History and Social Science

TEXTILES, TRADE AND MEANING IN ITALY: 1400-2018

The focus of this research cluster is on textiles, fashion, and their allied industries – one of the central sources of Italian trade, wealth and international recognition from the Renaissance to the present day. Italy’s position as arguably the first consumer society of the western world since antiquity was one based on the trade of, as well as local manufacture of, high-end textiles. Because of the value derived from and attached to it, clothing conveyed (and still conveys) multiple meanings in this society. It was the textile trade that provided the incentive for the establishment of local banking, international finance, double-entry bookkeeping, and which provided the capital for investment in the artistic expressions of power, both personal and communal, which are the legacy of the Renaissance in Italy. Much of this supremacy in every aspect of textile import, production, together with dyes and construction, was a result of intensive and extensive contact with the middle and far east.

Since 1980, the branding of Italian high-end textile products (together with food, furniture, and cars) created ‘Made in Italy’ as a globally recognized marker of quality; a designation reinforced by legislation in 2009. This branding, however, is not straightforward. Since the 1990s, the dominance of the mega-brands, in particular LVMH, Richemont, and Kering (formerly PPR), has meant that many iconic ‘Made in Italy’ brands, including Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Bulgari, Fendi, and so on, are now the property of foreign entities. Moreover, and ironically, the contact with the east which first generated Italian textile wealth is now having a complex and often detrimental impact on both the ‘Made in Italy’ brand and the viability of local textile producers and fashion houses. ‘Made in Italy’ is now also a ‘brand’ attached to clothes sold at discount Chinese-owned stores in most Italian towns for as little as 10 euro a piece – clothes designed and produced in often appalling worker conditions in Chinese-owned sweatshops throughout the peninsula.

This research cluster proposes to investigate the longue durée of the Italian textile industry through two targeted projects, one of approximately two years’ duration, and the other of one year’s duration.

Project 1: Clothing and textiles at the court of Mantua under Isabella d’Este

Outline

This project seeks to tease out the what, the how, and the why of the clothing, textiles, and accoutrements in the courts of northern Italy. In particular, it focuses on the court of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua, and one of the foremost consumers and widely imitated icons of style of the Renaissance. This project is allied to the digital site IDEA produced and co-directed by Deanna Shemek, Anne MacNeil, and Daniela Ferrari in collaboration with Roberta Piccinelli and numerous other scholars. The ‘Isabella D’Este Archive’, or IDEA, takes as its focus the extraordinary corpus of letters written by the marchioness and explores her artistic and musical patronage. At present there is a marked gap on the IDEA website regarding the clothing of Isabella, despite the importance of this aspect of her public persona. This project targets precisely this gap.

In discussions with Deanna Shemek, we propose to take one of the most well-known images of Isabella, her portrait by Titian, and place this on the website as an interactive image that will unpack each aspect of the clothing seen in this portrait – her fur, her gloves, her distinctive headdress, her sleeves, the dyes and textiles employed in her garments – as well as what we don’t see, namely her undergarments. Wherever possible, links will be made with the primary source letters on the site which mention her clothing purchases and with broader aspects of textiles, clothing accoutrements, and gift giving. Short online articles related to each these aspects will be produced as links on the site. Priority will be given in the project to this digital aspect, with its wider outreach, rather than to standard journal articles.

Outcomes

• key section of the IDEA website dedicated to the project, providing it with international exposure;
• series of online short articles on the IDEA website;
• workshop for participants in October 2018 in which preliminary research, results and approaches can be teased out;
• panel dedicated to the project at the 2019 ACIS biennial conference in New Zealand in which participants in the project will speak to their particular sections of research, whilst Deanna Shemek will give a presentation on the overall IDEA website and the uses as well as difficulties of engaging in digital humanities;
• series of seminars in Australia delivered by Deanna Shemek and Timothy McCall;
• publication of an article on the project in a prominent international journal in the field such as Renaissance Studies.

Project 2: Clothing and Textiles in Italy: Brands, Appropriation, and Ownership

The second stage of the project, from October 2019 – December 2020, will be fleshed out in detail for approval by the steering committee in early 2019. Its aim will be to extend the themes of textile production and meaning explored in relation to Isabella d’Este and to examine the implications of branding, brand appropriation, ownership, and migration in the modern textile scene in Italy. We hope that researchers who have been involved in the first stage of the project will also wish to be involved in this second stage, but, in addition, the project will seek to involve a range of historians, political scientists, and anthropologists, aa well as fashion and advertising researchers, who might be interested in exploring these issues in more detail. A full research proposal for this second stage of the project will be presented in early 2019.

Steering Committee for the Project

Catherine Kovesi (University of Melbourne), convenor

Deanna Shemek (University of California at Santa Cruz)

John Gagné (University of Sydney)

Carolyn James (Monash University)

Anne Dunlop (University of Melbourne)

Timothy McCall (University of Villanova)

Carl Villis (National Gallery of Victoria)

Allied researchers

Adelina Modesti (Art Historian, Research Fellow, La Trobe University)

Tracey Griffiths (PhD candidate in History, University of Melbourne)

Sarah Bendall (Research associate, University of Western Australia)

Natasha Amendola (Learning Skills Adviser, Monash University)