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IRCC8-Ghirlandaio Gown (Research)

IRCC8-Ghirlandaio Gown (Research)

So I'm planning on participating in the 8th Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge (IRCC8) from the Realm of Venus, aka THE resource on the web for everything Italian Renaissance Costume. For this challenge, I plan on pretty faithfully recreating an outfit from a fresco which captured my heart about a year ago, the pink gown at the center of The Birth of St. John The Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio. 

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist  by Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

I have been doing a ton of research about both clothing during this time and location (1490's Florence) and the specific piece itself. I figured I'd collect it all here, partially as a resource for myself (to remember to save my relevant links!) and partially in case anyone else was interested in going complete nerd with me. I also need to practice blogging about the process as that's part of the IRCC. Let's dive in!

To start with the general framework of the Italian Renaissance, Italy during the time was more a collection of city-states than anything else. We see a huge difference in style of dress from region to region, and even within decades we see a quick changing of fashion. 

That's how we get a difference in styles in the 1490's from Florence to Venice...

Detail from  Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple    by Domenico Ghirlandio, Florence, public domain

Detail from Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple by Domenico Ghirlandio, Florence, public domain

Nuremberg and Venetian Women  by Albrecht Dürer, Venice, public domain

Nuremberg and Venetian Women by Albrecht Dürer, Venice, public domain

And even a huge difference in styles in Florence from the 1490's to the 1510's. Look at how much the sleeves grew!

Portrait of a Lady  by Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1490, wikimedia

Portrait of a Lady by Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1490, wikimedia

Portrait of Lucrezia de Baccio Del Fede   by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1514, public domain

Portrait of Lucrezia de Baccio Del Fede by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1514, public domain

This all means that in finding images in addition to the one I am copying, I am going to have to be pretty specific in regards to location and time. The good news is, there was an extremely popular painter for the upper class in Florence during this time period: Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Ghirlandaio painted much of Florence's elite, and was particularly talented at frescoes. In case you don't remember what a fresco is, it is not dining outside or a lemon-lime beverage, it is a painting which is painted into the wet plaster on a wall, becoming fixed into the plaster as it dries. This is what the influential Tornabuoni family hired him to do in the main chapel they were paying to restore at Santa Maria Novella, the first great basilica in Florence.

The Santa Maria Novella in Florence, public domain

The Santa Maria Novella in Florence, public domain

Wealthy families often undertook renovations like these, as it was their way to make their mark on the city and also acted as a little bit of good PR for them. Because the Tornabuoni were bankers, images depicting their piousness were important to protect them from accusations they were doing things which were immoral or against church law, such as charging interest or living too luxuriously. While most of the images contained in the chapel depict scenes from the bible, members of the Tornabuoni family are depicted witnessing these events, showing they must be very important to have been present. 

The Capella Tornabuoni,  wikimedia

The Capella Tornabuoni, wikimedia

There are three scenes in which female members of the Tornabuoni family are prominently featured, and all three scenes have to do specifically with pregnancy and birth: The Visitation, The Birth of the Virgin Mary, and The Birth of St. John the Baptist. Each scene features an important young woman of the Tornabuoni family, although accounts appear to differ over which woman is featured. Everyone agrees that in The Visitation, it is Giovanna degli Albizzi, the daughter-in-law of the patron of the Tornabuoni family. 

Detail of  The   Visitation , Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

Detail of The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

This is because this was the second time Ghirlandaio had painted Giovanna, who died in childbirth before the completion of the chapel. 

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni,  Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public domain

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public domain

By the way, Google Arts and Culture has this portrait in their gallery with superb zooming capability, allowing you to zoom in and get all the detail!

The second woman, in The Birth of the Virgin Mary, has been identified by some as also Giovanna, but by others as Lodovica Tornabuoni, the daughter of the patron.

Detail of  Birth of the Virgin Mary,  Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

Detail of Birth of the Virgin Mary, Domenico Ghirlandaio, public domain

Lodovica wears a giornea in the same fabric as Giovanna, but sports some awesome bell-bottom sleeves, unbound hair, and a beautiful little hat. 

The third woman, featured in The Birth of St. John the Baptist, who I will be recreating, is identified by the same source which identified the first two woman as Giovanna as also Giovanna, but in most sources I found she is unidentified. It stands to reason she is also an important young woman of the Tornabuoni family, but no one knows who exactly she is. 

Detail of  The Birth of St. John the Baptist,  Domnico Ghirlandaio, public domain

Detail of The Birth of St. John the Baptist, Domnico Ghirlandaio, public domain

In planning my recreation of this garment, I am using the above (moderately) high quality image, along with many of the other images I have linked, in order to form my conclusions about how to construct this outfit. 

Layer 1: Camicia

The first layer will be a camicia, which we can see in the portrait in the front opening of her gown and peaking out the holes in her sleeves. There is no extant camicia from the exact time & place, but we can gather information from what we know about the rest of Italy. There are several extant camicia from Tuscany in general from the 16th century, as seen here, but none from the 15th century. The Realm of Venus has a very good write-up on sewing Venitian camicia, but it's not exactly the right location. However, looking closely at the picture and also the portrait of Giovanna, we see a lot of gathers under the lacing of the gown 

Detail of  Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni , Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public Domain

Detail of Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public Domain

This makes me lean more towards the Venitian version of the garment, with a flat band for finishing the neckline and the cuffs, as done here

Detail of  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail of The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Layer 2: Gamurra

The second layer will be a gamurra, or underdress, with a matching set of sleeves. The gamurra in this portrait has a white gown with brilliantly colorful floral imagery wrought all over it. 

Detail of  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail of The Birth of St. John the Baptist

I strongly believe that this fabric is embroidered, as embroidery was a very common and important form of surface decoration. On the sleeve as seen above, we even see the hint of what may be pearls stitched into the middle of the motif (which looks like a pineapple to me but they would not reach Europe until the Mid-16th Century). 

We have a pretty good view of the front closing-nature of her gown thanks to her 3/4 profile stance, which appears to be laced with golden cord. 

Detail of  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail of The Birth of St. John the Baptist

The laces appear to go directly into the fabric of her gown, and while we don't see any lacing rings or eyelets, I think that there would be eyelets here to allow for lacing. I will do mine in white to keep it subtle.

There is a strip of green we see at the top too, which I am curious about. If you look back up at the detail of the portrait of Giovanna, she has green trim sewn to the front of her gown, and her top row of lacing goes through it. Here, though, the top row of lacing is below the green, and I almost see a hint of green running down the edges of the opening of her bodice, although it may be my eyes tricking me. 

Detail of  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail of The Birth of St. John the Baptist

One of the other women appears to have her over gown lined in green, so I am choosing to line my gown in green, and believe the little bit we see is just peeking out. There is evidence for lining being used as decorative trim in the time period, as women would often use banned fabrics as the lining of their gowns to get around sumptuary laws. While the bodice was lined (and quilted with cotton wool for structure) the skirt was not, however I will be lining mine to help protect my fabric and also to give more structure to the more drapey, lightweight modern fabrics I will be using. 

While we don't see much trim on the bodice of the gown, we see a lot of gold trim on her sleeves.

Detail of  The Birth of St John the Baptist

Detail of The Birth of St John the Baptist

I'm still trying to remember my source, but I remember reading once that sumptuary laws forbade excessive decoration on the gamurra itself, so women got around that by decorating their sleeves instead, which were separate from the gown. Certainly, it was popular in all areas of the renaissance to use richly decorated sleeves as a cost saving measure, as you could wear them with multiple outfits, although in this case with the sleeves perfectly matching the gamurra I don't think that was the intention. In the same way, women got around laws in the 16th century restricting the amount of skin they could show by covering their skin with basically transparent partlets. Lesson learned: Don't try to make laws about how women should dress, we'll find ways around it. 

Primavera  by Sandro Botticelli, public domain

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, public domain

We don't see the skirt of her gown at all but I have to assume it is similar to the top half. Even though it is based on mythology, Botticelli's Primavera features a beautiful fully embroidered gown, and was painted in Florence roughly a decade before The Birth of St. John the Baptist. We see the bottom of the skirt of Giovanna's gamurra in The Birth of Mary, which is plain all the way down, and the bottom of a gamurra in Presentation of the Virgin, which ends in gold trim around the hem. We also see gold trim around the hem of the gowns of the other women featured in this portrait, although we do not see any around the hem of  the pink giornea, so we don't know how this particular one was decorated. 

Layer 3: Giornea

The giornea in this portrait is really the eye-catcher, as the beautiful pink and gold fabric shines out from the middle of the fresco. The pink giornea is covered in a gold motif which I believe to be pomegranates, but here is where I have my first conundrum, in how the giornea is constructed. From looking at the pattern on the matching giornea that Giovanna and Lodovica wear, it seems the middle front of the giornea is cut on the straight of grain and the sides are cut at an angle. It has also been described as "a segment of a circle" which would insinuate that at least part of the motif is not going to be right side up.  This pattern would mean that the most economical way to cut the fabric would result in the motif of the fabric being upside down on the back of the garment, as detailed here. However, that's not how it looks in the fresco.

Detail from  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail from The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Here you see the front of the giornea on the left and the back of the giornea on the right, with the very directional motif pointing the same way on both sides. I was just about tearing my hair out over the cost of that much fabric when I looked at the shoulder...

Detail from  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail from The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Hey! That shouldn't be there! If the front of the giornea is cut with the pattern facing up at least, the motif on her shoulder should be sideways and not straight up and down. This is when Rebecca likes to remind me that painters were not tailors, and didn't necessarily understand everything about textiles. Which is good because here's the next mind boggling part... 

Detail from  The Birth of St John the Baptist

Detail from The Birth of St John the Baptist

I know this image is kind of hard to see so stay with me here, I know I'm just sounding like a crazy person. This is from the side of the gironea, towards the bottom. Let's pretend the image is 3 vertical sections. The left most section is the front of the giornea, which falls in large folds which is what the middle lighter section is the front part of a fold. Both of these we can see the gold motif apparent. This fold featured in the middle is actually the furthest side of the giornea, meaning the far right section is actually the back of the fabric. But here, no motif. You don't see the motif on the underside of her train thrown over her right arm, either. 

PS, there is a train. I am usually not one to make trained garments (because of how dirty they get) but I plan to do it this time. I'll line it in a hardy fabric (like cotton velveteen) and also set up a bustle system for when I don't feel like having it dramatically thrown over my arm!

Detail from  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail from The Birth of St. John the Baptist

So in my mind there are 3 options here:

1. The giornea is lined in a perfectly matching, undyed fabric. (according to one source, giorneas were lined in silk or fur)

2. The giornea fabric is painted or otherwise printed instead of woven, which I do not believe is a common method at the time.

3. The artist is lazy/uneducated about textiles and thus did not paint the reverse of the motif.

Rebecca likes option 3, especially considering the upright motif which should be sideways on her shoulder pictured above. I feel pretty strongly for option 3 as well, but I also feel that option 2, while unlikely, opens the door for me to truly find the perfect fabric to represent this image. That's right, even though I am normally strongly against using printed fabric for renaissance era recreations, I'm actually strongly considering it this time. I'm sampling some silk with a local fabric printer and also exploring block printing options. It's certainly not ideal, but modern motifs are simply too large or packed too close together for me to have found any fabric that's even similar to the one featured in this image. 

Mourn for my commitment to historical accuracy later, here's some more baffling parts of this giornea: 

Detail from  The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail from The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Like this trim around the neckline which magically disappears halfway down the front opening of the giornea. Does it just stop? Did the painter get lazy again? I don't know, but I'm likely going to continue my trim all the way down. 


It's the same on the side of the gown. Trim around the sleeves, and no trim at the sides. 

But enough head scratching, let's talk about the final (finally!) feature of this gironea, the dagged edges. 


Dagged edges is actually a technique seen on a lot of medieval clothing, and I haven't seen it much in renaissance art. But here it is, a perfect example of an oak leaf-shaped dagged garment. From what I can tell, dagges were cut directly into the fabric, but for the sake of my sanity, fraying edges, and using up the width of my fabric appropriately, I'm probably going to cut mine all separate, finish the edges by self-lining, and sew them on. We certainly don't see any of the fabric's motif expressed on the dagges, and it stands to reason it would be there, but again it's likely the artist didn't want to paint such a small little partial motif on each tiny little dagge (because remember, this entire fresco is actually quite small). Either way, they are a beautiful addition to this giornea and while I'm sure it's going to suck sewing all those little leaf shapes, it's going to look so awesome blowing in the wind! The dagges do not appear to continue down the length of the train of the garment from where we can see the train thrown over her arm, but it would look awesome if they did continue down, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. 

Layer 4: Accessories

The last 'layer' I have to create for the challenge is the accessories, and I spy 3 in this picture: a necklace set, a handkerchief, and several rings. Let's start with the necklace. 

Detail from  Birth of St John the Baptist

Detail from Birth of St John the Baptist

Her necklace is two strands of black or dark cord, which seems pretty common for the time & place. Off the bottom cord is a pendent, made of two joined pendents featuring red stones and three pearls hanging from the bottom. 

We see lots of neckalces featuring 3 pearl drops in Ghirlandaio's works, and an almost identical necklace in his portrait of Giovanna.

Detail from  Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni

Detail from Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni

Here there appears to be a black border around the necklace and the top jewel appears to be clear instead of red. 

Detail from  Birth of St. John the Baptist

Detail from Birth of St. John the Baptist

She holds a fringed handkerchief which looks like it may have some whitework embroidery around the edge. I plan to hemstitch the fringe in place, and perhaps do a second border of drawn threadwork up into the handkerchief, simply because I've always wanted to try it! The Realm of Venus's pattern for a Venitian camicia includes a square for a handkerchief, so I'll be using the same fabric for both. She wears several gold fingers on her hands, which most appear to be simple gold bands. However, we cannot see all her fingers, and I want to make many rings, so while I will make some plain I will also make some with stones as per some other of Ghirlandaio's works. 

Detail from  Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni

Detail from Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni

Black stones appear to be very popular, and I also may use red or pearl to match the necklace pendent. I love the floral shape around Giovanna's pearl ring above, but I don't have any experience in goldsmithing or casting jewelry at all, so my rings will be quite a bit simpler as I plan to use a wire-wrapping technique to make the rings-without the birdsnest shape you typically see in wire-wrapped rings. I used to do a lot of wire wrapping a few years ago and I'm excited to get back to it, even if it isn't the most historically accurate method. 

Thank you if you made it through this very long post! This is typically the amount of research I put into a project, if not more, in addition to reading lots of dress diaries from other makers to help me figure out how to pattern and sew things together! Please check out some of the makers who's work has inspired me on this project: 

  • Cathelina di Alessandri's velvet giornea is stunning (click on the image to blow it up, it appears a bit compressed on her page)

  • I love the fit Jeanne got on her gamurra in IRCC5 and she had super awesome accessories! She has lots more info on her blog, Elena's Threads, including a very helpful paper she did on this type of fashion. 

  • Jen from Festive Attyre did a dress diary of her Florintine gown, with some very interesting and helpful information about making a partlet.

Ghirlandaio Gown Dress Diary-Week 1

Ghirlandaio Gown Dress Diary-Week 1

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DIY Self-Drafted Caftan!