The Realm of Venus Presents...

he talian howcase


Chris Catalfamo

Indiana, PA., USA

Historian, Re-Enactor, and Ren Faire participant

A Neapolitan Outfit in the Style of  the 1590s


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Chris Says....


I am a Public/Professional Historian (19th Century USA specialist) who has been a re-enactor/living historian for 40 years. I am 54. My primary era for historical costuming is 1830-1865, but at the behest of one of my students, I started going to SCA events in Arkansas in the late 1970’s. I moved to Austin, Texas in the 1980’s after a professional museum career to finish my doctorate in history at UT, and there attended the Texas Renaissance Festival. On the last weekend in 1987, I went into premature labor with my twin daughters while portraying the merchant class mistress of a Renaissance noble at one of the taverns. So it is no accident that my daughters joined the cast of the Greater Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival 18 years later. This time around, however, there existed a multiplicity of resources, patterns, and internet sources for fabric, trim and accessories. Most of my sewing is still for middle 19th Century living history, especially late 1850’s, but as the Fair season nears I get excited once again about Renaissance. Last year I also did a Glorious Revolution ensemble which was just for fun and for the Pittsburgh Ren-Fest Pirate Invasion and two Italian Ren gowns for my daughters. This year I hope to do a 1530’s Tudor Ensemble, a 1530’s Italian ensemble, and possibly another Vecellio. 

Vecellio’s Neapolitan Matron

Cesare Vecellio was a Venetian artist and engraver who was born around 1530 and died in 1601. The woodcuts that adorn his 1590 De gli Habiti Antichi e Modérni di Diversi Parti di Mondo are an extremely valuable resource for costumers especially in light of the ongoing translation of Vecellio’s accompanying notes. 

The inspiration for this project was Vecellio’s Neapolitan Matron, (#208, Page 62, Vecellio's Renaissance Costume Book by Dover Publications). The ensemble was originally intended as an entry in the Margo’s Patterns Iron Dress Contest in 2006. At the time I didn’t even know about Moda a Firenze. I also used Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion : Anna Sophia Herzogin zu Mecklenburg pp. 109-111, and Margo’s Comfort pattern. The Iron Dress rules required that entrants use only what we had in our stash as of a certain date, $20 extra for trim, and Margo’s patterns. 


Becoming the Image



So I started out with Margo’s Comfort (loose gown) Pattern. Since I am 54 years old and of olive complexion (and also Calabrese/Sicilian), I always look for age and ethnicity appropriate (touch of the Moor) inspirational images. These are quite hard to find primarily because of Renaissance life expectancy (average 40 years) and rarity of dark women in portraiture except those few in the Medici family. Even in portraiture, we are at the mercy of the creative instincts and genre of the painter and the vanity of the sitter. What is emblematic? What is prototype? What is significant of a particular noble house? What is to impress the masses and the other nobles? I don’t have the knowledge of Renaissance Italy to answer most of these questions. And it is almost always nobility that we see. With Vecellio, however, (and also Christoph Weiditz's 'Trachtenbuch' for 1520’s-30’s Europe) we see woodcuts of real Renaissance people of all classes. Vecellio gives us people all over the world and even images from sources like frescoes of fashions in previous decades. 

With all that in mind, I decided upon Vecellio’s Neapolitan Matron though she was probably less than half my age. For my own vanity, my costumes always cover scar tissue and red marks from scleroderma, two tracheotomies and a pacemaker , and my hands which are crippled and scarred. A combination of factors also caused the amputation of my right index fingertip. Consequently I almost always choose high necked fashions and shoot for “fully dressed for the street” so I can also cover my hands. In some ways, my costumes are a victory over my hands. Finally, for Fairs, I try to fit my biography to my ethnicity and limitations. Scleroderma may actually be documented for the Renaissance by a Sistine Chapel image that Michelangelo based upon a cleric whose life story, age at death, and appearance suggest to modern medical specialists that he may have had the disease.


Since there is still some controversy about drawers being risqué, I began with a plain handkerchief linen chemise with a neck ruffle. I did not at this point know enough about camicie or think I had the skills to create one from extant examples. In fact, this was my first serious attempt at Italian Renaissance. So I used my existent Elizabethan shift. No need for a pair of bodies with a loose gown so next step up was the kirtle. 

The Kirtle

Kirtle Back

Although Vecellio depicts a wanton use of mismatched fabrics (or perhaps they matched or contrasted in color—great advertisement for the Italian textile industry) nothing in my stash permitted that so I decided to use a dark red and gold medallion damask for the kirtle and 100% silk poplin for the lining. Almost immediately came the first major mishap. I cut on the wrong pattern line causing seriously mismatched shoulder seams on the side-front piece.. I did not have enough fabric to re-cut, so I redrafted the piece, adding the additional inches, making a new pattern in 2 pieces, adding seam allowances and piecing the side fronts. Since the over-gown would be 3/4 length, I pieced the bottom of the kirtle so that no joins showed there, matching the medallions, and disguised the piecing seams with black and gold trim. 
Having now studied 'Moda', I believe that the Neapolitan Matron has a more fashionable low necked gown underneath the zimarra or even a doublet gown rather than a kirtle, depending upon the season and where she’s headed. But once again, I was restricted by the rules of the contest to use Margo and my current stash and I didn’t have the knowledge at the time to speculate further. 
The biggest challenge of the kirtle was hiding the piece line, matching the medallions and as always, addressing the bloopers.

Kirtle Front

The Over-Gown
( Ropa or Zimarra)

In the midst of the project, I received Moda a Firenze and learned that the over-gown in Italy is called a zimarra and that it is characterized by the frogs and a pleated back, which I could not figure out how to add at that point. I also didn’t notice at the start of the project that Vecellio actually has another view of the Neapolitan Matron from the back which shows the pleats.

My decision to use black velvet for the zimarra was due to the “stash restriction” of the contest. I had to shorten the Margo pattern to make it ¾ length like the Vecellio image. In the second major blooper of the project, I finally began to understand NAP The double layer of fabric necessary to keep velveteen nap going in the same direction is DIFFERENT from just "doubling the fabric" by turning it back on itself widthwise. My first serious mistake was not paying attention to the cutting diagrams because I didn't think I had to. As long as the fabric had no nap, that was OK. But I felt I had to re- cut to match the nap. Later came the revelation that period people may not have cared about nap at all. Inch by inch. Day by day. Learning to “see” is a big part of this.

The Sleeves 

Zimarra Hanging Sleeve: Black cotton velveteen lined with black and gold Celtic Cross fabric that matches the kind of odd greeny gold in the trim perfectly. 

Narrow Sleeves: The narrow sleeves were made from embroidered pearled gold silk (unfortunately dupioni) and lined with fustian with natural color Venice lace at the cuffs. 




The ruff and cuffs were bought from the Renaissance Tailor. The veil was cut out of silk organza using a Medieval Tailor’s Assistant pattern the day before the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival and finished/trimmed in the motel room. The jewelry and the feather fan are from Sapphire and Sage or from costume jewelry left over from the 1970’s. I line my eyes with kohl sometimes to fit my all purpose persona as Catherine of Sicily aka Catherine the (Christianized) Moor. You can order this from Middle Eastern cosmetic sites. Gloves are a hard call. My hands are crippled and small so every leather pair looks enormous and out of place. I may try to make gloves this year.




  Machine sewing was used where it would not show or would be covered with trim. Frogs, pearled trim and much of the pearled fabric was sewn by hand because it has a tendency to break needles so you have to sew around the pearls. 


If you would like to contact Chris you can do so at Catalfamo1190 (at)


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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.)