Living in a Material World: Brocade Fabrics in Quattrocento Florentine Art

During the middle ages Florence was traditionally associated with the textile industry. A prolific producer of various grades of woollen cloth (products ranged from the luxurious San Martino fabric, through the mid-range Panni di Garbo and onto Rascia, a rough unrefined woollen cloth) the city’s silk industry did not fully emerge until the quattrocento. Around halfway through the fifteenth century, the silk industry experienced a huge boom and luxury fabrics were being produced at unprecedented rates. 

Despite the city’s various sumptuary laws, which at times forbade or limited the wearing and ownership of luxury fabrics, gold brocade made its way into the wardrobes of those who could afford it, into churches and royal courts.  Furthermore, renderings of these silk and velvet fabrics, which, in reality, were lavishly woven through with metallic threads and also often heavily embroidered, made their way into coeval Florentine art. 

Some of the paintings produced celebrated the great and good of Florence: its patricians and its merchant princes, others extolled the beauty and virtue of its noble females and even more honoured religious icons or recorded reverent events.  

References: Rembrandt Duits, “Figured Riches: The Value of Gold Brocades in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painting.” In Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 62 (1999), pp. 60-92. 

Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Cecilie Hollberg, Textiles and Wealth in 14th Century Florence: Wool, Silk, Painting. Exhibition Catalogue: Galleria Dell’Accademia  (05.12.2017-18.03.2018), Florence: Giunti 2017. 

Maureen Fennell Mazzaoui, The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600,  London: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Images: Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. Web Gallery of Art. 

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation (detail), 1486-90, fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Web Gallery of Art. 

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. Web Gallery of Art.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488, tempera on wood, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Web Gallery of Art.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Mary (detail), 1486-90, fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Web Gallery of Art.

Fra Angelico, St Michael, 1423-24, tempera on wood, Private collection. Web Gallery of Art. 

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Web Gallery of Art. 

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King (detail), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. Web Gallery of Art. 

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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