Sunday 28 October 2012

Jane Bridgeman – Machiavelli’s Linens: some linens in 15th century Florence

Ghirlandaio - Lucrezia Tornabuoni
This was a talk based on a diary/account book kept by Niccolo Machiavelli’s father Bernado around 1474. As well as a palazzo in Florence the Machiavellis owed a house in Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, an area which in those days grew a large amount of flax. The account book says nothing about the processing of the flax, but it does talk about it being sent away to be woven, what weight was sent, what length came back, and what it was used for. Much was woven into household linens.

The measurements in the account book are given in braccia, a Florentine braccia was equivalent to 58.4 cm. So having sent out so much weight of yarn, he might get back say 36 metres of 1.45 metre wide fabric. Some of the fabric that came back was fustian, with a linen warp and a cotton weft. Jane said that more cotton was imported than one might think, from places like Syria and Cyprus. It could take 3 months from the yard being sent to the finished, bleached cloth being returned. Though it depended on the weather the average time for bleaching was 2 months, in 1479 30 metres went for bleaching and took a month. There was a quote, not from Machiavelli but from a lady trying to make shirts to send to her sons, that “the linen for the shirts is not yet white.”

Examples given of uses:  11½ kilo weight of cloth (?) being 18½m. long, was to be used for two quilt covers, there is a reference elsewhere in the book to a quilt filled with chicken feathers. 36 metres was to be used for long linen towels, each 3 metres long. Jane commented that there is a problem with definitions here, as to what is a towel, for example 29 metres for use as a towel?  There were handkerchiefs that were a braccia (58 cm) square, and there was 4½ braccia (2.6 metres) for aprons. Some of the linen was made with a black or blue stripe, and some of this was for head coverings, though some was for napkins/towels. Jane mentioned examples in the V&A collection and this one. This type of striped linen can also be seen in illustrations of this period, for example as a table cloth in a wedding banquet, as a towel hanging over an arm in an illustration of Bathsheba bathing, and in the Melrode altarpiece, and as a sort of apron in the Birth of the Virgin Mary.  Jane did show illustration of the striped cloth being used as a headcloth, but I have not made a note of which examples she use, so here is Ghirlandaio’s Lucrezia Tornabuoni.
My notes made at a talk given by Jane Bridgeman at:  

Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body: The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.



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