Moda Romana

LATEST: Only at the research state as of now

When the musical Which Witch premiered in West End in 1992, the costume design had a fairly historical accurate approach. Designer Mark Bailey had based many of the lead role costumes on Renaissance portraits, and many cast member costumes could also be found in paintings of the era. The musical is set partly in pre-counter-reformation Rome, and partly in Heidelberg in Germany. For the Roman part I soon enough discovered most of the dresses were Florentine in style, and I started wondering about what Roman fashion might have looked like at in the mid 1500s. Turned out there weren't much to find on the field, so I've had to categorize and analyze as best I can myself. This site is the result of my hunt.

So what IS Roman fashion? Well, first a disclaimer. My focus has been the style between high Renaissance and Mannerism. This style is from when the bodices became longer and stiffer than in the high Renaissance, and the sottana often was used on its own instead of under an overdress. The timeline I've chosen is roughly 1530-1560, which would exclude the style seen in "The Borgias" and "Romeo and Juliet" and similar. Trying to find portraits of Roman females from the mid 16th century isn't easy. There are tons of cardinals, popes and bishops depicted, and also a few military men and large procession scenes. But it seems portraits of females, which occurs so frequently elsewhere, is far and few. A plausible reason can be that the main population of Rome was men of the church, which lived in celibacy and would not have wives and daughters. There are, as always, exceptions, especially those who had a family before they entered the church. One example is pope Paul III Farnese, with four illegitimate children born before his papacy (though after he joined the church). But as a general rule, much of the population of the city of Rome was clericals without a family of their own, which would limit the need of portraiture of noble women of the city.

To make up for the lack of women in Rome, prostitution was a quite legitimate business, and the women paid taxes. It was for the most a profession picked up by foreigners, as known prostitutes and courtesans of Rome includes names like Antonia Fiorentina, Francesca Ferarese, Narda Napolitana, Lucrezia Greca, Camilla Senese and Signora Saltarella of Florence. From the 13th century to the mid 16th century they were if not treasured, then at least not shunned, and they contributed with money to finance bridges and buildings in Rome. Thomas Aquinas is said to have explained why the church accepted this business in the holiest of towns: he compared the prostitution in Rome to a sewer in a palace: if the sewer is removed, the palace will fill with filth... Not until the counter reformation did the mood shift. Heavy restrictions were placed on the profession, placing everyone inside the wall-surrounded Ortaccio, which they couldn't leave at night and at holidays like Lent and Easter. Not obeying this could result in whipping, as happened with one Imperia in 1570, though her offence was even more offensive as she was dressed in men's clothes to avoid being discovered. Also, women arriving at Rome had to prove they were of good family and not there to prostitute themselves, and the pope tried to convince the rulers of other city states to also get rid of the profession in their cities.

There has long been a consensus that prostitutes of the Renaissance were made to wear yellow, most often a yellow veil. But the picture is more complex. In Ferrara in 1471 the wearing of a yellow mantello (cloak) was a sure sign of the lady's profession, in Venice in 1407 prostitutes were ordered to wear a yellow scarf; in Milan in 1412 a white cloak; in Cologne in 1423 a double red-and-white clasp; in Bologna in 1456 a green scarf; in Milan in 1498 a black cloak; in Seville in 1502 green-and-yellow sleeves. And to add to this picture, in mid-16th century Rome a large golden veil was a fashion item. Prostitutes were rather set to wear something separating them from noble ladies, so rules on this would change with fashion and what the nobility wore. This is not to say the rules were obeyed. Venetian courtesans were more often than not outshining their noble sisters, and foreigners often had problems telling them apart. The same was the case in Florence. Engravings of Roman women by the artist Pietro Bertelli from the late 16th century also shows a similar feature. Judging from these the veil was not only prominent but essential in Roman female attires. The engravings shows Roman ladies of various kinds - a maiden, a bride, a matron, two widows and a courtesan. Their attire vary little - they all have square-necked bodices with wide skirts and fairly narrow sleeves, and they all wear a big veil. The maiden, bride and courtesan wears jewelry, while the widows seems to not wear it. The matron is seen from the back and it's not possible to tell what she might wear around her neck, but most likely it was much subdued compared to the young women and the courtesan. And the maiden ant courtesan is difficult to tell apart. From the book "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy": "Judging by these costume prints, the Roman courtesan's attire differed little from that of a matron or widow: all wear a heavy veil." (page 212).

I think the depictions I've gathered underneath is representative as Roman portraits. as the sitters are identified as Roman ladies, or as the artist most likely was in Rome when painting them. They all share some distinctive features. The most distinctive feature is the large, golden veil. Veils were used elsewhere too, but the golden colour and large size seems to have been typical for Roman fashion, as described by Florentine courtiers in the late 1500's: And she adorns herself with finery and vanity more than ever, and even this morning decided to go to Mass all decked out and with a golden veil on her head in the Roman style... (Landini 2005: 39). If this is combined with the dark hair of the sitter, which is all too rare in Florentine and Venetian portraits, and dark, sober colours in the tight-fitting dress, we're probably talking Roman style. Lack of jewellery is also prominent - the sitters DO wear a ring or a necklace, but not nearly as much as seen further north.

One thing that do correspond with Florence and Venice, on the other hand, is the love for the square, open neckline in the dresses. Most of the Italic peninsula adapted the more rigid Spanish fashion by the mid and late 1500s, which demanded a closed-up dress, maybe even high-necked. But not so in the mentioned cities: "...Spanish fashion did not appear totally dominant: as well as the Tuscan cities, only in Rome, and even more so in Venice, did the ladies continue to display their throats and part of the bosom" (Landini 2005: 84). The use of an overdress, as was so popular in the late 15th century, also reappeared in the second half of the 16th century. But this is at the end of the period I have concentrated upon.

Another source to Roman fashion is a letter a father, Sperone Speroni, sent to his daughter when she and her children were to move from Padua to Rome in 1575:
You will need to dress them according to the custom here, I would advice you not to dress them in the Paduan way, and here they do not wear silk either, except for sarsenet in the summer. This is my opinion. ((Quoted in "Fashion: Critical and Primary Sources, Volume 1, page 433)

What we can read of this is that modesty in dress, which was discussed and recommended elsewhere, in large were done in the Papal state. As for the Speroni letter sent in 1575, I am not sure whether he refers to children clothes or civil clothes in general, but I none-the-less find it interesting that he advice against the use of silk. Modesty seems to been the finest adoration of a young female, rather than silks, jewels and colours. Because of the similarity to especially Tuscan fashion, but with the difference of dark colours, large veil and little jewellery, portraits of Roman ladies is often described as widows. I hope to show this is not the case.


1. "Portrait of a Lady as saint Agatha" (possibly Giulia Gonzaga), ca. 1540, Sebastiano del Piombo (National Gallery, London)
2. "Portrait of Vittoria Farnese", ca. 1546, Tiziano and/or workshop (Szpmvszeti Mzeum, Budapest)
3. "Portrait of Giulia de' Medici" or Ortensia de' Bardi, ca. 1559, Alessandro Allori (Uffizi, Florence)
4. "Portrait of a Lady", 1550's (?), Roman school (in a private collection in Paris)
5. "Portrait of Vittoria Colonna" (?), 1550's (?), Roman school (possibly in the Palazzo Colonna in Rome)

This painting by Sebastiano del Piombo cannot be set to Rome with absolute certainty, but it's likely. The painter was born in Venice in 1485, and is believed to have trained with Bellini, as well as being influenced by Giorgione. He moved to Rome ca. 1511, being invited by the bankier Agostino Chigi. He stayed in Rome until his death in 1547, except after the sack of Rome in 1527, when he stayed in Venice for some time. He was considered the major portraitist in Rome, especially after Raphael's death in 1520, but he also worked with the frescoes in the villa Farnesina and with many religious themes. His earliest female portraits are very Venetian in appearance, with round blonde women in low-cut dresses. This portrait is more sober in style, cooler. Although the lady wears a modern, fashionable dress, she has the attributtes of St. Agatha. These are assumed to be later attributtes, which modern techical examinations supports. Even the artist's signature is thought to be a later addition. That said, I definitely think the portrait is executed in his style, and the attribution has never seriously been challenged. The dress of the sitter is more colourful than what appears in other portraits, being green with green velvet trims, but then again, the Roman material is so limited that it's hard to say with certainty what was common in Rome and not. But the typical Roman veil is included, and along with the fact that the woman is rather dark haired (rarely seen in Florence and Venice) it supports the idea of this being a Roman portrait. It was painted around 1540, and it is today in the care of the National Gallery in London.

Compared to known portraits of the noble woman Giulia Gonzaga, Countess of Fondi, there is a definitive similarity and it is assumed to be of her. She married a count of the Colonna family, and lived large parts of her life in southern Lazio (the county in which Rome is the main city). The second portrait underneath is often described as showing her in widowhood. She is wearing a dark sottana under a dark zimarra. The latter is trimmed with fine fur, and it seems to have been made of the "Medici" fabric also seen in the funeral outfits of Garzia de' Medici and Isabella of Aragon. She also wears a brownish yellow veil. Though she at this point was a widow, it would have been 7 years since her husband died. If she was a particularly pious woman she might have dressed in attire of sorrow for the rest of her life, or in a novice habit. However, her court was a cultural and lively center, and although she never married again she is believed to have had an affaire with Ippolito de' Medici. I propose her dark attire and veil in the Altissimo portrait is rather a consequence of her living in Lazio, where Roman fashion would have been dominant.

1. "Portrait of a Lady as saint Agatha" (possibly Giulia Gonzaga), ca. 1540, Sebastiano del Piombo (National Gallery, London)
2. "Portrait of Giulia Gonzaga", ca. 1535, Sebastiano del Piombo or Christofano dell' Altissimo (?)

Vittoria Farnese was the daugher of Pier Luigi Farnese and Gerolama Orsini - making her the grand-daugher of Pope Paul III Farnese. She was born in Rome in 1521. In 1548 she married Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino, and hence became duchess of Urbino. She had three children with Giudobaldo: Isabella, Francesco and Lavinia. She also took care of Clelia Farnese, which is thought to have been the illegitime daugher of cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Vittoria Farnese died in Pesaro in 1602. The portrait is believed to be painted in 1546, when she was still in Rome. The muted dress with narrow sleeves and the lovely golden veil would indicate that. Some claim this to be a work of Tiziano Vecellio (Titian); however the attribution is uncertain and to my eye it looks more like a workshop or collaboratial piece. The portrait is now in the care of National Budapest Museum. The identification of Vittoria Farnese is largely made on the similarity to other portraits, and on the school to which the portrait belong. Villa Borghese in Rome has a very similar portrait of Vittoria Farnese displayed in their painting gallery. The dark dress and golden veil is pretty much the same, but she's posing a bit different. I've seen this portrait twice, but I haven't succeeded in finding a colour version of it online (nor in books). However, a b/w version is added underneath.

1. "Portrait of Vittoria Farnese", ca. 1546, Tiziano and/or workshop (Szpmvszeti Mzeum, Budapest)
2. "Portrait of Vittoria Farnese", 1540s, Jacopino del Conte (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This one has been attributed to several artists, but most now agree it's by Alessandro Allori. He was a Florentine painter, and pupil and ward of Bronzino. I still wonder if it can be placed within Roman fashion even though the painter and (possibly) sitter is Florentine. Based on pure typologi, I would place it in Rome. But the danger of this typology is that I might see what I want to see, and Roman fashion at this time isn't too unlike Florentine fashion. But the general style of the outfit match the others well. The geometrical cutwork sleeves reminds a lot of the portrait underneath, and the golden veil, the very dark hair, the narrow dark dress and the lack of jewellery, apart from a ring or two, is typical for what I for now has defined as Lazio/Roman fashion.

Some believes this to be Giulia de' Medici (1535-1588). She had a long stay in Rome in the late 1550's, and Gabrielle Langdon suggests in "Medici Women" that she was painted during her stay in Rome. If this is the case she could have picked up the latest dress fashion there. Giulia married twice, her first marriage lasted from 1550-1555, and the second from 1559 and until her death in 1588. If the dating of the portrait to 1559 is correct, it might be connected to her second wedding - but I haven't really researched that part well. The first written source of this portrait's location is from the 1670s, when it was listed as a part of the art collection of Leopold de' Medici. This could support the Giulia hypothesis. The wearing of a hair net similar to those Eleonora di Toledo introduced to Florence also seems to be Medici link.

Other suggest the sitter to be Ortensia Montauto de' Bardi, which is documented by Rafaello Borghini to have been painted in Rome by Alessandro Allori (Pilliod 2001: 179 pp). The upper part of the armrest bears the inscription "As al Roma 1559". Allori decorated the family chapel of the Montauto family in the 1550s, and they are reckoned as his earliest important patrons. The mentioned Borghini recorded several portraits by Allori's hand; not just that of Ortensia, but also of two of her cousins and her husband Tommaso de' Bardi, which was assumed to have recommended Allori for the Montauto family. Allori stayed in Rome from 1554 to 1560. The portrait is believed to have been painted in 1559, due to the inscription. It's often been proposed that the sitter is a widow, because of her black dress, large veil and because of the vase carved in the armrest of the chair (symbolizing death). However, the iconography of the portrait is ambiguous. The statue in the background is Michelangelo's "Contemplative life" made for the funerary moment of pope Julius II Rovere. In her hand she holds a cameo depicting Mercury. And after techical examinations it seems that the dress is dark blue rather than black, and the veil and partlet fair golden. This might oppose the whole "widow idea" and rather be an expression of the general Roman dress fashion.

Gabrielle Langdon and others believes it to be Giulia Medici, Elisabeth Pilliod and others believes it to be Ortensia Montauto. They both explain their view well, and they're both open for being mistaken. At least they both agree in it being painted in Rome, and they both attribute it to Allori.

I have included three portraits underneath. The first is of Giulia with her grandmother Maria Salviati. The portrait was long thought to be of Maria Salviati with her son Cosimo. Since period sources describe it as being a "puttana", a little girl, and since the appearance of the child is also that of a girl, it is today believed to show Giulia, as she was in the care of her grandmother after her father was killed. The second portrait is the one I've discussed above. The third is a portrait which bears an uncanny similarity to portrait 2. I've never seen anyone linking it to Giulia de' Medici or Ortensia de' Bardi, but since it was painted around the same time as the other, and by the same artist, there might be a connection there. I also think the facial features, the patterned neckline and the veil indicates a familiarity. However, the third portrait has a more Florentine flair, through the ornamental partlet and the jewellery. I also cannot tell whether the eye colour is more blue or the same dark one. Whether the sitter is Giulia or not, the two latter portrait at least show a difference in Roman and Florentine attires, despite the shared features.

1. "Portrait of Maria Salviati and Giulia de' Medici", ca. 1538, Pontormo (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
2. "Portrait of Giulia de' Medici" or "Ortensia de' Bardi, 1559, Alessandro Allori (Uffizi, Florence?)
3. "Portrait of a Florentine lady", late 1550s, Alessandro Allori (?)

I know very little about this portrait, and I only have this poor b/w version. I first saw it through Jennifer Thompson's wonderful costume site, as a reference for her Venetian cutwork sleeves. I then saw it in Carlo Bestetti 1962 Italian costume book. It's there referred to as "Roman school", and being a part of a private collection in Paris somewhere. Again: the veil and the dark hair. Whereas the dark hair isn't typical for Rome alone (it's also frequent in Milan, Bologne and Mantua), the combination of the hairdo and the arrangement of the veil reminds a lot of the ones above. Also, the narrow dark dress seems typical. The cutwork sleeves reminds of what was seen in Venice around 1550/1560, but appears here to be treated more geometrical, and it also seems closer to the Giulia de' Medici one than Venetian counterparts. The folds of the veil is also a bit peculiar, but similar treatment is found in the portraits of Vittoria Farnese and other paintings, so I assume it's on purpose.

1. "Portrait of a Lady", 1550's (?), Roman school (in a private collection in Paris)
2. "Portrait of Giulia de' Medici" (possibly), 1559, Alessandro Allori (Uffizi, Florence?)

If I knew little of some of the other portraits, I know even less about this one. I curse myself for the lack of info I've saved as well, all I've written is "unknownattcolonna". I assume I meant that the sitter was a member of the Roman Colonna family, or that the portrait hangs on display in their palace. I also assume I meant it's attributed to being a portrait of the poet Vittoria Colonna of the Colonna family. Although the portrait looks like similar ones also said to be of her (especially those in Sebastiano del Piombo's style), few or none are certain to be of her. Which leaves us with very little. However, the outfit is interesting. Dark-haired lady covering her hair with a golden veil, dark dress... That makes me assume it's Roman, at least, and that can correspond with the Colonna attribution. However, there are two details which makes me a bit uncertain: there's something red to the left in the painting - a red sleeve? A book? Also, it almost looks like the dress has a split in the front bodice, that corresponds more with northern (especially Veneto) style. So... Need to do some more research on this one.


Bestetti, Carlo (1962) "Abbigliamento e costume nella pittura italiana": Rinascimento"
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli (2005) "Moda a Firenze 1540-1580", Pagliai Polistampa
Langdon, Gabrielle (2007) "Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal", University of Toronto Press
Mc Neil, P.K. (2009) "Fashion: Critical and Primary Sources, Volume 1: Late Medieval to Renaissance, Berg Publishers, Oxford and New York
Pilliod, Elisabeth (2001) "Pontormo, Bronzino, Allori. A genealogy in Florentine art"

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