10 October 2016


Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Isabelle de Borchgrave
(after a painting by an unknown artist). Photo: Andreas von Einseidel.

Clothing as a metaphor for the dream (or nightmare) of transformation was central to the society of Renaissance Florence from Boccaccio to Machiavelli. Its citizens wrestled daily with self-identity, appearance, and display [in this] socioeconomic milieu in which Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio worked and the Medici ruled, where rich customers publicly demonstrated their social prestige by patronising recognised artists.

– Carole Collier Frick, Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing

He will be the original Medici man, he will be called Il Vecchio (the Elder), he will be named pater patriae (Father of the Nation) but at this particular Saturday, on September 7, 1433, when Cosimo de’ Medici is making his way through the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, he is just simply the richest man in the world.

For all his florins – and the new learning from the ancient human spirit, the great beauty, and the corrupt power that all this wealth was generating during early Renaissance – Cosimo never really reckoned on the historical ambush which awaited him that morning at the Palazzo Vecchio. For all he knew he had been called to appear before the City Council, to encounter a multiple of his worst political enemies. Instead, he was told to follow a guard up the narrow steps of the building’s ninety-four metres tall Arnolfo Tower. Somewhere between the one-handed clock and the topmost point a door was opened and Cosimo was pushed into the infamous prison cell the Alberghettino.

Through the window slit Cosimo overlooked his fantastic city – as described by Christopher Hibbert in The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – “of squares and towers, of busy, narrow, twisting streets, of fortress-like palaces with massive stone walls and overhanging balconies, of old churches whose façades were covered with geometrical patterns in black and white and green and pink, of abbeys and convents, nunneries, hospitals and crowded tenements, all enclosed by a high brick and stone crenelated wall behind which the countryside stretched to the green surrounding hills. Inside that long wall there were well over 50,000 inhabitants, less than there were in Paris, Naples, Venice and Milan, but more than in most other European cities, including London – though it was impossible to be sure of the exact number, births being recorded by the haphazard method of dropping beans into a box, a black bean for a boy, a white one for a girl.”

Brunelleschi’s cap for Santa Maria del Flore was under way a few minutes’ walk from where Cosimo was held captive. Charged with treason, Cosimo feared that the guards would hurl him out of the window or that his food would be poisoned or that the Florentines would agree on having him executed. But the people of the city liked their Renaissance man with the woodpecker nose and the simple clothes he wore, they liked the stark modesty of his person and the sumptuousness of his patronage of the arts and the Church, and the city-state relied on the Medici cloth industry and the Medici bank, the largest in the world with branches across Europe. In addition to that, the guards enjoyed his bribes that were shed around in plentiful amounts. After twenty days in prison Cosimo was free to leave the “Little Inn” for a life in exile. He made his return to Florence in 1434. The year marks the beginning of the grandiosity of the Medici principate.

After a thousand years in a lustless darkness of heavenly issues and shapeless smocks came the Renaissance with its interest in the achievements and capabilities of human beings, and likewise its focus on the uniqueness of the personal self and how it was to be presented.

“Outward life, indeed, in the 15th and the early part of the 16th centuries was polished and ennobled as among no other people in the world,” explains Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy from 1878, the first account of its kind about quattrocento and cinquecento Italy. “The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artists. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy.”

The costumes of the time, taken from Renaissance paintings of the Medicis and interpreted, exaggerated and reborn as full-size paper dresses and full-life sculptures, is what the Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave (b 1946) presents through her staggering trompe-l’oeil techniques in Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame, to be seen and so much enjoyed in the vaults of the Royal Palace in Stockholm this winter. “My inspiration comes from period dresses, but they are subject to my poetic license. I’m really an artist; I sew with paint.” She really does.

Alberti talks about a divine force that operates in great portraits (“which not only makes men present [but] the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting”) in his treatise On Painting (1435). Madame de Borchrave brings that very power to life through painted paper. “I am very pleased to be here at the Royal Armoury with the old stones and the mysterious lighting. And it is like the Medicis are here – as if they have travelled from five hundred years ago, and stopped here,” she muses.

“I love fashion, because in fashion you can go into history. I always come back to the Medicis because I look at that family as an artist, and we know that the Renaissance had the best artists. I would like to give back what I receive when I am in front of a fresco or a painting. I spend time and time and time in museums and love so much of the colours and the trompe-l’oeil illusion of the paintings. My intention is to keep the spirit of the elegant fibres.”

Italian dress was made of silk, wool, cotton and linen, with linen closest to the body as the material for the full-length camicia (a shift-like garment), followed by layers of custom-made clothing in opulent, contrasting fabrics which produced a fluid, graceful and dignified whole that was richly decorated.

“Renaissance painters depict many of these luxurious fabrics so realistically that one can identify them as satins, cut velvets, or brocades, simply by looking at the pictures. These fabrics were especially suited to the almost sculptural lines of fashions of the Renaissance in Italy,” writes Phyllis Tortura in her Survey of Historic Costume. “Many of those fabrics utilised patterns and decorative motifs that were Chinese, Indian, or Persian in origin, a reflection of the close trading contacts between Italy and the Far East. Some Renaissance painters are thought to have designed textiles; others sketched textile designs to incorporate into their paintings.”

Museum Director Malin Grundberg, who is also the producer of the show, says that they found Isabelle de Borchgrave when they did research for another exhibition at the Hallwyl Museum (a sister museum to the Royal Armoury) with the multi-talented artist Mariano Fortuny’s legendary dresses from the first half of the 20th century, the lusciously pleated Delphos gown and his and his wife Henriette’s other interpretations of the fashions of ancient times. “Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame is the story of some of the members of the Medici family, in a chronological narrative that begins with Il Vecchio, the Elder, and ends somewhere in the mid-1700s in the last room,” Grundberg explains. “Not even the Armoury’s costume collection which, it must be said, is otherwise one of the best in the world, comprises these types of costumes from the Renaissance.”

Around 1490 Leonardo penned that “A good painter has two chief objects to paint: man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard.” In her book Women in Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity, Paola Tinagli describes how the nature of man was filtered through notions of an ancient ideal by the Renaissance man: “The painters of Greece and Rome had knowledge of these ‘secrets’ which Renaissance artists were trying to rediscover. The search for the ideal is evident through this period, and is manifested in the study for the proportions to be used in the representation of the human body, in the design of buildings, in the plans for ideal cities. Idealisation and selection of what is best in nature were necessary for the painter in order to eliminate the imperfections of reality.”

“I have to dream a lot to make others dream,” says de Borchgrave. Her Brussels studio is a huge space filled with as many gifted specialists as a Parisian haute couture atelier. Each of her sculptures takes four to eight weeks to bring out in considerable detail. It is the elaborate elements together with the unspoken stuff of the trompe-l’oeil magic that conveys us to the intention of the costumes in the Renaissance portraits. She has created a minuscule “studio” for the show, and everything is in paper of course (which you are allowed to touch, but only here), with rolls of fabrics, and oversized Pritt glue sticks, scissors, brushes, pencils and a sharpener. It looks like a charming scene from Jean de Brunhoff’s stories about Babar the Elephant.

Oh well then, what’s a Medici ball at the Royal Palace? Cosimo il Vecchio greets us in a simple costume (with a row of ball buttons and a raised collar) that actually looks like a crinkly paper costume. It goes from this to the highly bedecked paper Medicis, all dressed to the nines.

Four kilometres of cheap pattern paper is used each year in de Borchgrave’s studio to achieve the incredible splendour of the pieces. Paper makes her adventurous. “I play with paper, it was my first medium as a child. It’s a very inexpensive material, so you can use a lot of it and cut it without fear, unlike a canvas,” she told The Washington Post (June 22, 2012). “When I was very young my mother took me to museums. I was charmed by Manet’s Le Déjuner sur l’herbe [1863] and the colours – the green, the white, the black spots. As a child all I could see was the grass, the flowers and the animals at the bottom of the paintings. Little by little I could see the people, the costumes, the space. I discovered dresses through painting, and what I liked was the shape, the sculpture, the colour, the details.”

Portrait of a Lady at a Window (1470–75) is a painting by Sandro Botticelli, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and a possible portrait of a woman named Smeralda Bandinelli. The portrait was once in the possession of the Pre-Raphaelite brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who took the liberty of modifying the unadorned Lady with strokes of tempera. One of the things he changed the look of was her headgear, which de Borchgrave and her team have remodelled one step further, and through some kind of alchemy (and acrylic paint) recreated the translucency of the Lady’s costume, her reddish dress and the diaphanous voile.

In 1482, Botticelli painted his mythological works Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur, which were two of his last playful pieces before he became too immersed in the teachings of the Christian devout Savonarola (who was hanged and burned at the Piazza della Signoria in 1498), and which were in the same room at the little Medici abode Palazzo Pitti. From these paintings we have the lovely Flora and Pallas (here unarmed) as the exhibition’s two “Botticelli angels”. And as Paola Tinagli argues in her book, “Man may be the expression of the perfect propositions of the universe, as Leonardo’s famous image of the Vitruvian man implies, but to the average tourist visiting the Uffizi or the Louvre it is images of women which embody the ideals of beauty and harmony of the Italian Renaissance.”

The only paper dresses that de Borchgrave had made before 1994 were a few fancy dress creations for her children. That year she went to New York to see the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan, and to meet her friend the Canadian costume designer Rita Brown who was in town to restore some old silk dresses. It was a combination of the energy of New York and what she had just witnessed in the YSL exhibition that made de Borchgrave realise that she wanted to go back to fashion, “but in another way”: “I told my friend that I wanted to do a dress in paper and she said, ‘Are you crazy? Why?’”

Brown, who calls herself “the technician” in all this, came to Brussels to assist de Borchgrave in her dream to work out a series of paper costumes, “fashion history from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel” based on favourites from Janet Arnold’s massive Patterns of Fashion (de Borchgrave owns four thousand books today), thirty pieces that were ready in 1999 and which they named Papiers à la Mode.

Medici children, by dress, were tiny adults. de Borchgrave’s parents knew what to do with their precocious child who painted her whole imaginative world on the walls of her bedroom – her mother rolled them white again as soon as they were full. They allowed her to drop school at fourteen to enter the Centre des Arts Décoratifs (“It was only pencil drawing on paper, nothing more for three years, eight hours a day. It was like military service. No paint, no colour, nothing”) and then there were further studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, also in Brussels.

“I opened a little workshop. I was seventeen and I had no clue about anything. I – comment vous dit? – I read a book about Coco Chanel” – de Borchgrave adores Chanel – “and I opened a fashion shop and I received a lot of customers. It was a success, but no money. So I changed the shop to be for everything in the home. Big success, no money.”

Christopher Hibbert has a piece on the “street fashions” of the day in his book about the Medicis: “To the dismay of many an austere churchman, the wives of Florentine merchants were, indeed, renowned for their sumptuous clothes, their elegance, their pale skin and fair hair. If their hair was too dark they dyed it or wore a wig of white or yellow silk; if their skin was too olive they bleached it; if their cheeks were too rosy they powdered them. And they walked the streets in all manner of styles and colours, in dresses of silk and velvet, often adorned with sparkling jewels and silver buttons; in winter they wore damask and fur, showing off prized features of a wardrobe which might well have cost far more than their husband’s house.”

What made the Florentines the best dressers in the world were not only their great industry and craft, and all the money. A great factor was also, and quite ironically, their sumptuary laws that regulated showiness and consumption. “The Medici stoked residual memories of republican dress, while simultaneously tolerating and judiciously promoting more ostentatious clothing,” writes Elizabeth Currie in Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence. “Florence was well placed to be a leader of fashion, but various barriers prevented its wealthy citizens from wholeheartedly embracing ostentatious dress, not least the usual moral reservations regarding luxury, which was widely held to pose a threat to the social order, the body politic, and the economy. Additionally, Florentines were proud of their city’s sartorial tradition of modesty and sobriety.”

Rulers and their offspring are by default history’s great bores. Isabelle de Borchgrave’s art is a kind of unforced, joyous history lesson based on a particularly elegant and eccentric obsession, which in effect superimposes our really much obvious relationship with the past. She has pulled out Cosimo I de’ Medici from his throne in a portrait by an unknown painter, made him stand up for her and relieved him of his sceptre. Apart from that we see him in his full “king” regalia – Cosimo I became the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569 through a spree of violence and murder. Between him and his wife in the exhibition is a little girl, their daughter Bia who died at the age of six and who was portrayed posthumously by one of the greatest painters during High Renaissance: Agnolo Bronzino.

“To understand the higher forms of social intercourse at this period we must keep before our minds the fact that women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men. We must not suffer ourselves to be misled by the sophistical and often malicious talk about the assumed inferiority of the female sex which we meet with now and then in the dialogues of the time,” argued Jacob Burckhardt in his very early study of the Renaissance. “There was no question of ‘women’s rights’ or female emancipation simply because the thing itself was a matter of course.”

The poetic licence behind the exhibition’s Eleonora de Toledo, the Duke’s first spouse, is that de Borchgrave has reversed the contrasting colours in the court painter’s superb portrait of her (and her son Giovanni) from 1544–45. The portrait is described in The Art of Florence (by the trio Glenn Andres, John Hunsiak and Richard Turner): “Eleonora is clothed in a gorgeous russet, cream, and black brocaded dress, the slightest threads of which are faithfully recorded. The ample spread of this stiff garment, so assertively flat as pattern, joins an almost iconic stiffness to the flesh and blood of the sitters. Sometimes described as a painting in which persons are rendered as still life, the Eleonora seeing rather to magnify a tension present in almost all of Bronzino’s portraits, between elegant material surfaces and the inner palpitation of individual life.”

Maria de’ Medici and her younger sister Isabella, two of their daughters, are from portraits by Bronzino’s right hand, Alessandro Allori. Maria, who died when she was only seventeen, is dressed in a beautiful royal blue gown with striped, golden sleeves. Isabella wears a very dark and wide gown with shoulder puffs, and that irradiant white neck ruff that was so emblematic for Renaissance fashion. She does look a bit ghostlike here, considering the way she died: Isabella de’ Medici was murdered on July 16, 1576 in Villa Medicea di Cerreto Guidi, a place she is said to haunt.

The divine force in de Borchgrave’s vestimentary delights is indeed a balanced interplay between elegant material surfaces and the inner palpitation of individual life. The Kennedy Archive in Boston commissioned her to recreate Jackie K’s wedding dress – here is a big jump to modern history – which of course was made in 1953. “It was dusty and fragile, wrapped up in black tissue paper,” she told The Telegraph (October 12, 2008). “The silk was dead, you couldn’t touch it anymore. It was preserved as a relic. The original is dead, but the paper one brings it to life again.”

This is Orson Welles, in F for Fake (1973): “Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

Go on singing.

The depth and the yearning of Mme de Borchgrave’s paper dreams is a celebration to the dignity of man, always on the edge of slipping out of synch.

Smeralda Bandinelli by Isabelle de Borchgrave (after a painting ascribed to Botticelli).
Photo: Andreas von Einseidel.

Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame at the Royal Armoury (Livrustkammaren) in Stockholm through March 19, 2017.