Margaret Roe: An Italian Ombrella of the Late Sixteenth Century

Description of This Item
An Italian Ombrella of the late Sixteenth Century, with a canopy of pale blue silk taffeta, stiffened with ½” wide, half-round reed. The handle is made of maple, with hand-turned elements.

How This Item Was Used in Period
Parasols and umbrellas were carried in western Europe by soldiers and wealthy travelers for shade from the sun.


Materials Used in Period and Materials Used in This Piece: The Frame
Among the contemporary sources, two methods of extending the canopy are described. The first method describes a style similar to modern umbrellas, with spokes extending out from a center pole or handle. The second method, noted by Thomas Coryate in 1611, describes a canopy held open by wooden hoops:

“Also many of them doe carry other fine things of a far greater price, that will cost at the least a duckat, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue umbrellaes, that is, things that minister shadow unto them for shelter against the scorching heate of the Sunne. These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy, & hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their hands when they ride, fastening the end of the handle upon one of their thighes, and they impart so long a shadow unto them, that it keepeth the heate of the sunne from the upper parts of their bodies.”

No contemporary description specified the type of wood used, however, in Essais de la Vanité, Michel de Montaigne described the ombrellas of Tuscany as being more of “a burden to the arm than a protection to the head,” suggesting that they were heavy and may have been made of denser woods. Regardless of the type of wood, the handles were often as decorated as the canopies. The engraving of the frame of Diane de Poitiers’ ombrella shows ornately carved rings and handle, much like the ornate center pole of the Doge’s ombrella, depicted on page 4. Further, the ombrella owned by Queen Elizabeth I was recorded to have a mother of pearl handle (Arnold).

The Canopy
Descriptions of the canopies also demonstrate two distinct styles. The first style describes a leather-covered canopy. Michael Drayton suggests that leather parasols were used to shield the users from precipitation, as well as sunlight (Crawford). The second style covered the canopy in fine fabrics. Mary, Queen of Scots' ombrella was covered in crimson satin, decorated with silk and gold fringe and tassels, and painted buttons. The parasol said to belong to Henri IV was made of blue silk (Crawford). The Stowe Inventory lists “one Canopie of Crimson Capha damaske (to carrie over one) striped with lace of Venice golde and sylver, the handle Mother of p(ear)le” (Arnold). 


This Reconstruction 
This ombrella was made in the style described by Coryate, with a canopy extended by hoops. The canopy was made of pale blue silk taffeta, and stiffened with ½” wide, half-round reed at the edge of the canopy.

The handle is made of maple, hand turned and assembled by W.N. Lucas of Annapolis, Maryland, USA, a professional furniture maker specializing in medieval reproductions. The handle profile and finial were based on common finial and turning profiles of the 16th century. 

The canopy was hand sewn in linen thread, using back-stitch along the internal seam and whip-stitch on all other seams.

An eyelet was made at the center top using linen thread. This method was chosen to allow the handle to pass through the canopy yet to prevent the opening from ripping. 

Additional Information
A mockup was made before constructing the final canopy. This was helpful in determining the type of boning necessary. The original design included bundles of small, round reed along the edge of a more conical, less flat, canopy, shaped much like the ombrella of Sir Henry Unton (right, below). However, this produced a canopy that collapsed in on itself, and no amount of additional rows of boning provided enough strength to maintain the shape of the canopy. ¼” reed was also tested, but did not provide enough strength. On the other hand, ½” wide reed provided the necessary strength, but produced a vertical edge, regardless of the shape of the canopy itself. As a result, a perfectly flat line of the canopy was not obtainable, and the design of the canopy was changed to include a separate boning channel along the outside edge, more like the Doge’s ombrella. By changing to a flatter shape, the canopy also developed a more concave shape, much like that of the Doges’ ombrella.


Future Changes
The size of the canopy was dictated by storage limitations, however a larger canopy would lend itself better to a second canopy, like that on the Doge’s ombrella. A small second canopy may be attempted at a later date, but will probably require narrow boning.

Also, the point where the boning overlaps was lined up with the seam in the canopy. This caused the weight of the canopy to be greater at that point, and causes the canopy to tip in that direction. In the future, the point where the boning overlaps should be placed opposite of the seam.

Additionally, the linen thread used to stitch the seams was chosen because of the tight weave of the taffeta, however it did not withstand any tension. Additional research suggests that this thread is of a poorer quality and changing this thread would produce better seams and more consistent stitching.

Eventually, the canopy will be embroidered with silver bullion couched in a pattern based on a bible once owned by Henry VIII and now in the British Library.


Primary Sources
Arnold, Janet (Ed.) "The Inventory Made in July 1600 of all Clothes, Wilks and Personal Jewels remaining in the Wardrobe of Robes at the Tower of London and within the Court at the Palace of Whitehall, Westminster, and other Royal Residences." (The Stowe Inventory). Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. Leeds, Great Britain: W.S. Maney & Son Ltd. 1988.

Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher. Rule a Wife and have a Wife. 1624. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14549.

Coryate, Tom. Coryat's Crudities: Hastily Gobled Up in Five Moneths Travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia Commonly Called the Grisons Country, Helvetia Alias Switzerland, Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands : Newly Digested in the Hungry Aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and Now Dispersed to the Nourishment of the Travelling Members of This Kingdome. (1611; repr., Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons. 1905).

Cotgrave, Randle. A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. London: Adam Islip. 1611. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/.

Estiennes, Henri. Deux Dialogues du Nouveau Langage François Italianizé. (1578; repr., Paris: A. Lemerre, 1885.) http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k411445t.

Florio, John. A Worlde of Wordes. London: Arnold Hatfield for Edw. Blount. 1598. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio1598/.

Johnson, Ben. The Devil is an Ass. 1616. http://www.hollowaypages.com/jonson1692devil.htm.

Minsheu, John. A Dictionarie in Spanish and English. London: Edmund Bollifant. 1599. http://www.ems.kcl.ac.uk/content/proj/anglo/dict/index.html.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essais de la Vanité. 1592. http://www.bribes.org/trismegiste/montable.htm.

Secondary Sources
Crawford, T.S. A History of the Umbrella. New York, NY: Taplinger Publishing Company. 1970.

Farrell, Jeremy. Umbrellas & Parasols. New York, NY: Drama Book Publishers. 1985.

Hirst, Matthew. Curator, Waddeson Manor, Waddeson, England. Electronic Mail. 24 January 2006.

Von Boehn, Max. Modes & Manners: Ornaments: Lace, Fans, Gloves, Walking-Sticks, Parasols, Jewelry, and Trinkets. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 1929.




© 2001 - 2011 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and on all images of clothing/costume that I have made. You are allowed to make one facsimile copy for your own use provided that this notice is included on each page. Please ask permission to copy, disseminate and/or distribute my work - I would like to know when and how you are finding this information of use.