Both feature watercolor illustrations of everyday life,revealing in fine detail the costumes of the day.

"They are just a gold mine of information," said Rosenthal, who cameacross the manuscripts while researching The Honest Courtesan. "Thisgives me another way of understanding groups of women in theRenaissance."

The manuscripts were probably commissioned by European aristocrats.The one housed at LACMA includes 101 watercolor illustrations datingback to 1595. On the back of many plates are hand-painted coats ofarms, which Rosenthal believes represent the subjects' autographs.

"What is remarkable about [the illustrations] is that the sketchesare incredibly accurate in their detail," said Sandra Rosenbaum,assistant curator of the Stein Center. "You can see the jewelry, hairornaments, earrings and details of the ruffles and lace around theirnecks."

The Renaissance costumes are unusual because every piece comes apart.

"The sleeves are tied on with ribbons, the bodice is detachable fromthe skirt and the undergarments are all part of the look, butseparate. The fabric can be pulled through and seen from theoutside," Rosenthal said. As the 16th century progressed, more andmore skin was exposed, to the point where bared breasts were thefashion for courtesans and other women, she said.

During her lecture, Rosenthal also discussed how courtesans woremale-style clothing as undergarments - such as linen knickers,embroidered with phrases such as "I want the heart."

Rosenthal plans to decipher the two travel albums to learn howclothing influenced visitors' views of Venice, as well as tounderstand how Venetians portrayed themselves. She also will look atthe differences between men's and women's valuation of clothes.

For all their flair, Venetian courtesans faced a paradox. As much asthe government saw the women's costumes as a symbol of the city'swealth and stature, the male-dominated republic also cracked down onthe courtesan's dress through sumptuary laws. These regulations wereintended to protect patrician women's honor from the courtesans, whomimicked their noble bearing and costumes.

"The courtesans reached the point of having so much wealth andstature that it became difficult to separate them from noblewomen. Sothe government tried to make it hard for them to wear the sameclothes," Rosenthal said.

But the sumptuary laws were mostly ignored, both by the courtesansand the government. In The Honest Courtesan, Rosenthal argues thatthese laws were not strictly enforced because the courtesan -particularly the "honest courtesan," who entertained patrons throughnon-sexual activities - "satisfied her society's need for a refinedyet sexualized version of the aristocratic woman."