How to get 3D from 2D

An example of comparative use of iconography.


In Mantua there is a place which gives me chills down the spine.

It is one of those places that make me thank to be an Italian and to live in Italy, so I can visit them easily (I even had the chance to reenact in Medieval and Renaissance costume there...).

It is the Bridal Chamber in the Saint George Castle in Mantua (now part of the Gonzaga Palace).

The Camera Picta (latin for Painted Room) is the masterpiece of Andrea Mantegna and it was painted between 1465 and 1474. The frescoes cover the entire surface of the walls as well as the ceiling, where the virtual opening of the scenes painted on the walls reaches its maximum with the fake view of the sky as if the viewer was looking through an opening in the ceiling.

In the frescoes Mantegna, court painter since 1460, celebrates the whole Gonzaga family, on the occasion of the election of Francesco Gonzaga as a Cardinal.

The room was used as a state room where the Marquis would receive ambassadors and do business, so the power and richness of the family had to be clear from the images.

And for a costume historian it is an exceptional source of information about fashion and clothing details!

But...there's always a "but"!

Painting is 2-dimensional, and sometimes, even if the best painter was involved, we cannot understand properly how a dress was constructed or, even if we had a 3D sculture, we cannot understand how many layers of clothing are shown and worn by the depicted character.

That is an essentially invalicable limit (we will never see THAT character's inner garments or shoes if covered by other layers). But we can try to imagine what he would have worn anyway.

If you see a photo of Brad Pitt walking the red carpet at the Oscars night, you cannot see his underpants...but you can imagine that he's wearing them because you know that in our society it is common to wear them. Moreover: you cannot see his shirt completely, but you can suppose it is made similarly to those you can derive from other sources, such as producers catalogues of photos of people without suit...and so on.

This is the situation I want to talk about this time, with an example taken from the Bridal Chamber in Mantua. This is the subject of our analysis.

She is usually considered to be Barbarina Gonzaga, daughter of Ludovico II Gonzaga and Barbara of Brandeburg. In the year the frescoes were finished, 1474, she married Eberard V of Württemberg, thightening the political contacts between Mantua and the germanic area.

If we try to understand how many layers of clothing she is wearing, we find some difficulties. Infact, it is not immediately easy to understand if she's wearing an overgarment and if those white bands are a decoration of the garment or the borders of the overgarment.

The first hint, though, comes from the sleeves: in this detail we clearly see that there are two sleeves: one is little shorter and has a white border and then, under it, another one, tighter and little longer. So there should be a garment under the outer one, but since we know that the innermost garment was the "camicia", could that little piece of sleeve be it? Showing the camicia from there would not be common and honourable, so that's a good hint already, but we still want to find other evidences to be sure.

The next step is considering contemporary art and trying to look at the image from "another angle" so to say.

How can we have look at that dress not from the front but from the side? We have to go through many other paitingns of the same period and geographical area (othewise any comparison would be less correct), and so did I.

I chose to show you this painting, then.

It is the portrait of Ginevra Sforza, wife of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Signore (i.e. something like "Lord", in this case more like a dynastic governor) of Bologna. The painting is by Ercole de' Roberti and it is dated around 1475, so in the same years Mantegna was finishing the frescoes in Mantua.

But the difference is that here we have the lady seen from the side, as it was typical in XV century official portraits.

And looking at the details of her clothing from this point of view can be very fruitful: first of all we can notice that the white border on Barbarina's upper sleeve is almost certainly the border of an opening on the overgarment's sleeves, which lets us see that there's another garment under it. Let's use some italian names: over the camicia women wore the gamurra and here we see that Ginevra's gamurra has golden sleeves and probably red bodice, a we can barely see in the front.

So the brown one is an overgarment, let's call it cioppa or better vestito (cioppa is more common in Tuscany while vestito is common term for overgarment in northern Italy at the end of the century), with a red belt right under the breast, and with openings on the upper sleeves which are bordered in the same way the V-shaped neckline is, with a golden fabric, the same of the gamurra's sleeves.


So now we can most definitely say that Barbarina is wearing two different garments, both made with the same, very precious fabric (and this made understading the painting little more complicated): a gamurra and a vestito; the latter is bordered with white fabric (or maybe fur...) on the V-shaped neckline and probably has openings on the sleeves like those we see on Ginevra Sforza's portrait.


Here we are: with some care to the sources we were even able to see the third dimension of a 2-dimentional painting!


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