Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories

Still looking for Christmas gifts? You might be inspired by a book on Renaissance accessories. Matthew Reisz writes

December 22, 2011

Whatever else it was, the Renaissance was an age of bling, camp fashionistas, conspicuous consumption and fabulous frocks. So it is only appropriate that the edited volume Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories should be an extremely good-looking collection. A serpent slithers down the book's spine, taken from Piero di Cosimo's compelling cover portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, where the bare-breasted noblewoman wears both a gold chain and a black snake around her neck. Lavish illustrations of clasps, gloves, hip chains and sweet bags may even inspire a few Christmas gifts.

Most chapters examine fairly standard topics such as pearls, jewels more generally, shoes, wax seals, "scented buttons and perfumed gloves". More unexpected is the coverage given to "accessories" such as boys and dildos. Together, they open up some striking and often disconcerting ways of seeing the Renaissance afresh.

Not long ago, recalls editor Bella Mirabella, associate professor of literature and humanities at New York University, it was considered shocking "when people first began to study material culture. I remember word went out before a meeting of the Modern Language Association that someone was going to be talking about buttons. There was a lot of talk about how trivial and silly that was."

More recently, Renaissance scholars have devoted much attention to domestic objects and fashion, not least to the handkerchief that is so central to the plot of Othello. Mirabella was interested in the way that itinerant mountebank performers used handkerchiefs to receive money and hand out remedies.

But although the writers of pioneering etiquette manuals - whose number included the humanist scholar Erasmus - laid down rules about the right way to blow one's nose, and fashionable ladies were often painted with handkerchief in hand, a handkerchief inevitably remained an ambiguous object, required to "negotiate between the clean and the questionable". Mirabella's own chapter in Ornamentalism argues that women in the Renaissance also had to "occupy this difficult space".

Other accessories, in her view, can also "illuminate gender, power and the construction of image. One of the things I wanted to do is to show that they are not trivial; they are not merely additions to the larger dress or the larger Renaissance milieu. The very ideas and ideals of the Renaissance that we know about are embedded in the wearing of accessories such as the veil, pearls or a signet ring. They have a deeper meaning.

"It would be great if the book reinvented the way we look at the Renaissance - and maybe it does in a way. It certainly gives us another angle from which to look at material culture and cultural practice."

Fashion has always been a terrain in which style and sexuality are both expressed and (particularly for women) policed.

For the early Christian apologist Tertullian, the veil was "a helmet of the virgins and a shield against darts and temptations, armour of honesty, bastion and shelter of chastity". Except, of course, when it was worn with a spectacularly low-cut dress. Renaissance moralists savaged the "lascivious" women who appeared in public like this, even as early fashion advisers offered helpful tips. Florentine legislation in 1546 required courtesans to wear a yellow head covering, "so that everybody is able to distinguish [them] from honest women", although one particularly eloquent courtesan managed to appeal successfully against this ruling. Ornamentalism's chapter on veils, written by Eugenia Paulicelli, professor of Italian, comparative literature and women's studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, explores the process by which women transformed "an object of modesty" into "an object of fashion".

Other chapters take us into more familiar territory. We still use jewellery both to display status and to express love, as if we were snobs even in our most intimate relations. And the book's discussion of dildos points to an outlook not a million miles removed from Sex and the City. Liza Blake, a PhD student at New York University, cites cases of "women who were caught and sometimes prosecuted for wielding a strap-on as early as the 16th century", not to mention examples of dildos filled with warm milk "to simulate erection or ejaculation". Such sex toys can be seen as "accessories in the legal sense: partners in crime", for "the many actions [they] enabled women to perform when worn on their bodies". But Blake believes that they also counted as fashion accessories, costly and elaborately decorated "exotic foreign commodit[ies]", citing a poem that claims that they are superior to "a number of (inexpensive) self-pleasuring options such as candles, carrots, parsnips and 'Ganimedes' (young men)".

Mirabella was understandably anxious that the book should not confine its attentions to accessories worn by women, and the way men reacted to them. (The busk, described by the authors of another chapter as "a flat piece of hard substance worn down a channel stitched into the front of a woman's corset and tied in place in order to stiffen and flatten her torso", inspired much bawdy humour from poets expressing the wish to spend their whole lives in similar proximity to their mistress' body.) She therefore included a chapter on the codpiece by Will Fisher, associate professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York.

His paper describes how codpieces were used to hold objects as diverse as ballads, bottles, napkins and pistols, and how Henry VIII's was put on display in the Tower of London, where it seems to have been used as a fertility talisman. Fisher notes that there were basically two kinds of codpiece: the "bagged appendage" - a character in a play swears "by the round, sound and profound...contents of this costly Codpeece" - and a version that "one fashion historian claims looked like a 'permanent erection'".

As well as outlining their correspondence with different aspects of male genitalia, Fisher links them with competing notions of masculinity, a "testicular" model based on producing lots of children and a more "phallic" ideal stressing "the sexual 'conquest' of women".

Despite many passing references to well-known writers and artists, much of Ornamentalism is not directly about high culture. But the final chapter on "the boy as accessory on the early modern stage" takes us to the heart of Shakespeare's theatre.

"The whole issue of the boy players is a very disturbing thing," says Mirabella. "What was really happening to those boys? Were they going home to mum and dad at night?"

In order to answer such questions, suggests Amanda Bailey, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, it is useful to see them as "fashion accessories". In a play by Ben Jonson, she points out, "the ever-fashionable Fastidious Brisk struts down the middle aisle of St Paul's Cathedral to showcase his new boy Cinedo", a version of the Latin word for a passive sex partner.

Other evidence assembled by Bailey suggests that the pre-pubescent boys who appeared on the stage were effectively bought or kidnapped and perhaps rented out to other players and audience members as prostitutes or sex toys. We are a long way from the starched ruffs and haircare hints that other contributors discuss, but much of the appeal of this fascinating book is its ability to challenge our assumptions about both accessories and the Renaissance.


Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, edited by Bella Mirabella, is published by the University of Michigan Press.

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