Graduation Year

2004

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A.

Degree Granting Department

Art History

Major Professor

Szépe, Helena K.

Keywords

travel writing, theater costume, costume books, collecting, Cesare Vecellio

Abstract

This study investigates the woodcuts of African dress in Cesare Vecellio's 1598 costume book Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo. While Vecellio's book has been previously studied to understand its contribution to sixteenth-century conceptions of human variation across geography and Venetian identity making, I concentrate instead on the book's intended function. In doing so, I show how its woodcuts of Africans, should be understood primarily as proposals for costumes to be used in new artistic productions. Vecellio situated his representations of African costume in a highly organized geographic framework that was shaped by travel narratives. These texts recorded voyages motivated, in part, by European political and economic interests in Africa.

However, the resulting associations deposited in Vecellio's woodcuts are neutralized or at least complicated by the representations' hybridity, their inclusion in an early modern collection, and their status as models for artists to manipulate. Vecellio explained that all of the representations in Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo displayed antiquity (antichità ), diversity (diuersità ), and richness (la richezza). Sixteenth-century theater directors insisted on these qualities for costume, which promoted both the imitatio naturae and superatio naturae of artistic productions. Costumes could simultaneously contribute to a painting or a theatrical performance's decorum and propriety by differentiating and correctly identifying figures, and its grazia or pleasure with their exoticism and sumptuousness.

This study suggests that in their intended use, the images of African costume were participating in "translations" of African dress into costumes for European paintings and theater. During this process, they accumulated new meanings. The dressed figures were copied from art objects with varying degrees of removal from immediate African encounters and combined with texts from published travel narratives to create mythic bricolages of Africans. The decontextualized costumes, organized into a sartorial collection with a categorization that readers understood as flexible, were tentatively defined vestmentary signs available for further signification within potential artistic contexts.

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