Masks/Life in Renaissance Venice

Masks: Inspiration VII

It looks like Masks will (finally!) be out this month. It should be somewhere around the 18th, and I will update once I hear for sure from the publisher. But since it’s so close, I thought I would do one last inspiration post, comprised of my personal cast of characters. You are, of course, encouraged to see the characters any way you like, this is just for fun. But during my research, I came across some images that struck me as being similar to what I had in mind, so I thought I’d share them.

Arrival of the English Ambassadors 1495-1500, detail, Vittorio Carpaccio.

Arrival of the English Ambassadors
1495-1500, detail, Vittorio Carpaccio.

Vittorio Carpaccio lived and painted in Venice shortly after Masks takes place, so his work gives a real feel for the time. He caught a couple of gents lounging under a loggia that struck me as perfect for Paulo, Martina’s elegant spenditore, and Jerome, the slightly avaricious apothecary’s-assistant-turned-courtesan. That even looks like it might be Mircea behind them, staring in shock at something outside the loggia. I wonder what it could be!

Portrait of a Man, Mabuse, 1515.

Portrait of a Man, Mabuse, 1515.

Bezio! I like this image for the slightly older, blacksmith-turned-vampire in the book. Bezio always had a blunt but kindly nature, which I think comes through nicely in this image. I also love the beard!


I thought Assumpta Serna (Vannozza Catanei on The Borgias) made a good Martina, the grasping, somewhat frightening, always acquisitive brothel owner. I especially liked this pic for the mask she’s holding. It’s perfect for the era, which hadn’t yet copied the masks of the Commedia dellarte that are so popular today. The Commedia was a late sixteenth century creation, and while some of its roots go back to Mircea’s time, the mask makers of the mid-fifteenth century hadn’t yet started to adopt them. Fifteenth century masks tended to be simpler, and half masks were often worn by ladies who wanted to show off their faces.


With a couple of dark contacts, Laura Jane Haddock in Da Vinci’s Demons would be a perfect Marte, the exotic, dark-haired courtesan. She even has the earrings!


I really liked Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia Borgia on The Borgias) for Auria, the self-styled “most expensive courtesan in Venice.” Holliday’s hair is usually too blond, but the tint of this picture has it just about right.

The Senator

I don’t know where this is from, but I found it shortly after I’d written a certain scene and laughed, because it was so perfect. She even has the right hair for the senator.


Under the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ category, we have James Purefoy, Mark Antony from HBO’s Rome as . . . Mark Antony. In all honesty, he’s a little too pretty for Antony, who was described historically as a more rugged type. But the expression is perfect, which counts for  a lot.


Elyes Gabel from Game of Thrones and The Borgias would make a good Danieli.


David Oakes as William Hamleigh in The Pillars of the Earth would make a good Sanuito. Well, with the addition of some pock marks!

So there you have it. And, hopefully, you’ll soon have Masks to go along with it!

Masks: Inspiration VI

I’ve been talking about the inspiration for Masks, the Mircea Basarab novel set in 15th century Venice, for the last week. And lately, the discussion has turned to some of the places where you could spend your money in the city (if, unlike Mircea, you actually had any). But there was one obvious place to lighten your purse that we haven’t discussed: the Venice brothel. And since Masks was partly set in one, that’s an oversight that needs correcting.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, "Courtesan and Old Man", c. 1530

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Courtesan and Old Man”, c. 1530

Fifteenth century Venice probably had more prostitutes per capita than any other city in Europe, an estimated 11,000 for a population of around 150,000. That’s right, approximately one in every 13 people was in the trade. And while it is true that vast numbers of tourists padded out the population during carnival, and that Venice was a bustling port city with thousands of sailors visiting every year, it’s also true that those 11,000 were the recognized prostitutes. Many more were unlicensed streetwalkers who couldn’t be counted because they weren’t in a brothel, and women who worked at the job part time when money was tight.

So, seriously, what was going on in Venice?

Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, was a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci from 1490 to 1518. He was rumored to be Leonardo's lover.

Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, was a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci from 1490 to 1518. He was rumored to be Leonardo’s lover and was the model for many of his paintings.

Part of the reason for the huge number of prostitutes in Venice was active government support of the practice. Yes, that’s right–not only was it legal, it was encouraged. Not so much because the government liked prostitutes (at least not officially) but because they disliked someone else more.

The growth of Venetian prostitution was in direct proportion to the growth of homophobia among the city’s leaders. In 1448, a special police force was created specifically to combat the practice of sodomy, with sentences that included beheading and public burning. A similar law in 1496 listed the reasons for this, including the belief that homosexuals “worked against the propagation of the race” and were “displeasing to the Creator.”

A Renaissance era bathhouse, where people were busily engaging in "proper" illicit sex--between men and women!

A Renaissance era bathhouse, where people were busily engaging in “proper” illicit sex–between men and women.

Both of these attitudes had their origin in the bubonic plague, which first arrived in Europe in the 14th century and continued to reoccur periodically for many more. Prior to the plague, homosexuality, especially in young men, had been viewed as merely part of their sexual evolution. The thought was that they’d eventually get over experimenting and settle down. But, of course, some did not, and when the population plummeted due to the plague, government officials started to worry about the results of having a large, non-propagating group in society.

But there was an even bigger worry. Churchmen like Bernardo of Siena warned of God’s judgment if the practice wasn’t stamped out, to the point of engendering a wave of homophobic hysteria across northern Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Venetian leaders realized that, as a port, they were particularly susceptible to the plague, and were desperate to propitiate the Almighty by luring men back to the straight and narrow.

Their solution? License more whorehouses, of course. You kind of have to love the irony there.

Bernardino Licinio, "Young Lady and her Suitor", Venice 1490-1550.

Bernardino Licinio, “Young Lady and her Suitor”, Venice 1490-1550.

The crackdown on homosexuality was good news for Venice’s busy community of female prostitutes, who had already defeated the government’s attempts to control them. In 1360, the government had tried to restrict them to an area around the Rialto market, called the Castelleto. In 1420, they tried to force them to wear yellow scarves to ensure that they weren’t mistaken for “proper” women. They also tried to force them to return to the Castelleto early in the evening, so they wouldn’t be secretly plying their trade elsewhere, and to restrict how much they drank in the city’s taverns.

But to the government’s dismay (and apparent surprise, as hard as that is to believe), the prostitutes of Venice did not turn out to be an exceedingly law abiding bunch. Unlike in most cities of the age, Venice’s brothels were run by women, and independent-minded ones at that. They tended to ignore or evade laws they didn’t like, and brothels soon spread far beyond the Castelleto, invading even some of the local nunneries.

Lucas Cranach, 15th c.,  "Peasant and Prostitute"

Lucas Cranach, 15th c.,
“Peasant and Prostitute”

But heavy fines and imprisonment of up to two years were the result of being caught dallying with a nun. It was enough to keep many men’s attention focused elsewhere. Namely on one of the three main types of prostitutes in Renaissance Venice: the puttana, the meretrice pubblica and the cortigiana.

The puttana were mainly streetwalkers or workers in taverns, bathhouses and unlicensed brothels. They were the lowest form of prostitute and the one most disliked by tax collectors, whom they often successfully dodged. The tax men preferred the second kind, the meretrice pubblica, or public prostitutes. They made up the majority of sex workers in the Serene Republic and plied their trade in licensed brothels. The taxes they paid funded a large percentage of the public works in Venice for over two centuries. But it was the third type of prostitute that Masks was concerned with, the type that would make Venice famous–the courtesans.

c1570, Michiel Parrhasio Courtesan Playing Lute

c1570, Michiel Parrhasio Courtesan Playing Lute

The name courtesan comes from the word courtier, and that is what these women were expected to be: gracious, accomplished, and beautiful. They fulfilled a role something like that of the geishas of Japan, able to play music, sing, dance, play cards, make entertaining dinner table conversation, and, essentially, be intelligent and witty companions. Unlike the usual practice with the geishas, however, sex was definitely expected as well, with a guide book being published in the 16th century, Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia, giving names, addresses, and fees for Venice’s foremost courtesans.

The fees were high. Many of these ladies supported themselves in style, with the cortigiana onesta, the upper tier of Venice’s courtesans, living in houses not noticeably different from those of the nobility. They often acted like them, too, holding dinner parties for visiting dignitaries from across Europe. But even the lower tier, the cortigiana di luma, lived in comfortable inns near the Rialto, and were considered a cut above the meretrices.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538. The model for the painting was Angela del Moro, a highly paid Venetian courtesan and a companion of Titian's.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538. The model for the painting was Angela del Moro, a highly paid Venetian courtesan and a companion of Titian’s.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, tales of the beauty and refinement of Venice’s courtesans had spread across Europe, resulting in the influx of a new type of visitor to the city: the sex tourist. That was partly due to the publication of Thomas Coryat’s travel book, Coryat’s Crudities. He slept his way from Britain to Venice and back again, and wrote about his adventures on his return. The book was licentious enough that it started the practice of the “Grand Tour”, a lengthy trip following university for young men of means, who told their parents that they wanted to see the great sights of Europe.

They weren’t lying; they just didn’t mention exactly what those sights were.

Veronica Franco, Portrait by Tintoretto, ca. 1575.

Veronica Franco, Portrait by Tintoretto, ca. 1575.

I based Auria’s bedroom off of one Coryat described. But for Auria herself, I turned to the most famous Venetian courtesan of them all, Veronica Franco. She was among the cortigiana onesta, and possibly the most sought after and accomplished in Venice. She wrote poetry and entertained visiting kings, among them Henry III of France, to whom she dedicated some of her verses.

1522, Lucas Cranach, "Amorous Old Woman and Young Man"

1522, Lucas Cranach, “Amorous Old Woman and Young Man”

Of course, there was one additional type of prostitute in Venice that we’ve yet to mention: the men.

Many of the city’s male prostitutes served the male population, as evidenced by the story of their outrage at a 15th century ordinance. It required the meretrices to bare their breasts while soliciting at open windows and at some of the city’s bridges (the Bridge of Tits acquired its name for a reason), in order to encourage young men to visit the tax paying official brothels. The male counterparts to the meretrices decided that this gave the ladies an unfair advantage, which they countered by standing in their windows, wearing nothing but masks! Since anything done masked was considered play, they couldn’t be prosecuted–at least not until more laws were passed.

However, there were also many male prostitutes in Venice that catered to the ladies, as shown by the above painting. In later centuries, they would be known as cicisbeo, a type of male courtesan sanctioned by the married men of Venice to keep their much younger wives busy while they visited their mistresses. It was a common-sense solution to arranged marriages, which had often been done more for money than out of any real affection. It also kept the girls from running off and finding lovers who would be far less discreet.

Masks: Inspiration V

I’ve been sharing some of my inspiration pics for Masks, the Mircea Basarab novel, for the last week. And lately, we’ve been looking at shopping in Renaissance Venice. Yesterday we talked about apothecaries, and the day before that we looked at tailors. Today we’re going to the nearby island of Murano, to look at glass.


The island of Murano, about a mile from Venice, was a center for European glassmaking from as early as the eighth century. Venice was already a bustling port by then, allowing old Roman glassmaking techniques to be combined with influences from Byzantium and the Muslim world. By the twelfth century, the glassmaker’s guild had emerged with a powerful presence on Murano. It was strengthened in the next century when the government required all glassmaking to be centered there, to avoid fires breaking out in Venice from the furnaces. And thus a legend was born.


Some people went directly to Murano to purchase their glass, while others bought from merchants in the city. Above is a Renaissance era glass shop, of the type you’d find in a fifteenth century marketplace. Customers didn’t go in, but asked for what they wanted, which was brought out to the counters in front. Heavy wooden shutters, such as the one you see up top, were used to close the shop at night and to protect the expensive contents. This was pretty much the set up of all shops of the period.

“The Rothschild Bowl,” c. 1500-1510, Murano, a good example of Venetian lattimo.

“The Rothschild Bowl,” c. 1500-1510, Murano, a good example of Venetian lattimo.

The 15th and 16th centuries were the height of Venetian glassmaking, mainly because of three inventions. The first was the creation of lattimo, a milky white glass that did a decent job of imitating Chinese porcelain. Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain was all the rage in Europe at the time, but it was so delicate that it almost never survived the trip from China. So imports could not hope to supply the demand. Seeing an opportunity, Murano came up with a substitute that quickly became a best seller.

Chalcedony Ewer, Veice, 15th c.

Chalcedony Ewer, Venice, 1500-1525.

The second major innovation of the fifteenth century was also very popular in both the home and export market. Chalcedony glass, as seen in the pitcher above, was the result of adding iron oxide, tin oxide, silver and other metals to the glass before it was worked. The result did a good job of imitating semi-precious stones.

Wineglass, c. 1575-1625, Murano

Wineglass, c. 1575-1625, Murano

But while lattimo and chalcedony were popular, it was Angelo Barovier’s invention of cristallo sometime mid-century that truly made Murano a legend. Before then, all glass had a tint of one shade or another, usually green, yellow or brown from impurities in the manufacturing process. It also often contained lines of tiny bubbles that weakened the final product. Barovier developed a process to avoid all of this, resulting in a completely clear glass that imitated rock crystal. And in the process, revolutionized glassmaking forever.

Hanging lamp (cesendello) late 15th–early 16th century

Hanging lamp (cesendello) of cristallo glass,
late 15th–early 16th century

Cristallo was a phenomenon, proving massively popular at home and abroad. A good example is the cesendello lamp above, of the kind mentioned in Masks several times. They could be used alone, or grouped to make a sort of chandelier, and were a popular way to light houses. Their use dates back to Roman times, and they can still be seen today in some mosques (they were adopted by the Ottomans after the conquest of Constantinople, where they had been in regular use.)

A Renaissance era glass blower making a sphere, which could be made into a convex mirror.

A Renaissance era glass blower making a sphere, which could be made into a convex mirror.

Cristallo also revolutionized mirror-making. Medieval mirrors had mostly been polished metal or convex glass. The latter were cheap to make, because all a glassblower had to do was to coat the inside of a glass bubble with molten lead or tin, making it reflective (see above). Then, once the bubble hardened, mirrors could be cut off it. But that left the user with a fun-house-type effect that nobody liked much (see below).

A Goldsmith in His Shop, 1449.

A Goldsmith in His Shop, 1449.

The Venetians, on the other hand, developed a technique in the 12th century known as broad glass (sometimes also called cylinder glass), for making flat panels for windows and mirrors. A glassblower would blow a cylinder, which would then be opened at both ends to make a tube. The tube was then split, reheated and opened out flat. By backing the panes with metallic leaf, flat mirrors could be created. In the 13th century, the glassblowers on Murano did one better, pouring molten glass onto sheets of metal and then painstakingly grinding them down to create a completely distortion-free surface.

An eighteenth century illustration of broad glass manufacture.

An 18th century illustration of broad glass manufacture.

The process actually made very good mirrors, but they cost a fortune because of the labor involved. It was said that you could actually commission a painting by Raphael for less than the cost of a similarly sized Venetian mirror. They were the purview of kings, like Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France, both of whom collected Venetian mirrors. So . . . how could Marte, a Venetian courtesan in my book, afford a wall of mirrors?

Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, Titian.

Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, Titian.

Well, first, because of cristallo. Once it was invented, mirror-making quickly became a major industry on Murano, and new innovations followed. Venetian glassmakers learned how to coat glass with a tin-mercury amalgam to make easier, less expensive mirrors that were now also tint-free (this process was used for making mirrors for three centuries, all the way through 1900). We don’t know exactly when these modern mirrors started to be made, only that the process had already been perfected by 1507, when the Del Gallo brothers purchased a monopoly on it from the government of Venice, and began shipping in quantity.

Venetian mirrors became such a status symbol that Louis XIV would go to great expense to lure glassmakers from Murano to create the hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Venetian mirrors became such a status symbol that, in the 17th century, Louis XIV would go to great expense to lure glassmakers from Murano to create the hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

And second, Marte had the advantage of being on site. Murano is all of a ten minute boat ride from Venice, and having access to the source of any product helps. The new mirrors still weren’t cheap, often incorporating beautiful cut-glass designs and gold leaf. But if you didn’t want any of that, and if you knew someone on Murano, and if you also happened to be a beautiful courtesan . . . it is just barely possible that you might have been able to swing a wall of mirrors. And just barely possible is good enough for me, since I’ve always agreed with Mark Twain: never let inconvenient facts spoil a good story!

Masks: Inspiration IV

In our continuing journey through Renaissance Venice, we come to an apothecary shop. By the way, for anyone just stumbling over this entry, I’ve been doing a series of posts on my inspiration/research for the Mircea Basarab novel Masks. There’s a category on the sidebar to give you all of the posts.

Apothecary, c. 1500, Castello di Issogne, Vald'Aosta

Apothecary, c. 1500, Castello di Issogne, Vald’Aosta

Apothecaries in Venice sold a variety of items, from medicines and cosmetics to spices and sugars, and from ink and paper to wine and syrups. Basically, the division went like this: If something was sold in bulk (like rice), it was the purview of the grocers; if it was fresh foodstuffs (like fish or vegetables), it was sold in open market stalls. But if it was purchased in small amounts, was expensive and/or rare, or was supposed to be consumed for health reasons, it was probably sold by an apothecary.

Apothecary, c. 1500, Castello di Issogne, Vald'Aosta, detail.

Apothecary, c. 1500, Castello di Issogne, Vald’Aosta, detail.

Apothecaries mixed their own preparations, so a good part of their day was spent grinding up ingredients. Apprentices were usually stuck with this job, but in the pic above a local beggar has been given the task as a form of charity. Just what he was grinding depended on the shop, because Renaissance-era apothecaries tended to specialize. And nowhere was that more true than in Venice.

Vendecolori, for instance, were a type of apothecary unique to Venice which dealt mainly in pigments. Many artists made a long and costly trip to Venice every year because it was known to have the best materials. The queen of them all was ultramarine, made from ground up lapis lazuli. The name means “over the sea” because it had to be imported from mines in distant Afghanistan.

Raw lapis lazuli (top left), ultramarine in pigment form, and used on Mary's robes in a Renaissance painting.

Raw lapis lazuli (top left), ultramarine in pigment form (bottom left), and used on Mary’s robes in a Renaissance painting. The gold leaf you see in the painting was actually cheaper than the ultramarine.

Top grade ultramarine cost 11 solidi (or $330.00 in our money) an ounce. It was so dear that it was usually reserved for the robes of the Virgin, and contracts for a painting often specified exactly how much ultramarine would be needed. Use less than had been paid for and your client would not be happy!

A recreation of Renaissance era marzipan.

A recreation of Renaissance era marzipan.

Other apothecaries specialized in candies, cakes and syrups, since sugar was believed to have medicinal properties. Pregnant women, for instance, were often prescribed marzipan to help with nausea, and cold sufferers would be given candies to relieve sore throats. Speaking of marzipan, did you know that Leonardo Da Vinci started his artistic career by making marzipan figurines for the prince of Milan? He liked marzipan because it was easy to shape. His client liked it for other reasons, as Leonardo famously (and angrily) wrote:

“I have observed with pain that my signor Ludovico and his court gobble up all the sculptures I give them, right to the last morsel, and now I am determined to find other means that do not taste as good, so that my works may survive.”

Yet, when he was later working for Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, he made the same mistake. And the same thing happened to Leonardo’s beautifully sculpted models of military fortifications. Which apparently looked good enough to eat!

Candy was taken away in paper spills, and usually consisted of nougat and suckets of various kinds, as well as marzipan.

Apothecaries served candy in paper spills, like the shop owner is handing to the man above. Nougat and suckets (candied fruit or fruit peel) were popular varieties.

Along with candy, cakes and syrups, apothecaries specializing in the sale of sugar also provided the raw stuff, imported from the Middle East and, especially, from the island of Crete. Venetian families, like the Cornaros in the 14th century, had large plantations on Crete devoted to producing sugarcane. The juice from the cane was processed and then molded into conical loaf shapes for easy transport. A popular hat at the time was called a sugarloaf after the shape of the cake, which can be seen in the pic below.

sugar loaves

Apothecaries were also the creators of some of the most spectacular banquet decorations of the day. Sugar sculpture, or spongade as it was known in Venice, became a popular way to show off. Sugar was expensive enough that it was usually kept under lock and key, so being able to waste large amounts on decoration was a sign of a person’s wealth. As a result, elaborate sugar sculptures were typically used to impress visitors, such as Henry III of France, who passed through Venice in 1574 on the way to his coronation.

A banquet was held in Henry’s honor, with sugar sculptures designed by artist Jacopo Sansovino and created by a local apothecary, Niccolo della Cavalliera. They were the usual massive creations, gilded or silvered as well as painted, that frequently populated the dining rooms of Venice: sailing ships, life-sized statues of popes and doges, Venetian lions and mythical beasts. And they were all impressive. But the real test of Venetian artistry came when the king visited the Arsenal shipyard for a mid-day meal a few days later, and picked up his napkin. And had it crack in his hands because it was made out of sugar. As was the tablecloth. And the bread. And the plates. The whole table was one giant sugar confection, but such was the artistry of the Venetians that he’d had to touch it to be able to tell.

A Renaissance-era apothecary mixing the cure-all theriac.

A Renaissance-era apothecary mixing the cure-all theriac.

And last, but definitely not least, apothecaries were best known for specializing in medicine, acting like our modern pharmacists. If pharmacists regularly used dung, saliva, powdered gemstones and cut up vipers in their concoctions, that is. But the idea was the same: a physician would prescribe a medicine, which you would go to an apothecary to buy.

Some of the medicines in use, like medicinal rhubarb imported from China, were at least harmless. And others may have even helped in some cases (cumin aids in digestion, some herbs had antiseptic qualities, and chicken soup was often prescribed for colds!) But others actually made the sufferer sicker by including toxins such as mercury or lead. Either way, medicines tended to be expensive, with one Florentine silk merchant being soaked to the tune of 100 denari for each of the gilded rhubarb pills that had been prescribed by his doctor.

Apothecary Jar, earthenware with tin glaze (maiolica), c. 1550.

Apothecary Jar, earthenware with tin glaze (maiolica), c. 1550.

Apothecaries got away with charging the earth for their concoctions because of advertising, as much as anything. The shops were easily the prettiest in any Renaissance market, often with shelves of matching, brightly-colored maiolica pottery. Apothecaries would mix mysterious medicines out of these expensive jars, chattering away to clients about their rarity and purity and potency all the while. By the time they were through, the outrageous prices seemed justified. They’d even send you home with a little pot or gilded box all your own–which, of course, was then added to the price.

Masks: Inspiration III

Okay, so this is the third in a series of posts featuring some of the images and sources that I used for inspiration when writing Masks, the Mircea Basarab novel. I thought that, for the next few days, we’d look at some of the businesses that anyone visiting Venice in the fifteenth century might have patronized. This gives me a chance to talk about some of the little stuff that features in the book but not in modern life. Today’s topic is clothing.

Castello di Issogne, Val d'Aosta mural, c. 1500.

Castello di Issogne, Val d’Aosta mural, c. 1500.

Above is a typical tailor’s shop of the era, where, as you can see, the lads are busy at work on men’s clothing, particularly the hosen (leggings) that formed the lower half of a man’s attire. You could get your hosen from an auction, where other people’s goods were put up for sale if they couldn’t pay their debts. Or from one of the many second hand shops that abounded in Venice and essentially did double duty as pawn shops. But if you wanted to avoid the dreaded saggy butt syndrome, you had your hosen made specifically for you.

The Ambassadors Return to the English Court, Vittore Carpaccio, 1495, detail.

The Ambassadors Return to the English Court, Vittore Carpaccio, 1495, detail.

Hosen could be extremely elaborate, as on the young man above. They were often varicolored, with stripes, diamond-shapes or woven/embroidered elements. Fun fact: while soft-soled shoes and boots were the most common footwear in the era, some hosen had leather soles sewn into them, like footy PJs, so that they could be worn in the street without the need for shoes!

Vittore Carpaccio, "The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto Bridge", detail  c. 1496.

Vittore Carpaccio, “The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto Bridge”, detail
c. 1496.

Above is my favorite pic of regular Venetian attire from the period. These are working Joes, not nobles. Yet they liked their hosen colorful, too. They also probably dressed better, in some ways, than many of the wealthy abroad, who had to pay for their hosen to be imported from Italy or Spain. King James VI of England, back when he was merely the relatively impoverished king of Scotland, supposedly went into a panic on hearing that the English ambassador had arrived. Why? Because he and one of his senior courtiers were sharing a single pair of hosen, and it wasn’t his turn that day!

Conan O'Brien modeling a pair of "meggings".

Conan O’Brien modeling a pair of “meggings”.

These days, hosen are trying to make a comeback with “meggings,” or leggings for men. So far, it doesn’t appear to be working, which is a shame. Who doesn’t like boys in tights?

mens clothing

The rest of a man’s outfit is shown in the picture above, taken from in a scene from The Borgias. Along with the hosen, men wore a camisa (shirt), usually high-necked in Venice, a zupon (doublet/jacket) and then a cioppa (short robe worn as an outer garment/coat).

Vittore Carpaccio, "The Ambassadors Return to the English Court", 1495-1500, detail.

Vittore Carpaccio, “The Ambassadors Return to the English Court”, 1495-1500, detail. The guys in black in the back are wearing togas.

For formal occasions, Venetian men might also wear a toga, although their version was nothing like the old Roman garment. It looked more like a priest’s cassock: black, high necked, with full sleeves and an almost floor length hem. The toga was the equivalent to a modern business suit, and worn on similar occasions. A hat, boots or shoes, and a belt to support a sheath for a weapon and a purse, completed the look.

Left: Albrecht Dürer , "Venetian Lady", ca.  1495. Right: A modern version designed for The Borgias.

Left: Albrecht Dürer , “Venetian Lady”, ca. 1495.
Right: A modern version designed for The Borgias.

Ladies’ fashions in 15th century Italy centered around the gammura, a high-waisted dress with a tight bodice and long gathered skirt. It was worn over a chemise, normally made out of linen, and sometimes beneath a cioppa (coat/overdress). Sleeves were tight and made in sections that were tied together with ribbons, leaving gaps where the chemise showed through.

A costume form The Borgias showing a typical high-waisted gown with a gathered skirt and detachable sleeves.

A costume from The Borgias showing a typical high-waisted gown with a gathered skirt and detachable sleeves.

That story about James above may be apocryphal (although knowing James, maybe not), but it illustrates how expensive clothes were in this period. Part of the reason was how elaborate they were, especially for the nobility, whose costly clothing was a way to showcase a family’s money and power. In one extreme example, a Florentine nobleman, Francesco di Matteo Castellani, ordered an elaborate dress for his bride in 1448. The dress took four years to make, and required the services of five different professions: mercers, tailors, jewelers, embroiderers and an accountant to keep track of the expenditures!

Vittorio Carpaccio, 1490.

Vittorio Carpaccio, “Two Venetian Ladies,” 1490.

The most expensive part of a gown was often the sleeves, which were detachable. This was done deliberately, since the body of a gown would often wear out or become stained quicker than the sleeves, which could then be switched out to a new dress. In fact, it was the sleeves which caused Francesco’s wife, Lena, to never have a chance to wear her beautiful gown. They required so much embellishment that the embroiderer died before he finished, and were so costly that they–and the dress itself–helped to bankrupt Francesco. The dress was eventually dismembered and the parts sold off to pay debts.

1536 Titian, Isabella d'Este, Duchess of Mantua

1536 Titian, Isabella d’Este, Duchess of Mantua

The above painting is later than Mircea’s era, but it’s a good example of sleeves that had been embroidered to within an inch of their lives. Fun fact: Isabella isn’t wearing a fur. Or, at least, not only a fur. It’s a marten, which was skinned, embellished, and worn both as a fashion accessory and as a place for fleas to go besides you! Here’s a modern version made for a Renaissance faire:


Cute, huh? Anyway, if it seems like people are going on and on about fleas in the book, now you know why. They were a real problem. Actually more than people knew, since in plague years, they were some of the main carriers of the disease.

Titian, 1555, Portrait of a Lady

Titian, 1555, Portrait of a Lady

Marten furs, strange as they may seem to us, were pretty common across Renaissance Europe. But Venice had some unusual fashions all its own. Above is an example of the “Turkish dress” mentioned in the books, which was a common outfit for Venetian women when at home. It was based on the clothing styles of Constantinople and Cairo, both big trading partners with Venice, and consisted of a loose robe worn over a chemise.

Under the chemise, it was long assumed that women wore little in this period. But a recent archeological dig in an Austrian castle uncovered a modern-type bra and panties dating from the 15th century. And if someone in Austria had such garments, the ladies of Venice, who prided themselves on always being on the cutting edge of fashion, probably did, too.

You can see the items in question here.


Another item of clothing possibly influenced by Venice’s foreign connections were the popular high heeled mules called chopines. In fashion from about 1400 to about 1700, they may have been copied from the clogs Turkish women wore to the bathhouses. They were originally practical, used to keep expensive hems out of the streets. But they ended up being a fashion statement, possibly because the sumptuary laws (rules about what each class of society was allowed to wear) often didn’t mention footwear. So embroidered, tasseled and beribboned clogs became popular among everyday Venetians.

chopines tall

In the sixteenth century, chopines became heavily exaggerated, with nine inch platforms being considered normal. Some even extended as high as twenty inches, like those in the pic above. They were a way of showing off your wealth (because the highest ones required servants to support you as you walked) but there was another reason for the elaborate footwear. Possibly because of contact with China, where dainty feet were highly eroticized, shoes and feet in Renaissance Venice took on a sexual role. To the point that the only feet (shod or not) seen in Renaissance art belong to prostitutes or to Venus, the goddess of love.

Everything you ever wanted to know about ladies’ fashion in the Renaissance:

Thanks, but I’m really more interested in make up:

A great resource for men’s clothes in Renaissance Venice:

Masks: Inspiration II

So, I’m cleaning the inspiration pics I used for Masks off my computer, and sharing some of the more interesting ones with you. Yesterday’s post was about Venetian homes. Today’s concerns its relationship with the sea.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Venice lives on the water. It has to, considering that it’s made up of 118 small islands, connected by 177 canals. The greatest of the canals is the appropriately named Grand, a snake-shaped waterway that follows the course of an old river. The original settlers of Venice, the Veneti people, lived in stilt houses along the riverbank. After Venice was resettled in the 5th century by people fleeing the Hun invasion, the old river became the center of commerce for a growing city.


It grew fast. By the 9th century, Venice had thrown off its allegiance to Constantinople, the last bastion of the old Roman Empire, and started some serious empire-building of its own. It soon conquered Dalmatia, Cyprus, Crete and large amount of territory on the mainland of Italy. It set up trading centers as far away as Greece on the one hand and Russia on the other. It dominated trade with the Middle East, becoming so well-acquainted with the area that Europeans who wanted to visit there used Venetian merchants as travel agents. By the 12th century, Venice was the leading sea power in the Mediterranean and well on its way to being one of the richest cities in the world.

Canaletto, "View of the Entrance to the Arsenal," 1732.

Canaletto, “View of the Entrance to the Arsenal,” 1732.

Much of its success was thanks to its fleet of 3,000 ships. And its fleet was thanks to the greatest shipyard in the world at the time, the Arsenal. It dominated Venetian life, occupying 15% of its land and 10% of its yearly tax revenue. But unlike most taxes, the Arsenal was worth every penny.

Employing 16,000 people at its height, the Arsenal was said to be able to turn out a new galley (an armed trading vessel) in a day. They did this using the world’s first movable assembly line. A new ship would float down a small canal, stopping at stations along the way where workers would assemble different parts of it. The process was much faster than normal shipbuilding, because each group of workers specialized in one area, and naturally became faster at it over time. There wouldn’t be anything else like it in the world until Henry Ford started making Model T’s.

Arrival of the English Ambassadors, detail, 1495-1500

Arrival of the English Ambassadors, detail,

Venice’s empire building is even more impressive when you consider the size of most of their ships. Above is a detail from a Caravaggio painting from the fifteenth century. In the background, you can see the type of long haul ship common at the time. The massive sailing ships of later years, with multiple cabins and decks, were yet to be invented. There was only one small, cramped cabin for passengers, which they all had to share, while the crew slept on the deck (and hoped they didn’t fall off!)

The Doge's barge, the Bucentaur.

The Doge’s barge, the Bucentaur.

The Venetians were equally adept on the water at home. The pic above is of the bucentaur, the lavish barge created by the doges (Venice’s civic leaders) for state business. A carved, gilded, velvet-covered extravaganza, it was designed to be the most impressive ship on the water and was regularly used to entertain visiting kings and ambassadors. The idea was to overawe visitors with unmistakable proof of Venice’s wealth and power without having to say a word. But while it might have been silent, it wasn’t subtle. Below is a modern recreation of one of the four bucentaurs. Clearly, over the top was not a problem in Venice.

The figurehead and a side view of the bucentaur.

The figurehead and a side view of the bucentaur.

A modern recreation of a fifteenth century gondola. This would not be the sort of gondola you would hire, but more like one a nobleman might keep for his personal use.

A modern recreation of a fifteenth century gondola. This would not be the sort of gondola you would hire, but more like one a nobleman might keep for his personal use.

But it wasn’t just the doges that moved about on the water in Venice. Everybody did. You didn’t really have a choice, since it was virtually the only way to get anywhere.

When Napoleon conquered the city in the eighteenth century, he filled in a good many canals and made some wide avenues, to more easily move his troops about. But fifteenth century Venice was a warren of tiny streets, some of them so narrow that only one person could move through at a time. Others were blocked by new construction or had been turned into ominous-looking tunnels by the upper levels of surrounding houses, which people built outward to give themselves more elbow room. So, if you wanted to get anywhere in Mircea’s era, you took a boat.

A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749.

A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND’S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749.

Of course, the water was also used for things besides transport. As the city’s main large, open space, it became a natural place for leisure time activities, with regattas, boating parties and fireworks all taking place there. The above fireworks display isn’t from Venice, but the Italians were the first people in Europe to manufacture fireworks, and were far ahead of most other countries in perfecting them. Accounts from the 15th and 16th centuries indicate that this sort of display was typical for Italy.

Fun fact: The multicolored fireworks common today weren’t invented until the 19th century. Maybe that was the reason that the emphasis in the Renaissance was on ground based fireworks like the Catherine wheel below, rather than huge aerial shows.

Catherine Wheels

Catherine Wheels

And finally, if you have canals everywhere, you need bridges to go over them. The two halves of Venice are linked across the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge. Today, it’s a massive stone bridge lined with shops. But in the mid-fifteenth century it was wood, with the center able to be raised and lowered to accommodate tall ships.

The Healing of the Madman, 1496, Vittore Carpaccio.

The Healing of the Madman, 1496, Vittore Carpaccio.

The painting above shows the Rialto Bridge in Mircea’s time. You can also see some of the more common types of gondolas in front. Fun fact: some gondoliers were in the pay of Venice’s 11,000 or so prostitutes, and would often take unsuspecting young men to the brothels rather than where they had asked to go. Or so the guys said afterwards!

The Rialto hunchback.

The Rialto hunchback.

The Rialto, as the only bridge between the two halves of Venice and the location of the city’s biggest shopping district, was the center of life in the 15th century. It had a large fish market, where the city’s fishing fleet deposited much of their daily catch, as well as a market for vegetables and fruits grown on the mainland. It was also the end of a very strange race.

Jail space was at a premium in a city built on water, which could obviously have no dungeons. So only the very worst offenders could expect to be locked up. But what about petty thieves and people who had committed minor offenses? Fines were popular, but there was another alternative: a race from San Marco Square, the main square of the city, to the Rialto.

Now, that’s only about 3/10ths of a mile, hardly much of a punishment . . . right? Well, there was one more small thing, namely that the locals were allowed to hit the runners with sticks, whips or whatever else happened to be handy, all along the way. The beating only stopped when the sufferer reached the hunchback. Of course, by then, they were probably a little hunchbacked, too!

More tomorrow.

Masks: Inspiration

So Masks, the Mircea Basarab novel, is done. It’s actually been done for a while now, but there’s been a bit of a kerfluffle. Apparently, giving away a novel is not as easy a thing as giving away a short story, and involves contracts and discussions and a lot of related drama that I didn’t expect. But I hope to have it all worked out shortly.

In the meantime, I have been cleaning out the notes/photos/websites that I used for inspiration and fact checking during the writing process (because, seriously, my desktop does not need anymore clutter). And I realized that I actually learned a lot writing this book. And much of it were things they never taught me in history class, which tended to focus more on wars and politics and less on what people ate for dinner. So I thought I’d do some posts to possibly amuse/interest you guys while we wait. Let’s start with a few places, to give you a feel for the setting for the novel.

Venice as seen from the air. Look like a fish, doesn't it? That long, skinny island below the main body of the fish is Guidecca. It's mainly industrial today, but in the 15th century, the wealthy had garden houses there. The square island above the fish is Murano, where the glassmaking industry was (and still is) centered.

Venice as seen from the air. Look like a fish, doesn’t it? That long, skinny island below the main body of the fish is Guidecca. It’s mainly industrial today, but in the 15th century, the wealthy had garden houses there. The island above the fish is Murano, where the glassmaking industry was (and still is) centered.

Venice was the Vegas of its day. If you were bored in the fifteenth century, if you were looking for a good time, if you wanted to get crazy, you didn’t go to Paris. You didn’t go to London. You packed a bag, told your friends that you felt the need for some spiritual consolation, and you headed off for Venice. Specifically, you headed off for carnival, a six week spree of fun and debauchery disguised as a religious celebration. Although if you missed it, there was no need to worry, because fully half the year was taken up with religious tourism in the form of one saint’s day or another. There was always a party in Venice, where, as the saying went, ‘A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale’ or ‘anything goes at carnival’.

Venice’s party reputation came partly from its wealth. Marco Polo wrote that “All the gold in the world flows through the hands of the Venetians” and he wasn’t exaggerating by much. For centuries, specifically the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, Venice held a virtual monopoly on the sugar, salt and spices coming into Europe, and had a vast network of trading partners spread from Russia to Turkey, and from Cairo to Greece. Huge fortunes were made, merchants lived like nobles, nobles lived like kings, and the tourists came to buy, came to pray or came just to gawk at it all.

One of Venice’s biggest trading partners was Wallachia (where they bought much of the grain they then resold to Constantinople), so a young Mircea would certainly have heard of the city growing up.

The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, 1594.

The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, 1594.

With thousands of tourists flooding into the city every year, naturally an industry catering to these people grew up. Would it surprise you to know that casino is a Venetian word? It should be; they invented the concept in 1638. That’s why today one of the largest casinos on the Vegas Strip is called The Venetian. It’s a homage to the place that started it all.

But Venetians liked to gamble long before the casinos came into being. In fact, that’s why they were created in the first place. Gambling was so rife in Venice–in market stalls, in taverns, in private homes, in portable tables that could be set up in a moment anywhere and taken down as quickly–that it was virtually impossible to regulate or tax. So the government got involved by requiring the people running the games to congregate in one area, and Il Ridotto, the first casino, was born.

Mircea would not have been hanging around casinos in the fifteenth century, since they hadn’t been invented yet. But he would certainly have had plenty of options for gambling nonetheless. And of course, the vampires of Venice, who wouldn’t be up during the day when the market gambling stalls were open, might have come up with the idea for a casino even earlier than the humans.

Ca' d'Oro, Venice's golden house, built circa 1430

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice’s golden house, built circa 1430

So, fortunes were made, in one way or another, in Venice. And people with money tend to like to show it off. The palazzo owned by a certain senator plays a big part in the book, so I thought you might want to see a similar palazzo from that era. Most of the grand mansions of the fifteenth century haven’t survived, but fortunately, the Ca’ d’Oro bucked the trend. Ca’ is short for casa, meaning house, and d’Oro is “of gold.” It received its name because all that filigree decoration you see on the front used to be picked out in gold. Yes, real gold. On a house. Because why the hell not?

Anyway, the Ca’ d’Oro was my inspiration for the senator’s abode, including the loggia (covered walkway) on the front and the inner courtyard.

Palazzo Falier Canossa, a 14th century house in Venice.

Palazzo Falier Canossa, a 14th century house in Venice.

For the other main house in the book, owned by a courtesan named Martina, I needed something opulent but a little more modest. So I took the Palazzo Falier Canossa as my model. Built a century before the Ca’ d’Oro, it has the typical Venetian set up of ground floor, piano nobile (noble floor) and then several upper stories. Because of the possibility of flooding and the smells from the canals, most home owners preferred to keep the lowest floor of the house for unloading cargo and meeting with tradesmen. They lived on the so-called noble floor or two above, and put the servants in the attic.

Palazzo Davanzati, 14th-15th centuries.

Palazzo Davanzati, 14th-15th centuries.

For interior inspiration, I had to go to Florence, where the Palazzo Davanzati is now a museum. It was built in the 14th century, but the furnishings are drawn from the 15th as well, so it works nicely as an example of an upper class house seen from the inside. This is the dining hall, with the open board ceilings common at the time, along with typical tile and wall decorations. Fun fact: the folding chairs you see might well have come from Venice. It made a ton of them in the era and exported them all over Europe.

Palazzo Davanzati, fifteenth century bedroom

Palazzo Davanzati, fifteenth century bedroom

And, finally for this post, a luxurious bedroom of the era. The bedrooms talked about in the book would have looked similar, sans the cradle, of course! With possibly some tapestries or–since Venice was a center for the arts–more paintings on the walls. But the hangings on the bed are typical, used for warmth as well as privacy, and the horribly uncomfortable chair was also fairly normal. What you don’t see, although they had them at the time, are daybeds/chaises. They tended to be flimsy in comparison with the beds people slept on, so none have survived (that I’ve been able to find) from the period. But they were a fairly common item in noble homes. And having seen their chairs, I can understand why!

More pics for those interested:

More inspiration pics coming tomorrow.