LATEST: Ever since I started on my Venetian dress I've wanted to make a flag fan. It seems like such a perfect accessory to the girly mid-and-late century dresses of Venice, and it also seem to be an item telling about the connections between East (Istanbul) and West (Venice).

Originally I thought the flag fan was unique to Venice, as it so frequently appears in Venetian paintings, and so rarely occurs elsewhere. But when I came across a book dedicated to the illustrations of an imperial celebration taking place in Istanbul in 1582, I wasn't so sure any more. One thing is that an illustration shows Ottoman men dressed up as Europeans. One of them is carrying a flag fan - it doesn't seem off in such a context. What intrigued me a lot more is that much of the celebrations consisted of various processions with craftsmen on wagons, showing off their skills. One such wagon is wholly filled with flag fans and makers of such fans. This must surely mean they were well known in the Ottoman empire, either as a local tradition or as goods to export (or both).

Venice had close relations to the Ottoman empire, and they also seemed to have a taste for everything exotic and luxurious. Kaftans was adopted into the Venetian fashion, both by males and females, and rich fabrics seems to have been more in vogue here than elsewhere on the Italic peninsula. And then you have the chopines, the platform shoes, which also seems to be of Eastern origin. The flag fan might also be an Eastern item originally - or it might have been the Venetians who introduced it to the Ottoman empire. It seemed to have become a fashion item in Venice in the 1550's, occurring in portraits, and by the 1570's it seems to have been a traditional sign of female beauty, being depicted in both Venus paintings and secular portraits. What role or status it might have had in the Ottoman empire is still a bit in the blue to me. I would assume it was a luxury item, as it was considered nice enough to display in an imperial procession, along with fine fabrics, kaftans, carpets and weapons. But whether it was used by females or males (or both), and when... As of now I have no idea.


1. "Girl with a fan", 1556, Tiziano Vecellio, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
2. "Venus and Adonis", 1570's, Paolo Veronese, Prado, Madrid
3. "Mars undressing Venus", 1570's, Paolo Veronese, Nat. Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
4. "Henry III arriving at Lido", 1574, Il Vicentino, Ducal Palace, Venice
5. "Ottomans dressed up as Europeans", 1582, from "An Imperial Celebration", Istanbul
6. "Ottoman flag makers", 1582, from "An Imperial Celebration", Istanbul

There are some references to flag fans elsewhere too. They appear in various woodcuts, both in Vecellio's dress book "Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo" (ca. 1590) and in the German "Im Frauwenzimmer Wirt vermeldt von allerly schönen Kleidungen" (ca. 1586). The first one seems to show flag fans only in Venetian context. The other one shows a woodcut depicting a "maiden of the Fugger family" (German family, but with connections in Veneto), but later corrects it to be a "Venetian bride". It also shows a "matron of Lyon", but later changes it to "A noblewoman of Ferrara". So although separate woodcuts tells of it being used in Germany and France, it's later changed to apply to northern Italian depictions. To see the woodcuts in question, see link to Larsdatter in the reference list. At the site she also quotes the English traveller Thomas Coryat:

For whereas the fanne consisteth of a painted peece of paper and a little wooden handle; the paper which is fastened into the top is on both sides most curiously adorned with excellent pictures, either of amorous things tending to dalliance, having some witty Italian verses or fine emblemes written under them; or of some notable Italian city with a briefe description thereof added thereunto. These fannes are of a meane price.

(Thomas Coryat: Coryat's Crudities (Observations of Cremona) from 1611)

Various laws were passed to keep fans as plain as possible. A law of 1522 forbade "fans of lynx and ermine with handles of gold and silver encrusted with jewels and pearls". Three years later only plain fans "of simple feathers with handles of black bone or ivory" were allowed, as the law of 1522 don't seem to have had an impact on the fan extravaganza (Fortini Brown 2004: 151). These laws seems to be prior of when flag fans was introduced. Maybe the flag fans was a response to these laws, or maybe they just were in vogue because of their oriental connections. By the end of the 16th century they seems to have been the preferred fan in Venice, and an engraving from the early 17th century shows the "Discomforts of Mankind without a Fan in the Hand in the Summer". Elegantly dressed Venetians are shown surrounded by wasps, one woman waving them hectically away to no avail. An accompanying engraving shows the "Comforts of the Fan in the Summertime", where a seller of flag fans enters from the left, and everyone is carrying a flag fan, looking comfortable. These woodcuts are from the book "The Praise of the Fan" (Fortini Brown 2004: 151).

Pietro Paolo Tozzi. "Discomforts of Mankind without a Fan in the Hand in the Summer / Comforts of the Fan in the Summertime", Pietro Paolo Tozzi, early 1600s, Venice-Padua.
Engraving from Pompeo Molmenti's "La storia di Venezia nella vita privata dalle origini alla caduate della Repubblice" / "Private Lives in Renaissance Venice," Patricia Fortini Brown.


While being a newbie to the field, I have some ideas on how to make my own flag fan. It seems like the few surviving flag fans (amongst those two in the Collezione Marsiletti in Venice, one in Bayerische Nationalmuseum in Munchen) hasn't had "turnable" flags, but has been attached in a fixed position. A benefit of this is that the fan could then also be used to shield for the sun, as seen in ill. 4. What I want, look wise, is a handle of wood painted golden, as this corresponds with Thomas Croyat's observations (if he is to be trusted). The actual flag will probably have a metallic embroidery in a geometric pattern. This will be trimmed with a metallic (or maybe non-metallic) lace around the edge.

But what to make the "flag" of? The choice of material seems to have varied greatly. The surviving fans in the Marsiletti collections shows one made of perforated parchment, and another of braided/interlaced plant fiber (Deborah Lane 2003). The Bayerische one seems to be made of woven wool or linen, in a geometric pattern. The traveller Coryat even tells of painted paper. Although I wonder if he means parchment or canvas - painted paper, however nicely made, doesn't seem to correspond with the "meane prices" he tells about. I haven't found any evidence of embroidered flag fans, but seeing how many other objects were embroidered I see it as a plausible way of decorating it.

Various sites claims various traditions for the flag fans. Some say they were for unmarried women and courtesans, while matrons used the feather fan ("About feather fans" in reference list), others say the colours of the flag fan indicated whether its owner was married or unmarried ("Buy flag fans" in reference list). However, they don't tell of their source of information, so it might only be their interpretation of the subject. I need to look further into it. I've also seen flag fans referred to as ventarola/ventuolo and key fan, but the former is definitely the most used name today.

More to come...


About the imperial Ottoman celebration
"Katerina's Purple Files" about flag fans
Larsdatter about historical fans
Deborah Lane AKA Oonagh on fans
The making of Bella's straw flag fan
About feather fans
Buy flag fans

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