Textiles and wealth in fourteenth-century Florence at the Accademia Gallery

exhibition review

Florence is undoubtedly the city of fashion. It’s a hometown to Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo and every year it hosts the famous fashion show “Pitti”. Many students from all over the world come to Florence to study fashion at one of the prestigious schools located in the city, such as the famous Polimoda.

The luxury goods industry and textile production are inseparably intertwined with the history of Florence also because the development of wool and silk manufactures guaranteed its flourishing the late Middle Ages.

Florentine wool
Florentine wool

The Accademia Gallery focused on this interesting phenomenon and organized an exhibition fully dedicated to the relationship between the textiles and the arts. If you come to Florence by 18th March, you can visit the show Textiles and Wealth in Fourteenth-century Florence. Wool, Silk, Painting at the Accademia Gallery.

Already in 1300 Florence was an important centre of wool production and during the fourteenth century the local industry invested also in the development of silk manufacture, which soon became a crucial part of the Florentine economy.

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The Florentine textiles were bought by the wealthy elites all over the medieval world. On the exhibition you will find some of the original letters of orders, through which the buyers requested the shipping of the textiles to various parts of Europe. The buyers, who wanted to be sure that they would receive exactly what they wanted, attached to their letters little pieces of textiles that they desired, and these little pieces of wool still survive sewn on the paper.

At the same time however, the Florentine production faced a severe competition from the Eastern markets. Luxury textiles from Asia, in particular from China and the Mongol Empire, as well as from the Islamic territories and Persia, were also highly appreciated and strongly requested on the European courts. These oriental textiles were often decorated with the naturalistic and botanical motifs, fantastic creatures or geometric patterns, as is the case of the cloths coming from the Arabic territories.

As these highly decorative fabrics became increasingly fashionable, the Tuscan producers started to imitate the Oriental style in their own, local production. A curious example of these influences is the fortune of the motif of fenghuang, a fantastic bird from Mongolic tradition, which in the West was very quickly identified with phoenix. On the exhibition you will see few examples of original Eastern textiles decorated with fenghuang and the Tuscan variations on the subject.

By the half of the fourteenth century, richly decorated textiles became a status symbol and were associated with wealth and prosperity. Given that the opulence was considered appropriate to the representations of the sacred, richly decorated textiles started to appear in holy paintings. The Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints started to be represented wearing colourful and patterned gowns. On the show we can admire beautiful Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Baronzio painted between 1330 and 1335. On the painting we see an angel covered with a cloth decorated with wonderful geometric patterns of a clear Islamic inspiration. In his hands he holds another portion of the garment prepared for Jesus.

The second part of the exhibition focuses on the birth of the young fashion and on the Ordinance of Dress (Prammatica delle vesti), a special law regulation, which listed 6000 prohibited garments. In order to limit the phenomenon of a pompous display of one’s wealth through a particularly sophisticated dress, the government of the city decided to forbid the use of coloured, richly patterned dresses. The limitations regarded also certain types of textiles, considered particularly sumptuous, such as silk and velvet.

Many of the objects displayed on the show are truly unique and rare to be seen, such as the wonderful Velvet cope with motif of undulating tree trunks in bloom produced in Italy during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. On the show you will also find many beautiful paintings, which often reproduce rich textiles produced in Italy, such as Gherardo di Jacopo’s Incoronation of the Virgin. Beautiful red cloth with golden circles held by the angels behind the Virgin gives impression of stunning richness and royal authority.

This show is really interesting and well designed, and it will add a lot to your visit to the Accademia Gallery. Don’t miss it!

Useful information:

Textiles and Wealth in Fourteenth-century Florence. Wool, Silk, Painting
Galleria dell’Accademia
December 2017 – 18 March 2018
Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday 8:15 – 18:50 (the ticket office closes at 18:20)
Ticket price: 8 €

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