Luminous Veils: Affect & Enchantment in Sixteenth-Century Italian Fashion

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.

Figure 1: Pauwels Franck, Venetian woman with fashionable accessories (oil painting), ca. 1595. Location unknown.

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.

Figure 2: Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Laura Battiferri (oil painting), c. 1560. Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

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.


Figure 3: ‘Gentlewomen in Venetian Outposts and Territories’ [The famous Gussona], (woodcut). Cesare Vecellio, Degli habiti antichi et moderni di diversi parte del mondo (Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590).
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.

Figure 4: ‘Noble Girls of Bologna going from home to church’ (woodcut). Cesare Vecellio, Degli habiti antichi et moderni.

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.


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Stepping into the Sickchamber: Objects and Illness in Early Modern England

My first plane journey was a trip to Crete with my family at the age of eleven. I remember this holiday well because I ended up spending most of it sick in bed! Strangely, I don’t recall much about the illness itself: instead, my memories centre on the things in the room. The curtains were beige, with dark brown circles hooped together confusedly. A clock with thick numerals ticked obtrusively. On the table, a spoonful of gloopy jam, laced with crushed up antibiotics, balanced over a mug, and an activity book lay open, its pictures blindingly bright. Through the open window drifted the sharp scent of chlorine. All these perceptions contributed to that indescribable, yucky feeling of illness.


Figure 1: Holiday snap of the author as a child, recuperating from croup in the shade. Photograph supplied by the author.

Many years later, this memory was awakened when I read a passage from a seventeenth-century sermon by the Oxfordshire clergyman Robert Harris (c.1581–1658). He observed that during illness, ‘those senses & parts’ which bring the healthy man comfort, ‘occasion the sick man trouble’: ‘the sight of his cupps, glasses [and] boxes makes him sicke, the smell of his meates[,] [makes him feel] sicke, the taste of his drinkes[,] sicke, the least noyse offends him, the…ayre pierces him,…his bed tyres him, his chaire troubles him’. Harris concluded, ‘poore man, hee is not well, and therefore nothing is well about him; he is sicke, and so all the world is made of sicknesse to him’.

This vignette draws attention to an intriguing, and yet rarely acknowledged feature of sickness in early modern England, its tendency to radically alter the patient’s perceptions of the things around them. Serious illness transformed what normally would have been objects of satisfaction and comfort – soft mattresses, shiny drinking vessels, and resonant clocks – into sources of distress. This was because disease was found to ‘assault’ the patient’s sensory powers, the link between bodies and objects in early modern thinking.


Figure 2: Jan Steen, oil painting of ‘The Doctor’s Visit’ (c.1661-2), Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.


I discussed this phenomenon at the University of Manchester’s Affective Artefacts seminar series. The talk sought to transport the audience imaginatively into the early modern sickchamber, a space that has not received much explicit historical analysis, by investigating the patient’s sensory and emotional perceptions of five key objects: a medicine bottle, mattress, clock, bedcurtain, and sheets. The ultimate aim was to reveal the mutual benefits that can be gleaned from bringing into dialogue the twin fields of medical and material history: for the latter, the research sheds fresh light on the meaning of disease in this period – it was conceived as a dis-possession, a taking away of one’s capacity to appreciate one’s possessions. For material culture studies, the study offers a potential solution to the challenge of the silence of many historical records on ‘everyday objects’. Confined to the sickchamber for a stretch of time, the attention of the sick inevitably came to rest on the things around them, eliciting comments which would have rarely been voiced in health.


Figure 3: Hannah Newton examining a posset cup, which is held by the craft and design curator, Jennifer McKellar, at Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1923.327. Photo supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

The next day, Sasha Handley and Stefan Hanß kindly arranged for me to go behind the scenes at Manchester Art Gallery, where I was able to view some early modern objects in real life.

The first item was an ornate bedcurtain from c.1680-1730, a canopy which would have hung around all sides of the bed, and was supposed to protect the sleeper from cold drafts. Although beautifully decorated with colourful foliage, it’s unlikely that the sick would have been able to derive much pleasure from such sights, owing to the darkness of the bedstead. A rare insight into life inside this curtained space is provided in the meditations of the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91): during a violent fever, he observed the ‘Dim light of the Candle’ through a small gap in the curtains. Suddenly, this light ‘considerably increas’d’, which made him suspect that ‘twas…a Thief’ in the room. Sticking out his head between the curtains, he found, to his relief, that it emanated instead from a fault in the tallow candle, which had caused it to blaze in an ‘irregular way’. The curtains had acted as an ocular obstacle, making Boyle feel vulnerable and alarmed; the fever may have been partly responsible for his delusion, with the heat affecting his imagination and vision.


Figure 4: Detail from a bed curtain, 1680-1730, at Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1986.488. Photograph supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

The other object which most struck me was a blue and white tin-glazed drug jar from 1679, a vessel designed to store medicinal potions; the winged angel symbolises God’s healing power, which he imbues into herbs. Patients’ sensory reactions to such vessels are occasionally recorded in contemporary medical texts. The Durham physician William Bullein (c.1515–76) commented that many patients have such ‘fearful eies’, that ‘it no lesse gr[i]eveth the[m] to behold or see the vessel, in which the pocion is kept…, than to [actually] drinke the same…bitter medecine’. Bitterness was thought to be a sign of the drug’s efficacy, which promoted the evacuation of ‘bad humours’, the cause of disease in contemporary theory. Owing to the perceived sympathy between the sensory organs, the eye felt sorry for the tongue, knowing that it would soon have to taste the ‘loathsome potion’, perceptions which in turn occasioned emotional suffering.


Figure 5: Drug jar, 1679, made from glazed tin, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1947.727. Photograph supplied by author.

By examining real artefacts alongside patients’ accounts of sickness, I have come to a clearer understanding of an essential tenet in material culture studies: the idea that objects are ‘not just passive social constructs but rather active and dynamic forces’, which powerfully shape our emotional and bodily experiences of the world around us, or in this case, the sickroom. My thanks to Sasha and Stefan for giving me this opportunity!


Dr Hannah Newton is a social and cultural historian of early modern England, specialising in the histories of medicine, emotions, and childhood. She is the author of two books, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012), winner of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Book Prize, and Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, 2018), recipient of the University of Reading’s Early Career Output of the Year Prize. Hannah is currently a Wellcome Trust University Award Holder at Reading and Co-Director of the Centre for Health Humanities, where she is undertaking a project entitled, Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England.