Fur For Fleas

It’s fun to be wrong, at least when it comes to research. It allows you to be surprised, delighted and to learn new things!

Having always loved history, costuming and even participating in Renaissance re-enactment, there were ‘facts’ that I’ve never questioned. Learned people told me so, and I’d read so, so it must be true! Well that isn’t always the case. Take the flea fur…

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Oh heavens, look at those pearls! I digress. (If you love pearls as much as I do, don’t forget about Inspired by Venice‘s pearl earrings giveaway!)

Above is Isabella de’Medici (Italian), from 1558. At her side, you can see a special accessory. It is a zibellino or flea fur, adorned with gems.

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And here is Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola (Italian), 1557. She too has a flea fur, gilded, a head of gold, gems for eyes.

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And here, a flea fur at the collar of this woman (England, mid-1500’s).

You can find many, many portraits of nobles and their flea furs. Of course, people have been wearing furs for forever. But this particular way of wearing them (perhaps for looks, and displaying their riches) is noticed starting in the mid-late 1400’s.

I had always read, and been told, that the flea fur also had a practical purpose. It was to attract biting fleas from off of bodies. Even nobles crawled with fleas, money meant nothing when these creatures infested bedding, infrequently washed clothing, pets, etc. Nobles were said to place these furs on their person, so that the fleas would gather on the fur and then they could shake them, or beat them out.

Makes sense, only, it isn’t true. It was first surmised that this was the purpose for the pelts in the 1890’s, though no evidence has shown that the flea fur was anything but an accessory.

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Another noble lady holding her fur, Italy 1515. It’s fascinating how easily fiction becomes fact, this particular one developing in the late 19th century, and still a misdirected belief today. It reminds me to be careful to not take what people write or say, to be truth (even though in this case, I want to believe it!). Flea furs, held in the hand, hanging from the waist, laying over the shoulder, pinned to the breast, were just a vain display.

Oh well. I can still imagine this noble lady, frustrated with fleas, running outside to fling her flea fur about. Fiction perhaps, but amusing!

Forbidden Fashions by Isabella Campagnol

A woman’s clothing, how she adorns herself, the makeup she wears, and her hairstyle…these things eternally hold very deep symbolism all the world over. It is often something that is controlled for the sake of modesty, honor and religious piety. What women wear, how they look, is the world’s obsession. It communicates whether she is of means or no, what she thinks about herself, what she wants others to think about her. It speaks of her personality and her beliefs. It speaks of a great many things.

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Isabella Campagnol offers us an incredible front row seat into what clothing and adornments meant for women in Venetian nunneries in her invaluable scholarly work: Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents.

Venice (as with all of Europe) placed ladies into nunneries for centuries. You can read about it in my book Venice, as well as my other posts (Virgins in Venice by Mary Laven and Naughty Nunnery Parlors). Noble parents might have birthed 7 noble daughters, but inflated dowries meant only one, perhaps two of them could make an excellent match. The rest went into enclosure…forced, beaten, tricked, guilted into going. Yes, of course some went willingly and wanted this pious life. But most didn’t. Being a very young woman sent into a nunnery, to spend the rest of your life there completely closed off from the world, was a horrifying fate for many. And nothing could stop them from having worldly desires.

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As we see in Campagnol’s book, just because you’ve lost your worldly freedom doesn’t mean you’re going to follow the rules; Venice’s noblewomen broke them, again and again and again. From curling and showing ones tresses when they were to keep their hair completely covered, to transparent fabrics where solid ones should be, to hiding, coveting and wearing gems and adornments when these items were forbidden, to smuggling in or making and wearing every sort of item out of luxurious fabrics that were not allowed. Noble nuns even found ways to dye their hair in secret, wore makeup and furs. They wanted beauty, individuality, status, comforts, and freedom. Despite confiscations, punishments and shunning, the enclosed women pushed back.

Campagnol also shows us another side to the equation…a great many women who being disposed of, were left destitute of their basic clothing and linen needs. Once having lived in a comfortable world, they were now forgotten and left to suffer without a great many items, their urgent letters and requests falling on deaf family ears.

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Campagnol’s book is an eye-opening treasure. Undressing countless archives for the fashion facts, she gives us a glimpse into the sometimes dazzling yet often cruel world that many women experienced behind the veil.

Naughty Nunnery Parlors

Below, Pietro Longhi’s The Visiting Parlour in the Convent.

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Do you know what Veronese means? It means you hale from Verona, much like Venetians come from Venice. Just as I am an Evanstonian living in Evanston! I’m a sucker for these little worldly details. What are folks from your town called? Share it in the comments!

Giuseppe de Gobbis was a Veronese painter who spent some time in Venice between 1772 & 1783. Some find his works reminiscent of Pietro Longhi (see previous post here). View this work by Giuseppe: A music party in the interior of a Palazzo. This painting is so rich with details about Venice’s late 18th century. See the caged canary hanging from the ceiling, the spectacular capturing of the clothing, the gold mountings below the large mirror, that couple carrying on a rendezvous behind the gentleman’s tricorne hat? Where’s my magnifying glass?

With a chapter written in my book Venice about the enclosure of noble ladies in the nunneries over the centuries, and my applause for Virgins in Venice by Mary Laven, and also having read Casanova’s retelling of his visits to nunnery parlors in his memoirs, I am also intrigued by this painting by Giuseppe de Gobbis: Parlatorio delle Monache (The Parlor of the Nuns).

Comparing the two, I think many may find it ironic that both of the paintings seem so festive (one without the nunnery, one within). How so, when nunneries were a place of enclosure and pious, careful behavior? True to history, I think it really depended on the decade and the nunnery itself. Some Venetian nunneries closed in the ladies so rigorously, that they would brick off even the slightest view a nun may get of street life. And it was also in those places that you would only be allowed a visit from a proven female relative, say your mother, with still an extreme partition between you both, and a devout nun would be keeping watch. A little too much gossip and giggles and you might be chastised! Ugh!

But then, we also find many accounts of scenes like Longhi’s above, and Giuseppe’s. Perhaps the later 18th century was more lax, but again, it depended on the nunnery. There are plenty of accounts where rules were bent. Say, on festival days when your whole family would come (men and women) and you’d share good food between far less oppressive grates. Musicians would be hired to keep the nuns merry. Games would be played. Only, it was at such times where one nun may begin flirting with another nun’s visitor (say a brother), and then the intrigue and sneaky behavior and passing of secret letters began…perhaps even an exchange of a kiss between those grates. You get the picture, laxity got a bad wrap and allowed for naughty behavior. Casanova knew this, and took advantage. Certainly, this type of romance had serious challenges, but that made it more interesting for a man like him, and plenty of others. We’ve got the written proof.

This week, I’m going to share another one of my favorite books…Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents by Isabella Campagnol. Her excellent research in this particular history proves not only enclosed nuns’ need for independence, personality and beautiful things, but also something to grab attention…say on that festival day in the nunnery parlor!