A dress, a hat or an item of jewellery can help to identify a person in a painting or sculpture. However, items of costume that might have been easily understood in the Renaissance have become more difficult to read today. In the portrait of Beatrice d’Este (in the Red Gallery at Christ Church) the sitter wears a string of pearls with a pendant consisting of an emerald, ruby and pear-shaped pearl. This seems to be a piece of jewellery that Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, sent as a gift to his bride, Beatrice d’Este, six months before their wedding in 1491. The colours of the jewels of the pendant (green, red and white) pick up Ludovico’s heraldic colours.
Colour played a great importance in the understanding of costume, something that an exhibition of drawings cannot fully express. However, the thirty-four drawings in this exhibition capture something that is more fundamental – the underlying design, expressed in the structure and the form of the dress. Drawing alone can also convey the fabric out of which a garment is made – the rough, scratchy cloth of the monk or the fine flowing silk of a princess’ dress. The properties of fabric, how it falls and how it envelopes the body, were intensely studied by artists and were an important part of their training.
The exhibition showed designs for fantastic costumes and hats, drawings that were made to express the artists’ idea for a new piece of attire, like Bacchiacca’s Profile of a female figure in fantastic head-dress, as well as drawings which record already existing dresses, like Domenico Fetti’s Portrait of Caterina de Medici – the sitter certainly had chosen the dress with its fine lace collar for this portrait.
Another category of dress are outfits which might vary in detail, but have remained unchanged in their basic form - the monk, the soldier, the knight, the bishop - are all easily identifiable through their garments. Certain other professions, even though prone to change, remain recognisable, like the depiction of a cook by the Florentine artist Jacopo da Empoli in this exhibition. Even though it was drawn around 1600 the viewer immediately understands the figure’s role.
The ideas outlined in the drawings in this exhibition are supplemented by the paintings in the Picture Gallery. Costume and its depiction can be studied further in the finished paintings - be it the aristocratic splendour in the Portrait of Beatrice’Este, or the more bourgeois outfit in Frans Hals Portrait of a Woman. Equally interesting is a comparison between the dress of the Scullion of Christ Church by John Riley with that of a Gentleman by Ludovico Carracci.
Guido Canlassi, called Il Cagnacci (1601-81)
A young man in armour
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