Women’s hair veils were a wardrobe staple across early modern Italy, and Europe more broadly. Their usage signalled a woman’s passage through important life stages. In the Christian tradition, married women were expected to veil their hair, widows used veils to demonstrate their grief, and nuns ‘took the veil’ as a gesture of their commitment to Christ. But despite being an everyday garment, they were neither mundane nor uniform. Often ornamental in their application, they are portrayed in contemporary visual culture tucked and twisted into sculpturesque forms, paired with lavish hairstyles, and draped over headbands and coifs.
There was an enormous variety of textiles used for veiling on the marketplace. In several Italian cities, these textiles were the trade of professional veil-makers (velettai), specialist craftsmen and women who conducted businesses manufacturing and trading in lightweight textiles for veils, collars, and other small-scale, intimate garments. Diversities in their material qualities gave rise to differing effects that lay at the threshold of the body and its environs. Weight and fibre-density impacted the drape, handle, and light-transmission of veils for instance, negotiating their affective resonances for wearers and observers alike.
Ranging from soft to crisp, matte to shiny, circulating veil textiles serviced women’s changing needs and aspirations in societies that cultivated a discernment for the sensations and sensibilities they extended to the body.
In sixteenth-century Italian fashion, delicate and translucent veils were highly prized. As references in cultural and visual sources reveal, gossamer veil cloths evoked an aesthetic connecting delicacy, lustre, and transparency with the allure of youthful, feminine beauty. Their affective impact stirred the emotions, precipitating attraction and enchantment.
The costume book of Venetian artist Cesare Vecellio (Degli habiti antichi et moderni, Venice: 1590) provides an unparalleled source. In one example, Vecellio recalls the outfit he once saw worn by “the famous Gussona”, the daughter of the naval commander Agostino Barbarigo. Gussona ‘shone in a most sumptuous gown’ atop which lay a white veil ‘of thin transparent gold silk, bordered all around with gold lace’. Worn outdoors, this sheer and luminous veil, interwoven with gold thread, gleamed in the sunlight. Linking Gussona’s glistening appearance with her internal character, Vecellio remarked that her radiance was augmented only further by her “indescribable modesty and other rare qualities.”
In the Italian Renaissance aesthetic, the qualities of light were highly prized. Historian Timothy McCall has studied this in relation to men’s fashion, noting that gemstones, gilt textiles, and polished armour helped princely bodies to emanate political charisma and authority. Honorific titles like ‘illustrisimus’ and ‘spettabilis’, moreover, used light-enhancing vocabulary to convey how subjects’ visual attention was to be captured and directed towards their lord.
The language of splendour was just as important for women. But unlike the glint of armour, the lustre of a translucent veil arose from a distinctly delicate surface. Comparatively flimsy in weight, the ‘thin’ veils Cesare Vecellio repeatedly identified captured a fragile beauty closely associated with the feminine aesthetic.
Vecellio’s discussion of the gleaming Gussona recalls the words of the cleric Tommaso Garzoni in his accolades on silk and its myriad uses:
“The noblewomen, above all, are they not a thousand times more graceful and lovely with their clothes of silk studded with gold and precious stones? Do not their beautiful faces glisten twice as much under white silk?”
Feminine beauty is measured by radiance in this passage. The light-reflective qualities of silk garments, gemstones and, significantly, white silk veils enchant the bystander, whose dazzled senses are attracted to the woman beneath. The light-refracting properties of glistening veils, the collective work of expert spinners and weavers, drew admirers by luring the eye and moving the senses, provoking a deeply affective and transitory, bodily state.
Light and lustre was also understood to arouse love. In Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528), the scholar Pietro Bembo elaborates on this idea, saying:
… the kind of beauty I now have in mind, is that seen in the human body and especially the face and which prompts the ardent desire we call love; and we shall argue that this beauty is an influx of the divine goodness which, like the light of the sun, is shed over all created things but especially displays itself in all its beauty when it discovers and informs a countenance which is well proportioned and composed of a certain joyous harmony of various colours enhanced by light and shadow and by symmetry and clear definition. This goodness adorns and illumines with wonderful splendour and grace the object in which it shines, like a sunbeam striking a lovely vase of polished gold set with precious gems. And thus it attracts to itself the gaze of others, and entering through their eyes it impresses itself upon the human soul, which it stirs and delights with its charm, inflaming it with passion and desire.
In Bembo’s interpretation, the divine goodness emanating from a beautiful face had its own inherent shine “like the light of the sun”. This luminosity attracted a bystander’s gaze and enflamed their love. The face’s natural pallor and countenance were, Bembo believed, “enhanced by light and shadow”. When Tommaso Garzoni imagined the amplified radiance of noblewomen’s faces underneath their translucent silk veils, he must have envisioned the beguiling display of shifting light and shadow that sheer, translucent textiles performed around the face.
Since this play of light elicited enchantment, one’s veil needed to be suitably reflective. The Florentine silk guide, the Arte della Seta, had made provisions for lustrous veils since the mid fifteenth century. One of the guild’s specialities, a veil textile called velodiacciato, was defined as having ‘great lustre given to it with a hot iron’. In 1593, a so-called ‘secret’ method for returning the shine to old and dull silk veils was patented in Venice by the entrepreneur, Castellano di Solimei. Beating the veil with a paste made from gum arabic, stretching it, and leaving it to dry, this technique, and Solimei’s desire to protect it, confirms the value of shine in Italian society.
A particularly expressive example of the translucent veils so popular around Italy is illuminated in a jewel-like costume album produced around 1580 for a member of the German banking family, the Fuggers of Augsburg. In this illustration, the glimmer of the Venetian gentlewoman’s veil is carefully portrayed with a thin wash of white gouache. The reflective surface of its lightly crimped silk is defined with crisp, bright lines, augmenting the woman’s pearlescent skin beneath.
Veils draped over the face like this not only dazzled through their translucency, but also accentuated a pale complexion, decisive in European standards of beauty at this time. The period’s appetite for ever-finer silk textiles fed into notions about what constituted the feminine aesthetic. The dazzling properties of diaphanous, translucent silk veils amplified the much-desired luminosity of their wearers, aroused the senses of admiring onlookers, and invigorated women’s place in society.
by Katherine Bond, University of Basel
Dr Katherine Bond is Postgraduate Research Assistant at the University of Basel, working on the interdisciplinary research project ‘Materialized Identities: Objects, Affects, Effects in Early Modern Culture, 1450-1750’. She is an historian of visual and material culture and her latest publications include ‘Mapping Culture in the Habsburg Empire: Fashioning a Costume Book in the Court of Charles V’, Renaissance Quarterly 71:2, 2018, pp.530-579.