Friday 21 February 2014

Raffaella - a 16th century advice book

Lucrezia Panciatichi, by Bronzino. c.1540
Alessandro Piccolomini (1508-1578) first published his “Il dialogo della bella creanza delle donne” in 1541, it was reprinted in 1558 and 1574. The work, as seen from the title, is in the form of a dialogue between two women, Raffaella and Margaret.  The dialogue forms one of the many “conduct” books that were published in the sixteenth century, these aimed to instruct people in good conduct, manners, morals, etc., they often included information on the roles and duties of men and women. While many Italian conduct books were translated into English during the 16th century, Castiglione (1), Della Casa (2) and Guazzo (3) for example, Raffaella was not. The work was finally translated into English as the “Raffaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, or rather, A dialogue of the fair perfectioning of ladies”, by the eminent costume historian John Nevison in 1968. (4)

 Raffaela includes a considerable amount of advice on how to dress, a few example of which I give below. There is also information on the use of cosmetics together with some recipes for them. Some of the information is presented in anecdotal form about people the two protagonists know. For example one anecdote speaks of a lady who, in order to imitate a lady thought better than her, tied her garters above the knee before going to church, but found them too tight and so loosened them. Unsurprisingly one fell off when she left, and Raffaella comments that it “was a band that stank so mightily of piss that I think it had more than once fallen off her pillow into the chamber pot.”

If you can get hold of a copy it is full of information on the dress of women in Siena in the mid sixteenth century.


“I would that a young lady every few days should change her dress and never lay aside a fashion which is good, and if her judgement suffices her to find out fashions new and fair, it would be most suitable for her often to put forward some one of them; but should her judgement not suffice, she should cleave to those of other ladies which are better thought of.”

“I say then the richness of dress lies for the great part in the seeking out with care that the stuffs, the cloths; the serges or other tissues should be of the finest and best that may be found; because the dressing in thick cloths as, to give an instance, Mistress Lorenza does, who for her fashion has made for her a frock almost like a friar’s, calls for a ‘slender fashion’.”

“I would that garments furthermore were ample and abundant but not so far as to leave the body too incommoded. And this fullness is of great import, because there is nothing worse than when we see some of our gentlewomen, who go about Siena in little dresses of a sort which contain less than sixteen ells of cloth; and for their short capes which reach not to their tails by a span, they twist part of them round their necks and hold a flap in their hand, and so they go masked down the street, which with their other hand lifting up their dresses lest they wear out by trailing the ground, down the street they go as if possessed, with a clitter-clatter of pattens as though the Devil had got between their legs. And perhaps they lift up the dresses to show a pretty foot, with some part of the leg all tiffed up. But all they show are their broad ugly feet, ill shod with some slippers all out at seam for very age.” 

“ I would also that these garments, be they ample as I tell thee, should be full of guards, of cuts, of slashes, of broderies and other such things; some another time should be quite plain, since this variety of dressing shows great sumptuousness and much good lies therein.” 

“Now above all, richness in dressing is perceived when a lady has always clothes new made, and never wears one and the same dress I say not for many weeks but even for months together.”  [Margaret complains at this point that Raffaella’s advice is for the princess or great lady, not for those who are “poorer by far”. Raffaella’s advice is to, “do the most that is possible”.]

1.  Baldassare Castiglione. The book of the courtier, first published in Italian in 1528
2. Giovanni della Casa. Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behaviour, first published in Italian in 1558
3. Stefano Guazzo. The civil conversation, first published in Italian in 1574
4. Raffaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, or rather, A dialogue of the fair perfectioning of ladies. Glasgow: University Press, 1968.

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