As you know I live in Florence and discovering the story of this amazing city is one the most fascinating way to get in contact with its spirit and life.
There are a lot of books dedicated to the story of the city, but I was incredibly fascinated by one of them.
The old publication is composed by three volumes, called “La splendida storia di Firenze” (“The splendid history of Florence”)
A lot of chapters are dedicated to battles, wars and politics of course, but in some of them however, the description of the everyday life of Florentine people, the role of women in society and their fashion habits are interestingly described.
Through this post I will describe a specific period of time in Florence, the beginning of 14th century.
The book’s author portrays the Florentine’s women of the time, describing the trends, fashions and oddities of their life and I’m going to share with you the long gone stories of this forgotten past.
The Florentine life at the beginning of 14th century was flourishing.
Socially, economically and commercially speaking, Florentines were dedicated to artisanal crafts and commerce, increasing their business and their richness, naming and paying protectors of the city among the European aristocracy of the time.
The city had 100.000 inhabitants inside the city walls.
The wool artisan shops were 200 and the small banks (called Banchi dei Cambiatori, an antique prototype of what we call now financial institutions) were 80.
The income in the city’s funds were so abundant, that there were plenty of money to invest in artistic projects that made the beauty of Florence we all love today.
Giotto, the famous painter had already stolen the scene to the master Cimabue and in 1331 the construction of the magnificent Duomo resumed, spreading a sense of confidence and happiness among Florentines, underlined also by the birth of two lions puppies, from the lioness held in captivity near Palazzo Vecchio.
An extraordinary event, which Florentines considered propitious and fortunate.
The only chance for a woman of the time to evade from everyday life and show her fashionable taste were the parties.
Dances were hold, especially during springtime to celebrate the arrival of the new season.
In 1333 an entire month was dedicated to the celebration of San Giovanni, patron saint of the city.
More than 500 people, dressed in yellow and white danced and ate, spending a considerable amount of money for their pleasures.
These dances lasted a few days and women used to dare with their garments and their behaviors, enjoying fully the atmosphere of these events.
Women just got crazy for those events and it was imperative for them to show their artificial beauty.
To make their skin smooth and white, women used to wash their faces with the water of Mugnone (a small river in Florence), peeling the brows and the front with glass, the cheeks and skin of the neck, removing hair.
To shave, women combined ingredients to obtain a sort of mush, which had to be boiled all night and then applied to skin in order to burn the hair. Sometimes it was very easy to have both hair and skin burned and ointments were applied to relieve the pain.
Having a perfect, white and smooth skin wasn’t enough, though.
A woman should also be blonde, according to French habits and to the songs of poets.
For naturally blonde girls, or for brunettes the recipe was the same: washing hair with special potions and chilling for hours in the sun on the rooftops.
Of course there was a problem. Sunbathing would have also made their skin darker. So a special straw hat was created, in order to keep the entire face in the shade and the hair free to be hit by sunlight.
In order to be beautiful, many women payed with their own life. They dyed of pneumonia.
To complete the look, women used gold powders and gold webs, embellished with flowers and pearls. They also adorned their hairstyles with yellow or white silk braids.
These braids were returned to Florentine women by the Duke of Calabria. He managed to cancel the sumptuary laws, that were condemning those braids as a disreputable vice.
According to Dante, women’s dresses should have been more sober. He accused women of being too much vain.
The tunic was long, till the feet and a belt underlined the waistline. The tunic, called socca, had a tiny train and was shorter in the front, to make the hemline of the skirt visible. The cape was green and hold by a huge pin.
The hat was a white scarf, for married women, black for widows.
For some years more frivolous fashion habits had been adopted for female garments.
Silk embroidered with pearls, gold and silver brocade and colorful painted silks.
A description of the following cape has been found: “black cape, with a yellow background, with birds, parrots, butterflies, white and red roses and a lot of other figures, dragons, with letters, red and black trees, lined with a white striped fabric.”
A magnificent decoration, which Dante firmly condemned.
The abundance of fabrics for trains, sleeves and the depth of necklines, which made the breast entirely visible were out of controls, according to the poet.
Dante complained also about the huge volume of the sleeves, which used to cause a lot of troubles during meals, stealing space from the table.
Embroidered bags became very fashionable, as well as luxury belts and gloves with pearls.
Shoes were like stilts, making the act of walking dangerous and quite impossible.
In 1330 the Florentine’s government put an end to all of these strange habits.
It was decided to revoke all these fashionable privileges and women were forced to dress in a more appropriate and sober way.
They cried, they complained, they remonstrated and finally they found a way to sidestep the new rules.
Denying the evidence.
Florentine society was blooming, but there were downsides to be a woman at the time.
Florentine women’s were considered a disgrace for society, although they played a fundamental role in it, even without the approval of men.
We have to think about medieval women’s life as uncomfortable and tiring. It was spent into dark tower-houses where they were expected to do their chores.
Each Florentine family at the time had an autarchic life. They were totally independent, because of the presence of an oven for bread and of a well for water in each house.
And every woman was supposed to draw the water, peeling the skin of their hands with cords and to cook the bread, before dawn. It was not even day when the flavor of bread was all over the house.
Oil and wine were preserved in the dark cellars, where the daylight was impossible to be seen.
On the ground floor was the barn and many women were supposed to take care of the animals, without mentioning the hen-house.
Men spared to women going to the market for food. For two reasons. First of all because the bag with the money shouldn’t be in the hands of women and second of all because women weren’t allowed to go out of the house, except for going to church.
Sometimes old mendicants were received at home, not just for the stuff they sold, but also because they carried message of love or indecent proposals.
At the centre of the tower-houses there was this room, called by the Florentine “Matronale”, with a beamed ceiling, the walls covered with tapestries, fair skin or painted, with frescos that should resemble decorated fabrics. The frescos were considered cheap at the time, the real luxury was to have furs and skins to decorate and heat the room.
In the bedrooms wardrobes were super rare, because the family used chests of oak or walnut in order to storage everything, from flour to wool garments, preserved by moth using pepper.
The education of Florentine women was very different from the one offered to men. They studied to be good wifes, in order to be promised to their husband at 12 or 14 years of age. When 16, women were considered spinters.
In order to avoid that, women were perfectly instructed about houseworks, as making bread, wash the capon, cook and do laundry, make the bed, spin bags, embroider silk with needles, cut linen and wool and re-shaping shoes.
Women shouldn’t be lazy, as lazy women were conspired dangerous for the entire behavior of the rest of the family and they were easily punished, if the houseworks weren’t finished in the evenings.
Some ladies had the privilege of studying inside convents, where they learned more and became skilled embroiderers, bringing to life exquisite work of truly handmade fashion.
However some of their parents, maybe because of their avarice, seemed to forget those poor ladies inside the convents, where they finally ended taking the veil against their will. But it wasn’t always considered a misfortune.
As Compiuta Donzella, a rare poetic voice of the 14th Century on Florence, wrote in her sonnets, most of these ladies preferred the calm and serene cloistered life, to the unfair and painful life inside their tower-houses.
Tower-houses were some sort of prisons and it was very easy to think that they used to wait, full of hope, the Sunday morning, when they finally went out of their houses and they could relax, while going to church.
It was in that occasions, that most of the men fell in love with young and desirable ladies.
Also Dante saw for the first time Beatrice, sitting and praying inside a Florentine church.
During wedding banquets a woman, according to the habit of the time, shouldn’t touch the food, shouldn’t eat too much, and when she was ready to wash her hands (they didn’t use forks to eat), she shouldn’t make the water cloudy.
Women were too smart to be held inside tower-houses and to forgo their own fashionable pleasures.
But life wasn’t easy, after all. Not at all.
Women were not like slaves, but they had to serve their family, that was their role.
And they thought they had the right to have those beautiful dresses, as the only consolation after a life spent making other people satisfied.
The wonderful creations their own hands gave life to can only live in our imagination now, but such stories of the past give us a chance to reflect on how much the world has or hasn’t changed.
LIVE MEDIEVAL IN FLORENCE
If you want to feel the spirit and capture the essence of a Medieval tower-house in Florence, I suggest you to visit Palazzo Davanzati, in Via Porta Rossa, 13.
Bonus: a great collection of old laces, all restored and very easy to be consulted.
It will be worth your time!
Do you want to discover the stories of fashion’s past on your visit to Florence?
Check out my Italian Fashion History Experience and book your fashion history conscious tour of the city!