Eugenia Paulicelli, Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy: From Sprezzatura to Satire.
Eugenia Paulicelli's Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy is divided into three parts, each containing two chapters, which trace the representation of fashion and its role in reinforcing and "fashioning" cultural norms in Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, Cesare Vecellio and Giacomo Franco's costume books, and Arcangela Tarabotti and Agostino Lampugnani's critical and satirical considerations. Paulicelli unites these diverse texts and historical contexts by focusing on several common themes, including: the relationship of fashion with art, nature, language, social and national identity, gender, and codes of moral conduct; the role of fashion in both religious and lay contexts; the importance of fashion in the Italian economy, especially with regard to silk production in Venice; and the ways in which new printing technologies influenced modes of production of clothing and ornaments. The rich array of illustrations included in the volume provides immediate access to the primary texts and enhances Paulicelli's discourse on the complementary nature of word and image. Moreover, the author's analysis of these specific texts is situated within an impressive historical and critical framework; starting in the late medieval period with brief considerations of 14th-century sumptuary laws and writers such as Christine De Pizan, she draws parallels between descriptions of women's public appearances from the 15th-century works of Leon Battista Alberti to late 19thcentury capitalist society.
In the first chapter of Part I, "The Cultures of Fashion," Paulicelli discusses the etymology of the terms moda and moderno and presents fashion as a system governed by the same oscillation between "stability and change" and "uniformity and distinction" that characterizes modernity itself. The second chapter is centered around the "narrative power" of courtly attire in The Book of the Courtier, as well as in Castiglione's private letters and in Renaissance works of art in which clothing and accessories are used not only to designate social rank but also to help construct political and national identities. Specifically, Paulicelli examines Castiglione's representation of sprezzatura in terms of both fashion and selffashioning in The Courtier, for example in discussions of the proper attire for the courtier in Book II and the recommendation that women use dress to enhance their natural appearance, according to an understanding of beauty and virtue not as natural attributes, but rather as raw materials that can be manipulated. Lastly, Paulicelli compares the performative function of dress with that of language, positing fashion as a "vernacular" linked to cultural and geographic belonging.
In the second part of the book, "The Fabric of Cities: Nations, Empire in Costume Books by Cesare Vecellio and Giacomo Franco," Paulicelli shows how Vecellio's Degli habiti antichi e moderni and Giacomo Franco's 17th-century costume plates depicting Venetian fashion both use clothing to create visual and narrative maps of social, gender, and political identities in Italy and abroad. While addressing the influence of sumptuary laws, increased social mobility, and a wider availability of luxury items on fashion during the period, Paulicelli looks at both works in the context of the contemporaneous genres of costume and conduct books and shows how Vecellio and Franco not only document but also participate in the dissimulation inherent in fashion by using dress to shape their representations of historical events and figures. For example, Vecellio and Franco's depictions of the former Doge Sebastiano Venier as wearing a toga and armor, respectively, reveal the social and political connotations of clothing and thus its "grammar of power." Here, beyond signifying authority and virility, the use of armor shows how functional garments often assume a purely aesthetic function over time. This transformation from the useful to the fashionable (or, in Barthesian terms, from the "technological" to the "semiotic") is similarly exemplified by representations of sacred objects like rosaries and veils as fashionable accessories.
In the final section of the book, "Beyond Sprezzatura: Fashion as Excess," Paulicelli turns to the Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti's defense of women's rights with regard to both fashion trends and modes of self-fashioning and her critique of the double standards within the Venetian social and gender hierarchy. Tarabotti's numerous reflections on clothing and appearance in her Antisatira, Paternal Tyranny, and Inferno monacale show that the same forms of dissimulation and vanity permitted in men's fashion are scorned when adopted by women. By focusing on these works, Paulicelli provides a glimpse into Tarabotti's contacts with prominent literary figures and academicians despite her confinement in a convent, while also noting Tarabotti's practical involvement in the physical production of clothing and embroidery and describing actual differences in dress between nuns and other women. Despite the breadth of historical and textual references provided in this chapter, this section of Paulicelli's study might strike the reader as the least immediately pertinent to the specific topic of fashion, as the emphasis on Tarabotti's writing as a "locus of self-fashioning" and Paulicelli's argument that Tarabotti's language has "a sartorial connotation insofar as she uses rhetoric and style 'to dress' language" (p. 200) at times seem tenuous when compared with the more concrete examples of the role of fashion, attire, and physical appearance provided in earlier chapters. In the final chapter of the book, Paulicelli looks at comparisons of fashion with contagion or an epidemic and the misogynistic representation of women's dress in the various editions of Lampugnani's mid-17th century pamphlet, La Carrozza da nolo, in which a group of travelers discuss the fashions and habits of the time.
Some might find Paulicelli's liberal adoption of the terms proto-capitalism, proto-imperialism, proto-journalism, and hegemony and her comparisons to contemporary culture anachronistic or somewhat gratuitous. In addition to likening Castiglione and Vecellio to film directors avant la lettre for their respective abilities to zoom in on detail and capture motion, she describes the nearly 400,000 results yielded by a Google search for the term sprezzatura in relation to contemporary menswear and uses Photoshop as an analogy for the dichotomy between art and nature in The Courtier. Yet, such references also make the volume particularly appealing and accessible to a wide audience of readers from various academic disciplines and interests, especially given Paulicelli's discussion and translations of passages from works not currently available in English translation. In conclusion, Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy is an engaging and timely contribution to studies of material culture in 16th- and 17thcentury Europe that will appeal to scholars and students of Italian, comparative literature, fashion studies, women's studies, and history.
Reviewed by: Aria Zan Cabot, Truman State University, USA