August 24, 2014

Closet Histories #1.1: The Funeral Dress of Eleonora di Toledo

Today I discuss what arguably will be one of the greatest treasures I ever personally behold. That sounds very epic, but I cannot overstate how important to me seeing this gown was. When I said a few posts ago that clothing from the Renaissance was very rare, I wan't over simplifying the matter. That's why the survival of the funeral dress of Italian Renaissance noblewoman Eleonora di Toledo is incredibly amazing.

Now one could certainly argue that we shouldn't be cracking open tombs to retrieve extant examples of dress. That's a fair argument, some people prefer to leave the dead well alone. However, the Italians of today apparently are not those people. Ever eager for more information about the infamous Medici they first opened the tombs in 1857, and began reopening the family's tombs again more recently 2001. Some also may suggest it is pretty gross to be handling and studying a garment that someone was buried in, and it kind of is, but I think putting mummies in glass cases is certainly worse than burial clothes and museums do that all the time!

As I said, it was an amazing experience to see this gown in person. As a historic costume enthusiast and history lover I was in awe just being in that room with garments that had been worn over five hundred years previously.

Pictured above is the very room where the gown is now on display. Though the photo implies otherwise, the room is actually kept quite dark. Light is extremely damaging to textiles, especially textiles that are already very old and fragile. Reconstructed with supplementary fabric to fill the gaps lost to time and displayed flat, the gown certainly still holds a certain magic.

The photo above shows the gown as it is displayed, though in much greater detail as the light in the room is seriously dim. The gown (or sottana, if you will) dates from 1562 and is typical in style for a Florentine woman of Eleonora's status.

Eleonora di Toledo was born in Spain in 1522. She married the ruler of Tuscany, Cosimo I de' Medici, in 1539 and they went onto have 11 children, only 5 of whom reached lasting adulthood. Though initially unpopular in Florence as a Spaniard, Eleonora's popularity quickly grew as she proved herself to be a charitable and religious woman. She was a great patron of the arts and many portraits of her exist to this day. She also liked beautiful clothing, which was thankfully documented in said portraits!  It is believed that she contracted tuberculosis at some point and also suffered greatly from calcium deficiency which was exacerbated by her numerous pregnancies.  Though often ill, she was still an active consort for Cosimo and he even left her in charge as regent when he traveled, suggesting a great level of trust in her. She died in 1562 of Malaria.

There is evidence to suggest that this gown, her funeral dress was the last dress that had been made for her "The funeral dress seems to correspond with a description in the Medici Guardaroba: One with bodice and skirt in white satin with a band of brown sfondato velvet embroidered in gold and silver with narrow gold braid. It was delivered in August 1562, four months before the Duchess died, and the last dress made for her. It is not listed is the inventory list made after the Duchess died, according to the authors of "Moda a Firenze", which gives a strong indication of this being indeed her funeral dress. " (aneafiles)

The gown is made of white or light yellow silk satin with brown velvet and metallic trim. The trim has survived the centuries far better than the fragile silk and preserved the style-lines of the garment. The bodice seems to be sleeveless as no sleeves were found when the gown was recovered from the tomb. The bodice, which is presented as fully separate from the skirt,  laces in two rows down the back through eyelets originally reinforced with copper rings (which have disintegrated). This dress (along with another very similar example from Pisa) is one of the only physical records of how Italian Renaissance women's clothing was constructed outside of portraits.

The Ailing Eleonora di Toledo, 1556, Oil on wood,  Museo Bardini, Florence
The image above depicts Eleonora in a very similar gown to the one she was buried in. So similar, being possibly sleeveless as well, that I might question the date of 1556 and say it may be the same dress. We will of course never know, perhaps she just favored the style and had several dresses made that were similar.

This last image is the Janet Arnold's sketch of the funeral dress. The drawing shows how the dress would have looked in 3 dimensions while being worn. (Also, interesting, if not exactly relevant,  tidbit for those who know/worship Janet Arnold's work--the curator of textiles at the museum where I work knew Janet Arnold! They became friends while studying textile conservation together in France many moons ago! Crazy to meet someone who knew her well!)

This gown remains one of the best record we have of Italian Renaissance dress from the 1560's. I want to share extant examples with you for Closet Histories as much as possible as there is nothing better than the real thing!  Next week we move north to begin talking about Eleonora's English contemporaries, the Tudors of course!



  1. Someone needs to give you your own historical fashion TV show STAT, dear Bianca. These posts are keeping me on the edge of my (very!) old school clothing loving seat and immensely eager for each new one that you so thoughtfully put together for us.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I wish! I would seriously love to do a program where I visited different museums and talked about their collections and with curators. Let me know if you come across anyone from the BBC/PBS and I'll pitch the idea!

  2. Great article - going to share on Storia del Costume e della Moda - although you may already have done so . . . I was fortunate enough to see the Medici grave clothes myself, it was a truly spine-tingling experience entering that darkened gallery!

    1. Thank you! I don't know what the Storia del Costume e della Moda but it sounds fancy! It was one of the best museum experiences I have ever had for sure!

  3. Thank you so much for this article & photos! I just recently saw this exhibit myself, and it was truly amazing, and I had no idea it was there. I was disappointed that there wasn't a book or even a postcard in the gift shop to remember this by, so I was really happy to come across your blog. Thanks again!

    1. It was on my must see list, so incredible right? I too was disappointed there wasn't a coffee table sized book full of glorious photos, they would sell a bunch if they put one together. They had a tiny brochure sized book of the collection when I was there which really doesn't do any of their glorious collection justice. I really enjoyed the rest of their collection too, especially displayed as they were in such gloriously ornamented rooms. Now I miss Florence!

  4. I am just in Florence now and I saw Eleanoras dress. It was the only dress on display as they had a costume display that was worse than wearable art of so called modern clothng that did not belong in such a building. Really dissapointed I didn't see anymore of the collection they have but great to see Eleanoras gown.


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