Instrumentum, according to a Latin definition, simply means a supply of goods, of any kind and quantity, necessary for an activity: the equipment for a boarder, a soldier or a bride. Anyway the wedding trousseau has always had a great cultural and social importance: it is a sort of detailed and reliable mirror of the times which shows the evolution of taste and customs. It was generally the essential part of the dowry composed of money and various types of goods and, sometimes, it constituted the bulk of the “property” that the bride, since ancient times, had to bring with her in order to make the marriage possible.

A sumptuous trousseau was not only an individual matter of prestige for the family (it was publicly shown before the marriage), but for the community it was a guarantee of the social standing of the bride, because it proved the “marriageable” status of a female member of society and it was a clear sign of order and social stability. Sometimes the community took it upon themselves to supply a “basic” trousseau for the least well-off girls. On this point, you can read the report of the age-old Venetian feast “delle Marie” in the book “C’era una volta il corredo da sposa” (Once upon a time there was the marriage trousseau) by Doretta Davanzo Poli (ed. Consorzio Merletti di Burano, 1987).

The theme of the social value of trousseaus is also at the basis of the tradition of St. Nicholas, famous for his custom of giving gifts and later transformed into the imaginary character of Santa Claus. In Buonarroti House in Florence, it is still possible to see Giovanni di Francesco’s (1428? – 1459) painting Storie di San Nicola di Bari (History of Saint Nicholas of Bari) with the famous episode of the Saint who is throwing three gold balls into the houses of three poor girls, who have fallen into poverty, in order to give them a dowry which can save them from social rejection and a sinful life. Therefore the “status” of the trousseau was strictly connected with the fact of being a woman in a structured social group. If a woman didn’t get married her trousseau was handed down to someone else. It was subject to an ancient law called collazione (collation), according to which the trousseau had to be included in the hereditaments, unless there were specific instructions in the will.

Even nuns and abbesses had their own trousseaus. In the Museum of Palazzo Davanzati in Florence there are some special “chests for nuns” big rounded chests, specially made for those girls who were destined for a religious life.

Actually the trousseau and dowry have always guaranteed the marriage would last, because the property in question would go back to the woman in case the marriage was dissolved. The property was managed by the husband, who was not allowed to sell anything, but if the bride died and there were no heirs, it went back to her father.

In the history of trousseaus, apart from the number of items, there were also differences in the contents, depending on whether the trousseau belonged to wealthy or less well-off people. The latter generally included bed linen in their trousseaus, while rich people preferred to have plenty of clothes, accessories and fabrics for the future needs of the bride and her family. According to the Jewish tradition the husband has to bring the household and bed linen, while the bride brings underwear garments. Sheets, which made their appearance in Byzantine times, were included quite late, but Boccaccio in one of his tales of “Novellino”, written between 1281 and 1300, already mentioned silk sheets; and, after 1870, also coloured silk underwear and sheets appeared.

Some historical trousseaus are famous for their richness and sumptuousness (in particular Lucrezia Borgia’s who in 1502 married Alfonso d’Este, future Duke of Ferrara, and whose list of items can be found at the State Archives of Modena), anyway, the quantity of items of the same kind included in the trousseau greatly changes according to the period. For example in 1466 Nannina de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sister, who married Bernardo Rucellai, had a trousseau which was considered “very rich”, with about ten dresses, only one “renza” white linen shirt (valuable thin white linen, from Reims), four pairs of gloves and eight of stockings and an embroidered fan (as well as bonnets and hats). (A. Fiorentini Capitani and S. Ricci: “Il costume al tempo di Pico e Lorenzo il Magnifico”, ed. Charta 1994) (Clothes at the time of Pico and Lorenzo the Magnificent), but in the Venetian trousseau of a bride called Priuli Tiepolo in 1788 there were 134 shirts (more than 30 nightgowns). It has been estimated that the quite rich but not extraordinary trousseau which belonged to the Raggi sisters from Genoa, between 1824 and 1830, was worth a 150-square-metre flat or a 17-ton fishing boat. (Doretta Davanzo Poli: “C’era una volta il corredo da sposa”). (Once upon a time there was the marriage trousseau).

Royal and princely trousseaus mainly consisted of formal dresses with precious decorations, jewels and high quality accessories. In the 15th century embroidered and bejewelled sleeves came into vogue (they could also be removed and replaced with others) and whole fortunes were squandered on them. Laws were passed to solve this problem and churchmen reprimanded people for this habit. St. Bernardine of Siena fiercely attacked this custom and he was not moved by the fact that the sleeves looked like angels’ wings. (M. Luciana Buseghin: “Ricamo di nozze” (Wedding embroidery) – ed. Caprai, 1987). But more than the jewels, what made the trousseau particularly precious and expensive was the use of lace, starting with the wonderful “punto in aria” (stitch in air). It first appeared in Venice in the 15th century, devised by Venetian lace makers who have been a point of reference all over Europe for centuries, and at the end of the century it was produced in gold and silver and used as a decoration for clothes. From papal Rome to the elegant Este court, Lucrezia Borgia spread the passion for lace often made with precious metals in contrast with black clothes and coloured silk, in accordance with the Spanish taste of the Borgia family. (M. Luciana Buseghin: “Ricamo di nozze” (Wedding embroidery) – ed. Caprai, 1987).

Apart from princely ones, in the past trousseaus were generally handsewn at home, with the exception of some particularly valuable items (because they were embroidered and decorated with lace) which were produced in “specialized” places like convents. The nuns also had the function of preserving and handing down the necessary techniques and skills, especially after the trousseau in white became popular in the last years of the 18th century. Starting from the beginning of the 20th century a lot of specialized firms have been proposing catalogues and estimates for various types of trousseaus.

In time trousseaus have become much smaller (a dozen….. half a dozen items of the same kind) and they have lost their social function (because of consumerism, the quick changes in fashion, the new trend to invest in a house or furniture, considered more attractive). Now people show new interest in “special items”, selected textiles which have a particular cultural value or design and may be included in the “trousseau” of the future bride (or future bridegroom); they can represent a sort of link with the family or the community the future spouses are leaving; something to use every day (and, why not?, to hand down) as a special furnishing item for the new house and social reality.

Virtual Museum:

Room n. 3 An open trousseau chest, in which you can see part of its precious contents, is set between two windows in an early 17th-century palace in Florence. The scene recreates the home environment of a family in the Medici entourage: a hall in an aristocratic palace with a bed alcove. A maid is dressing up a sitting young lady, who is getting ready for her wedding ceremony. It seems lace and precious decorations have been taken from the girl’s trousseau chest and lie everywhere in the room. The mother is sitting by the fireplace looking after a baby girl and reading a book : “Description of a very happy marriage……”, by Michelangelo Buonarroti (nephew of his more famous relative having the same name), concerning the newly celebrated marriage (in the year 1600) between Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France.
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