A Renaissance Wardrobe

Written by  Grazietta Butazzi
Luxury and elegance elected as symbols of power at a 15th century court.
In the icy winter of 1490, the entire Este court left for Milan, in the train of the very young Beatrice, destined to marry Ludovico Sforza.
Once in Milan her looks aroused discordant opinions: Trotti thought her hefty and squat, the Emperor Maximilian complimented Ludovico on the beauty of her body and spirit, while Muralto described her as «curvaceous» and emphasized her abundant raven black hair, which she loved to wear hanging down her back in a braid. All we have to go by is the plumpish and rather bold face of the marble bust by Gian Cristoforo Romano.

But no one ever denied that she had intelligence and refinement, gifts that won her a mention in Baldassare Castiglione's Cortegiano: having known her meant «never more to wonder at woman's wit». A young chatelaine with little experience behind her, she immediately opted to play on luxury and an image illuminated by the radiance of cloth of gold and jewels, while she never appeared twice in the same dress.

The most significant comment still extant regarding the little Duchess of Milan is Muralto's pithy comment: «novarum vestium inventrix». It appears that she gave herself over to invention when Ludovico gave her carte blanche to interpret her part as child-princess: at the wedding festivities Calco's descriptions dwell on the prevalence of the Spanish style, according to whose dictates both men and women wore their mantles draped across the right shoulder.
Shortly after the wedding, in her castle at Vigevano, she proudly showed her mother and Prosperi a roomful of eighty-four sumptuous new outfits. In a letter to Isabella, Prosperi spoke of «a sacristy adorned with pluvials», punning on the word piviale, which means both a cloak and an ecclesiastical mantle.

This ostentation reached remarkable levels after the birth of the first son in 1492, and Isabella, in Mantua, must have felt a twinge of envy reading Teodora Angeli's letters. A continuous tale of wonders: visitors bearing gifts for the new mother and, at every door, porters and stewards in silver brocade, and then parties everywhere and when there were no parties there was the hunt in the Barco.
Every day found Beatrice in new clothes and, since she had to compete with other young wives, she felt it was important to use luxury to enhance the sense of her own power. The next year, in a letter to Isabella, Prosperi described a new outfit that Beatrice wanted to wear for Carnival: crimson velvet and cloth of gold adorned with a layer of silver mesh.

A figure somewhat removed from her period, in which she is little more than a historical footnote, Beatrice can still move us with her little tales of the ducal wardrobe: the beautiful dress with the silver mesh was in fact the one that Solari was told to use as a model for the funeral monument. In this, the young duchess is depicted in the sumptuous style she had made her own, a style that the unyielding marble only just manages to stiffen.
The novelties introduced during Beatrice's time were many, and some can probably be attributed to her. First of all, the hair worn curled and hanging free over the shoulders, a barely documented stylistic innovation that, following Beatrice's death, enjoyed a fleeting return to fashion thanks perhaps to Isabella's reputed adoption of it.
And then there was the new structure of the dress, which foreswore the gravity of 15th century drapes in favour of a close fitting bodice over a widened skirt. This was a completely new fashion in the Nineties and one with which Beatrice must have been connected, also because we find more evidence of this in the Brera altarpiece.

Her adoption of this fashion fits in with the many contrivances used to wed sumptuous apparel with the aesthetics of the petite, perhaps too well rounded woman: the hooped underskirt that kept the hem of the dress wide and the bodice pulled in tight around the waist could not have failed to show her figure to best advantage.
As the coloured stripes that decorated the cloth of gold base in the dress depicted in the Brera altarpiece corresponded to a fashion trend that was emerging precisely in that period it is not improbable that the Duchess of Milan had contributed to the spread of this fashion.
In any case the vertical stripes must have lent a hint of slenderness to her plumpish figure. Towards the end of the Fifteenth century we know of no other princely wardrobe including so many outfits entirely covered with simple linear patterns as are mentioned in the descriptions of Beatrice's public appearances: such as the black silk dress «con li radij da capo a piede de brochato d'oro (with gold brocade stripes from head to foot)» which Costabili, the Este's ambassador to Milan, had seen her wearing when out riding. So Beatrice had a vast supply of sumptuous clothes even for horse riding.

But her most beautiful appearance must have been the one of May 1493, when she moved from Ferrara to Venice, encharged by her husband with a diplomatic mission: to encourage the Venetians to rediscover their enthusiasm for an alliance against Naples. Once more, she chose crimson embroidered with gold, with a «bonnet of very large pearls» on her head, like the one with which she was portrayed in the Brera altarpiece.

Her outfit was coordinated with her horse's trappings, the same velvet embroidered with the device of Mercury, which Ludovico had had created only for them, rounded off with the motto «coniungor». She wore this device, over a dress in cherry-coloured cloth during her Venetian sojourn, which was marked more by the success of her wardrobe than by that of the diplomatic mission.
She was also prone to whims and elaborate pranks, often based on fancy dress or ambiguous dress. For example, once she and her court ladies came to meet him «all dressed in the Turkish fashion». He was delighted by this play, so much so that he gave a detailed description of it to his sister-in-law Isabella, almost proud because the idea had been Beatrice's, who had spent a whole night «like an old lady» working on the fancy dress.

Ludovico also mentioned a mordant remark, hissed in the direction of Isabella of Aragon - her friend-enemy and wife of the legitimate duke - who had marvelled at such constancy: «and she said to her that when one had to do something, be it a matter of frivolity or of duty, one had to go about it with study and diligence so that the thing was well done». A great lesson, one would say, "IN government", which threw a far more serious light on this continuous resplendence of gold and silks, plumes and jewels.

You could almost say that Beatrice grew up through dressing up: a blend of play and duty that had always allowed her to fulfill her role.
And when her dead body was laid out in the Chiesa delle Grazie, alongside that of her third child - stillborn -, the splendour of the court that she had animated with her desire to live, to impress, to be a protagonist, seemed to die along with her. Events of greater import than her death would have swept it away in any case, but with her demise «the court was transformed from a happy Paradise to a gloomy Inferno».