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A taste for squares

1313-18 Simone Martini,dettaglio degli affreschi della Cappella di San Martino, San Francesco, Assisi (PG)
1313-18 Simone Martini, Cappella di San Martino, San Francesco, Assisi (PG)

«Sai che cosa è varietà? So’ questi vestiri scaccati, racamati, lillati e divisati: tu m’intendi bene; e queste tali cose tu le porti molto volentieri.»

(Knowest thou what is meant by variety? It consists in those garments in checks, all embroidered and flowered and with stripes of different colours: thou dost understand me well; and such things as these dost thou wear with only too great willingness). These were Saint Bernardine's words in one of his sermons in Siena in 1427.

And he was not wrong.

Checked textiles (i.e. with squares on them) were greatly appreciated at that time by both men and women and actually, if we check carefully the historical sources, we can find that those textiles were produced and sold both before and after the franciscan preecher's age.

That's why Vanni di Bonagiunta Stefani, a merchant from Pisa, put a checked piece of cloth among the many others sent to Sicily in 1326-1327.

And checked textiles must have been quite common among the richest if in 1355 the florentine sumptuary law clearly stated that "no woman, married or young, of any condition can wear any dress or overdress of woolen divided cloth [...] or silken checked cloth" ("che neuna donna, o femina o fanciulla, di chentunque conditione sia possa o ardisca o presumisca portare o vestire alcuna robba o vestimento alcuno di panno di lana divisato [...] o scaccato in seta"). Infact, again in Florence, we find in 1343 Donna Francesca, wife of Manni degli Albizi, with "unam chottam drappi schacchati cum scacchis albis et nigris cum virgis vermiliis et albis per transversum et cum virgis viridibus et sanguignis per longam" ("a cotta - a dress to be worn over the shirt - of checked silk with white and black squares and white and red diagonal lines and with red and green vertical lines").

The same year in the same city Donna Piera, wife of the doorkeeper Piggello, owned a richly embroidered cloak with red checked silken lining".

Un frammento di seta a quadretti del XIV secolo (esposto nella Mostra Tessuto e ricchezza a Firenze nel Trecento)
Un frammento di seta a quadretti del XIV secolo

And XVI century is not less passionte about checked textiles.

In Perugia in 1508 a special commission of ten experts forbade men to wear, among other pieces of clothing checked and divided hoses, probably not very different from the piece we see here on the right.

If we want to have an idea of how those fabrics were made, we can look at that time frescoes and paintings, as well as some rare extant piece: a beautiful example is the 1512 portrait of a nobleman by Bartolomeo Veneto now in the National Gallery of art in Rome (see below).

1512 ca Bartolomeo Veneto Ritratto di Gentiluomo Galleria Nazionale D'arte antica Roma 001
1512 ca Bartolomeo Veneto Ritratto di Gentiluomo Galleria Nazionale D'arte antica Roma 001

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