Or, How Coloring Can Teach You More About Medieval Clothing
This story begins because my husband, Gregory Mele, owns a martial arts studio called Forteza Fitness & Martial Arts in Chicago.
It serves as the home of his first love, the Chicago Swordplay Guild, which he co-founded with like-minded others in 1999. As the Dean of the Guild, he built it into a formal school with traditions and deep pedagogical standards. The Guild focuses on Italian martial arts from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In particular, Greg teaches Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare, a fighting system using multiple weapon forms and grappling. At any given time, there are over 100 active members in the Guild. It’s a large, eclectic, social family.
As part of advancement in the Guild, students take on progressively larger projects and skills assessments. This begins with the Companion rank, moves on to the Scholar rank, Free Scholar, Provost, and culminates in the rank of Master. One of Greg’s longtime armizare students, Erin Fitzgerald, prepared for her Free Scholar rank over the past year. She chose an ambitious art project as one of her qualifying works. She decided to reproduce the Segno della Spada (“sign of the sword”) which is a pedagogical diagram found in 3 of the 4 known copies of Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”). This is the seminal manuscript describing Fiore dei Liberi’s martial system, which scholars believe first appeared in written form in 1409.
She combined elements from 2 versions of The Flower of Battle to create a much-enlarged version which would hang on the salle wall.
- The fencing master from the Getty Manuscript (“Il Fior di Battaglia”, MS Ludwig XV 13, c. 1409):
- The animals from the Pisani-Dossi Manuscript (“Flos Duellatorum”, private family holding, c. 1409):
Greg is publishing a new book—the first in a series—written with Tom Leoni, which goes into detail about the history and context of these manuscripts. The first book also includes a professional-grade translation of the Getty Manuscript’s text by Tom. There will be an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project with pre-orders in the next few weeks. Stay tuned to the Freelance Academy Press site for that announcement if this topic interests you.
The Getty segno was drawn in monotone ink strokes with some minimal cross-hatching for shading. The manuscript as a whole was never colored. Erin concluded its visual effect would be far more dramatic with full color. She contacted me for advice on interpreting the clothing worn by the central figure, who is identified as an exemplar of a fencing master. I was delighted to help with this unique and fun project.
I worked up my interpretation, colored it in with colored pencils, and then wrote up my explanation for what the fencing master was wearing. I gave all this to Greg to give to Erin at sword class at Forteza last year, around August. Below is a more detailed explanation of the choices I made to help Erin bring the Getty segno‘s well-dressed fencing master to brilliant, colorful life.
Our man is wearing a chaperon, which began its fashion life as a hood turned sideways. The mantle of the hood dangles over his right shoulder, while the hefty liripipe (or tippet) dangles down the front of his body on the left. The fabric around the face opening—which is now serving as the insertion point for the top of the head—is rolled back to display a minever lining. Minever is a term for the white winter belly pelts of the Eurasian red squirrel, cut to include part of the bluish-gray back-coat. For information about furs used in clothing during this time period, see my article, A fur primer for 14th and 15th century European clothing. Such linings on hoods were common in this time period and had been for the century beforehand as well.
The mantle of the hood has a thick decorative band around its hem. This is where the straight-forward stops and the interpretation begins. I believe the most common material used for such a plain band would also be fur. In this case, however, since we cannot see the pattern formed by the pelts when sewn together, I’ve taken the liberty of assuming it should be a solid white fur, to match with the white of the minever lining. The fur was either pured minever (white squirrel bellies cut to exclude all other color) or lettice, which is the larger pelt of a solid-white weasel). Based on art from the time period, it’s difficult to know the type of fur we’re seeing.
What color would the fabric of the hood itself be? I opted for a dark, serious color—black—imagining that this fencing master had gravitas and authority. He may have been expensively dressed, but that didn’t make him a peacock. I think the fabric would have been a rich wool—teasled and trimmed to buttery, soft perfection.
The short, fur-covered mantle on his shoulders is a little more problematic to interpret. It is part of a garnache, or guarnacca in Italian, which is a flowing cloak with either one slit on the right or two slits for both arms, covered in an attached shoulder mantle, usually furred. It’s easy to spot the fur pattern (bellies surrounded by back-coat fur), but you can also see they’re much bigger than the squirrel-sized bellies lining the chaperon. Rather than torture myself with possible types of fur this could represent, I opted for simple. I suggested to Erin she interpret this also as white bellies surrounded by gray back-coat fur. Whether the artist intended these to be minever (a pattern particular to squirrel pelts) or a larger animal’s fur, I can’t entirely know.
One thing worth noting: there is a textual source from 1351 France that describes an order for a garnache and chaperon for the king, made with matching fur (ermine) and fabric (veluau vermeil, or golden velvet). The text specifies a split on one side, to free the right arm. This shows a precedent for purchasing the two together as a matching pair.
The slit with buttons visible at the center-front of the shoulder mantle allows the garnache/guarnacca to be pulled over the head and then snugly closed up to the base of the neck. We are used to thinking that shoulder mantles on hoods are either entirely pull-over or completely buttoned from the chin/neck to the bottom, but this is an example where that was not always so. Lest you assume the buttoned slit could be fanciful, consider that in this 1381 funereal effigy for Alda d’Este, Niccolo d’Este III’s aunt, the same buttoned flap appears.
In keeping with the somber color scheme of his chaperon and the concept that they were a matching pair, I imagine the garnache/guarnacca was made of a high-quality black wool, which would certainly have popped against the contrast of white belly furs.
For his bag-sleeved gown, I thought a deep, rich green would complement well—not too ostentatious, nor too drab or grim. As a bonus, the Chicago Swordplay Guild’s colors are also black and green. I imagine his gown consisted of a fine wool or a sturdy, yet nicely-draping silk twill. Note that his collar, peeking above his shoulder mantle, is also green, as gowns in this time period frequently had collars. There is probably a button or some other closure on the collar, but the artist did not draw it. I also see a band around the middle finger of his right hand, and so I encouraged Erin to paint at least one gold ring. Rings were a popular form of jewelry in this time period and would have been appropriate on a well-accoutered man’s hands.
We can see the bottom of the gown, which has a deep hem, likely composed of fur. There’s a good chance the gown itself is lined in fur. As mentioned above, it’s impossible to guess whether this would have been pured minever (squirrel bellies), lettice (white weasel pelts), or some other variety of short, white fur. Regardless, the white fur band around the hem nicely balances the white fur seen on his head and shoulders.
The hardest part of this whole interpretive challenge was figuring out where the garnache ended and the gown began. Due to the bunting-shaped drape of the bottom of the garnache over the front of his body, it was easy to see that this particular garnache was made with only one arm slit, on the right. His left arm has pulled the hem up with it, as it rests in crossed-arm repose. In the image below, which is a century older than the one under current study, you can see the same draping pattern for a right-opening garnache. It’s clear our man is wearing the same garment.
I fudged my understanding the most with the drape of fabric on his right side. At this point, having figured out he’s wearing a gown and a garnache/guarnacca with an opening on the right side, I wasn’t concerned that I might altogether misinterpret or leave out a garment. It was just a matter of making the drapes look realistic. The white spots are the presumed fur lining of the garnache/guarnacca, which would also likely be made of solid white fur.
Perhaps I had the most ease deciding on rich, brick red for his legs and feet. In this time period, footed hosen were common. These were sturdy leggings that extended over the foot and were re-enforced with a thick, leather sole. Another possibility, of course, is tall, leather boots. Either way, a rich red was entirely appropriate and in fact, common, color-wise. Those crazy, curved points were a done thing too.
And now, the full painting, along with Erin Fitzgerald, the artist and newly-made Free Scholar:
This impressive work was unveiled at Forteza Fitness on March 11, 2017, when Erin successfully played her prize and earned the rank of Free Scholar of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, making her only the 5th person to do so in the Guild’s eighteen-year history. It is 8′ x 6′, painted in oils over gessoed canvas, with applied gold leaf. It will remain on the wall, beautifying the space and reminding longsword students of the historical pedagogy behind their lessons.