A ceremonial Ottoman kaftan from the mid 16th century, and a Venetian zimarra from the late 16th century.

The kaftan was a highly praised garment in the Ottoman empire. The fabric, cut and decorations of the kaftan immediately told of the status of the wearer, and each court had a wide range of kaftans in their stock. Guests were given a kaftan based on their rank, and sultans could give an extra fine one to foreign guests as a mark of favour. Similarly, the sultan could give a guest a cold shoulder by offering him a kaftan of inferior fabric. Not all foreigners understood the code, but those at the court did and the guest was treated according to the rank of their kaftan. It should be noted that the Ottoman empire was large, roughly covering what had once been the Eastern Roman empire, and including modern Balkan, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Syria and parts of Northern Africa. When I refer to Ottman style, it is in large what was used at court in Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

The contact between the Venetian republic and the Ottoman empire was close. Though the relationship wasn't always the best there were extensive trades, not only in goods but also in culture. Cultural ambassadors were sent to the respective states; the best example is probably the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini who worked for sultan Mehmet II in Constantinople on two occasions. Venice also had a freer press than other Italian city states, and Arabian manuscripts, both in its original text and in Latin translations, were printed and published in the 16th century. Illuminators added the proper depictions, revealing an intimate knowledge of Ottoman dressing. It also resulted in faithful depictions for use in costume books and in paintings. At least nine costume books were published between 1540 and 1610, and several of them shows foreign attires.

But it wasn't only in depictions Eastern dressing could be seen in Italy. Some of the garments from the Ottoman empire found its way to Italian city states, and even became high fashion. The kaftan was such an item. We can only speculate on how it started, but it's likely Venetian ambassadors were given one or several as a mark of favour, and brought them home. At home they were often displayed at home along with other exotic objects. A few men also adopted them for their attire, but it was more a sidetrack of fashion in the 16th century. Marc'antonio Barbaro, a nobleman serving as Venetian ambassador in the Ottoman empire from 1568-1574, grew fond of the foreign style and advocated it in Venice. He worked so that Ottoman ambassadors was accepted in the Doge's palace, and got his own portrait painted in what is considered the style he adapted in the East. Compared to a portrait of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent the styles seems to correspond, minus the turban.

In a series of depictions from "An imperial celebration" in Istanbul in 1582, there is much emphasis on the kaftans. Own processions was devoted to fine kaftans, carried on long sticks to show the finest examples, and also on wagons belonging to fine kaftan makers. The layering of how they were worn, and what patterns were worn on top of others, also had its symbolism, which the period eye would recognize. None of this symbolism was adopted in Italy. It was the garment itself, and eventual typical decorations, the Italians focused on. So it was an adaption of style rather than symbolism.


1. Portrait of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent", ?, School of Tiziano (unknown location).
2. "Portrait of Marc'antonio Barbaro", 1570s, Lambert Sustris? (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
3. "Portrait of the wolf family", 1580s?, Lavinia Fontana (unknown location).
4. "Portrait of an Ottoman officer", 1577, Nicolas de Nicolay.
5. "Portrait of Sultan Ahmed III", 17th century, unknown artist and location.
6. + 7. Details from the illuminations in "An Imperial Celebration", 1582.

In Ottoman clothing it was men who used the kaftans. Women a similar construction; more tight fitting and often of shorter length. It was common with buttons in front, though frog fastenings are also seen, and the sleeves were often short or elbow length. This version didn't gain much popularity in Italy. Tiziano painted a portrait of "Flora", an allegorical figure dressed in a green such Ottoman dress, with a chemise underneath, and with an apple in her hand and a wreath of flowers on her head. This sparked an own genre in Venice, where both Tiziano himself, his workshop, and later artists copied the pose and the overall shape of the kaftan. It was often used for allegorical figures, or for posthumous portraits of exotic figure like biblical women or that of Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian noblewoman who became queen of Cyprus. But apart from these genre paintings moulded over the same idea, the female Ottoman kaftan wasn't adapted into Italian fashion. It might have been in use as a leisure garment for the privacy of the home, or as an enticing exotic garment elevated courtesans received guests in. But sources are very scarce on this.

In the genre paintings there are both buttoned and frog fastened versions. The general construction seems to be fairly similar to the Ottoman ones. But a big difference is that whereas the Ottoman women buttoned it all up, maybe to shape or support the bust, whereas the Italian women depicted wears it open to right above the navel. The tall head garbs and loose veiling of the Ottoman women doesn't appear in the Italian paintings at all.


1. "Flora", ca. 1555, Tiziano Vecellio (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
2. "Lady with apple", 1550s, School of Tiziano (Sotherby's).
3. "Lady in kaftan", 1560s, School of Tiziano or Veronese (unknown location).
4. "Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus", 1560s, Workshop of Tiziano (Uffizi, Florence).
5. "Woman holding a wreath of roses", 1580s?, School of Tiziano (Duke of Wellington's collection, London)
6. "Portrait of a woman with vase", 1590s?, in the style of Tiziano (unknown location).
7. "Judith and Holofernes", 1570s?, School of Veronese (unknown location).
8. "Judith and Holofernes", ?, School of Tiziano (unknown location).

9. "Portrait of a Sultana", mid 16th century, School of Tiziano (Ringling Museum, Florida).
10. "Portrait of Cameria, daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent", mid 16th century, School of Tiziano (Count Antoine Seilern's collection, London).
11. "Portrait of an Ottoman lady", mid 16th century, Venetian school (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo).
12. "Portrait of Haseki Hürrem, wife of Suleiman the Magnificent", mid/late 16th century.
13. A 16th century female kaftan (picture found at Flickr).

Ottoman women from "Codex Vindobonensis", late 16th century.

However, a variant of the male kaftan came into use in Italy. What's strange is that it was mostly used by women and children, and it was seldom made of patterned fabrics. That is an interesting change, and underlines the notion of Italians adopting style rather than symbolism. As mentioned before the kaftan can be seen in contemporary male portraits in Italy. But it usually appears on those serving as ambassadors, or those outside the norms of the society - artists and foreigners, and even in the portrait of the wolf family Lavinia Fontana depicted in the late 16th century. Turning to portraits of females, on the other hand, shows that a variant of the male Ottoman kaftan became high fashion in the mid 16th century. In Italy it was named zimarra, possibly deriving from old Greek ximarios (winter overcoat). It's related to the English garment chimere, a clerical or academic overdress.

The waistless construction, with wide shape the frog closing in front are recognizable from the Ottoman kaftans. The zimarra also often had detachable and/or long hanging sleeves, though there are great variations here. In Moda a Firenze the zimarra is described as "Long, loose overgown without waist seam, inspired by the Turkish kaftans. It was distinguished by braided frog fastenings and often had decorative hanging sleeves." (page 252). It was favoured by duchess Eleonora di Toledo in Florence. She usually wore a dress with a matching zimarra overneath, as seen in many of her portraits. Hers were made of one coloured fabrics with trims and frog fastenings as decorations. They could also be fur lined for winter. The zimarra was popular in north and mid Italy, and judging from paintings it was in use before Eleonora di Toledo arrived in Florence. So she definitely gave the style a boost, but she didn't invent it.

1. "Portrait of Giulia Gonzaga", ca. 1535, Christofano dell' Altissimo (Uffizi, Florence).
2. "Alcina receives Ruggiero" (detail), 1550s, Niccolo dell' Abbate (Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna).
3. Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and Porzia", ca. 1551, Paolo Veronese (Walter's Art Museum).
4. "Portrait of a Lady", 1567, Domenico Riccio (Palazzo Thiene).
5. "Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo", ca. 1560, School of Bronzino (private collection, Assisi).
6. "Portrait of Giovanna di Austria", 1580s, School of Bizelli (Uffizi, Florence).

8. "Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo", 1549-50, Bronzino (Palazzo Reale, Pisa).
9. "Portrait of a Lady", ca. 1555, Bronzino (Galleria Sabauda, Torino).
10. "Donna Chevara and her son", 1550s, Workshop of Bronzino (Worchester Museum, Massachusetts).
11. "Portrait of a Lady with dog", 1560s, Florentine school (Walter's Art Museum, Baltimore).
12. "Portrait of a Venetian woman", ca. 1565, Parrasio Micheli (Palazzo Rosso, Genoa).
13. "Portrait of Irene de Spilembergo", 1560s, Workshop of Tiziano (unknown location).

14. "Portrait of a Florentine lady", 1570s, circle of Allori (unknown location).
15. "Portrait of a Florentine lady", 1570s, Francesco Traballesi (unknown location).
16. "Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, 2 years old", 1600, Peter Paul Rubens (Innsbruck).
17. "Portrait of a Spanish boy", early 17th century, Sofonisba Anguissola (Trustee of Weston Park).
18. "Portrait of Filippo, Emanuelle and Vittorio di Savoia", late 16th century?, unknown artist and location (Torino).
17. "Minerva dressing", 1612, Lavinia Fontana (Private collection).

The first pictorial evidence of the presence of the zimarra seems to be from the 1530s. It reached a peak in the 1550s through 1560s, and was then slowly replaced by the veste, a similar long overdress which was more tight-fitting. The veste was considered French style. But there are still traces of the Ottoman inspiration in some of the overdresses, as seen in the ornamental frog fastenings in front, and the short sleeves. The kaftan also remained a popular "in house" garment, and reached a new peak in the West in the late 17th century. By then it was known as the banyan, or the "Robe de Chambre", and was in large used by men. It was used over informal clothes, but was seen as formal enough to entertain guests in. The banyan remained fashionable until the 19th century, where all types of at-home dressing gowns was become a standard item in every household. Further inspiration was taken from the Japanese kimonos. The Ottoman origins were long lost.

1. "The poet Lenoble in banyan", 1688, Leloir (unknown location).
2. and 3. Blue silk banyan, ca. 1730-40, sold at an auction years ago.
4. French silk banyan, ca. 1760, from L. A. County Museum.
5. "Portrait of Nicholas Boylston", 1767, Copley (unknown location).


Oonagh's site on kaftans
The Met: Islamic art and culture, the Venetian perspective
Ottoman influences in Western dress
An extant Zimarra at Realm of Venus
On Banyans
Isabella's site on Italian kaftans

Atasoy, Nurhan and Robert Bragner (1997), "An Imperial Celebration 1582", Koçbank, Istanbul.
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli (2005) "Moda a Firenze 1540-1580. Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo a la sua influenza", Edizioni Polistampa, Florence
Mack, Rosamond E. (2001), "From Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600", University of California Press.

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