The Realm of Venus Presents....

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Maestra Ginevra Visconti

SCA Peer - Laurel
A Florentine Gown in the style of the 1530/40s

Ginevra Says

Within the SCA I am known as Ginevra Visconti. I reside in the Barony of Wyvernwoode (Tampa) in the Kingdom of Trimaris (Florida). My persona is that of a Milanese noblewoman living with her condottiere brother at his estate in the late 1400s. Costuming is my big passion, especially Italian, though I have dabbled in the garb of other countries and times. I have done extensive research into the way the nobility hunted with hounds in France and England from 1480-1600 and have also explored period Italian recipes, and tried my hand at painting portraits in oil as well.

In February of last year, Their Royal Majesties Yoan Moon Yang and Eorann Maguire announced that they had accepted the recommendation of the Order of the Laurel - that I be made one of their number. You could have knocked me over with a feather! While Their Majesties were willing to make it official then and there, I elected to have the elevation ceremony take place in three months' time. After all, I had to have a new dress for the occasion! So the date was set for the next kingdom event, Coronation, in May.

I knew that I wanted to use dramatic fabric. I happened to have four yards of a russet-colored material with gold bees woven into it, waiting patiently in my fabric stash. (I've been fascinated with bees as a design motif, and had recently submitted a heraldic device incorporating gold bees.) It just so happened that the fabric store had another bolt of the stuff on hand, so I bought a couple more yards. The fabric was a home decor fabric with a slight sheen, a nice weight to work with. It's likely a blend of rayon. In my mind this is what we in the SCA like to call a "reasonable substitution". I have seen silk with bees embroidered on it selling for over $100 a yard! This fabric was more affordable, and the woven bees could stand in for embroidered ones. Plus, I already had a quantity of it on hand.


Design Inspirations


I had been perusing the "Festive Attyre" gallery of portraits of women from Florence and other regions, 1525-1550. Usually I base my gowns on one particular portrait, but this time I elected to incorporate elements from a couple of different paintings. The main inspiration for this dress was the image of a dramatic red gown with full sleeves - "Portrait of a Lady", by an unknown artist, created in 1533 in the Galleriadi Stato, Dresden. (Seen at left).

I was intrigued by the narrow, gold embroidered partlet. (See Detail 1, below). I had fabric that looked very similar, gold embroidered voile that I could use to duplicate the effect. Since I had discovered some woven trim that coordinated nicely with my red fabric, I decided to place trim along the neckline and on the sleeves, similar to the treatment seen in Bronzino’s "Portrait of a Lady", now in the collection of the Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Napoli. (See Portrait 2, below).

Though the trim in this painting is plain, more elaborate trim (possibly embroidery) appears on the neckline of the gown seen in Bacchiacca’s 1540 "Portrait of a Woman with a Book of Music", currently in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Las Angeles, California. (See Portrait 1, Detail 2 below).


Portrait 1: Bacchiacca’s 1540 "Portrait of a Woman with a Book of Music", currently in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Portrait 2: Bronzino’s "Portrait of a Lady", now in the collection of the Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Napoli.

Detail 2: Close-up of embroidery

Detail 1: Close-up of partlet

The "Portrait of an Unknown Florentine Noblewoman", circa 1540, from the San Diego Museum of Art (Seen at right) caught my eye too, and I decided to incorporate the use of tabs under the puff at the top of the sleeve (below). I have a fondness for tabs, and I wanted to cut them so that a bee motif would be centered on each one.

I also wanted a cloak for the ceremony. As luck would have it, I found green fabric with woven laurel wreaths, bees, and fleur de lys. Piombo's "Dorotea" (Ritratto Femminile), in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin, depicts a cloak trimmed with a fur collar. (See below) I found a vintage "leopard fur" short cloak on e-Bay that I fashioned the collar from. The cloak itself was pieced in panels to make best use of the yardage.

Practical Considerations

Click for larger imageAs I live in Trimaris (Florida), I find that I sometimes make a costuming compromise or two due to the excessive heat and humidity. For instance, as I write this in February 2004, the temperature has already reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit a few times this month! One change is that I seldom fully line the skirts of my gowns. To give the pleats some extra weight, I frequently add a 3-5" band of heavyweight woven interfacing to the skirts where they will join to the waist. This makes the pleats crisper and more substantial, without adding an entire extra layer to the skirts. I do line my bodices and sleeves, usually in mid-weight cotton. Cotton is much easier to come by than linen here, and comes in a wider variety of colors. I feel that silk was probably the fabric of choice in Italy, even for linings, based on the information in Jacqueline Herald's Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500. Again, cotton wins as a "reasonable substitution" in my book for ease of wear, price, and availability.

I create my garb with a combination of both machine and hand sewing, utilizing the machine for seams that need to be extra sturdy, and stitching by hand where I don’t want a seam to show.

I got to work and created a simple gown that would act as a corset, similar to the undergown of Eleanora di Toledo’s burial garments (detailed in Patterns of Fashion: The Cut & Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c. 1560-1620 by Janet Arnold) of cotton brocade, with a light cotton skirt cartridge-pleated on; the cartridge pleats were meant to help bear out the skirts on the red gown. The bodice of my underdress laces in back, a consensus to my figure. I find that side- or back-lacing bodices fit me better and provide a smoother line. A basic camicia (chemise) with long sleeves is worn beneath this garment.

Click for larger imageFor the bodice, I started with my basic 1490’s bodice pattern and moved the side-lacing seams to the side back, again referring to Eleanora di Toledo’s burial clothes - her rich gown with the embroidered guards laced in the side back as well. I applied the trim next, and then set in the sleeves. The fitted portion of the sleeve goes all the way to the shoulder seam, with the great big "pouf" attached on top. The poufs were created with soft pleats at both ends. The tabs were sandwiched in between where the pouf was sewn to the sleeve beneath it.

Click for larger imageThe skirt was attached to the bodice with box pleats; I liked the way they looked in the green 1540’s Florentine dress and went with them. It seems to me that the gowns were transitioning from the box pleats found in the late 1400s to cartridge pleats more common later in the 16th century at this time, based in both the specific paintings I was studying for this project and others in this time period.

After the gown was finished, I created the partlet by draping the material over the shoulders while the garment was on my dressmaker’s form. The embroidered material is accented with metallic gold braid at the edges.

For the elevation ceremony (above, top right), a wreath made of laurel and juniper was placed on my head, so I didn’t wear a headdress for the occasion. I have since made a small headdress out of bronze silk; I think I need to make a larger one and see which I like better.

If you’re at all interested in Italian Renaissance illumination, check out the award scroll that my husband, Master Godfrey de Shipbrook, created for the occasion. It’s based on the Visconti Hours; pictures and descriptions can be found here -

Bella Says.....

Even if this dress wasn't red, it would still be gorgeous (am I showing my love of red?). This style has oomph and pizazz, and is ultimately a very practical, comfortable and not too complicated a style compared with later sixteenth century styles. Maestra Ginevra has used a beautiful fabric, which is a good substitution for a more expensive, embroidered fabric, and managed even to incorporate her heraldic device into the bargain! The partlet fabric is very close in 'feel' to the original - very luscious! And to top it off, a lovely cloak and small balzo. Perfect! If you would like to contact Maestra Ginevra, you may contact her at this e-mail address, and you can view her current dress diary here.

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(Copyright Information: As author I, Anabella Wake, known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona, hold copyright on all information on these pages. In addition I hold copyright 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.)