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European Civil and Military Clothing
From the First to the Eighteenth Century
By Frederick Stibbert
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Frederick Stibbert: His Life and Work
On the opening page of an album of watercolor drawings representing sixteenth-century knights and princesses is the following inscription: "F. Stibbert/Original watercolor drawings for his Costume book/1868." Frederick Stibbert (1838–1906) inherited the family fortune in 1859, when he came of age (his father died when he was only four), and he started collecting immediately. The brief comment in his sketchbook, written a few years later, clearly tells us that the intention of compiling a history of costume was at the back of his mind from the very beginning. Indeed, it was probably the inspiration for most of the objects that he was to acquire during the next fifty years.
The project of the history remained vivid throughout his life, as witnessed by the sketchbooks that he gradually filled with drawings drawn from paintings, tomb slabs, monumental sculptures, etc. From 1877 onward he started having the copper plates engraved. He employed three well-known engravers: the Neapolitan Leonardo de Vegni, and from 1887 the Genoese Filippo Livy and Vincenzo Stanghi from Florence. A note "not yet engraved/ 1899/F.S.," added in pencil to the above quotation, indicates that as late as 1899 this preparatory work had not yet been completed. In his will Stibbert stipulated that his heir, Count Roberto Pandolfini, was to arrange for the publication, and he left 10,000 lire (about $1 million in today's money) specifically for this purpose. In 1914 the first edition of Abite e Fogge Civili e Militari (150 copies) was printed by the Istituto Italiano d'Arti Grafiche in Bergamo. By 1937 these were sold out. After the Second World War the local bank, Cassa di Risparmio della Toscana, had a facsimile version made for private distribution. And somewhere along the line an English version was published in the United States.
For many years Stibbert's history, in any language, has been out of print, and it is with great pleasure that the Stibbert Museum greets the present republication. It is not only a tribute to the extraordinary man who was the founder of the museum that bears his name, it is also the surest way to understand the moving spirit of this great collector. Through this volume we apprehend the reason for the long series of sixteenth-century portraits of the Spanish royal family to be found in the museum; the vast collection of arms and armor from Europe, Japan, and the Islamic world; the numerous costume prints and illustrated books in the library; and the garments themselves, including rare examples of Elizabethan doublets and sixteenth-century Venetian shoes. The museum may seem heterogeneous and eclectic at first sight, but there was a unifying vision behind the 56,000 objects that Stibbert left to the city of Florence. This book is the visual expression of his deep interest in the way people moved, dressed, and lived—anywhere, at any time.
Frederick Stibbert was born in Florence, and died there. His father had been a colonel in the Coldstream Guards, his grandfather governor-general of Bengal, India, whence the family fortune originated. His mother was Italian, and it was her villa on the Montughi hill that Frederick, or Federigo, transformed into his museum. Situated in the midst of its own park, surrounded by the olive groves and vineyards of its own farm, it is still a verdant oasis only ten minutes outside hectic Florence. As his collection grew, Stibbert bought an adjacent villa and built a great Knights' Hall to connect the two houses. He further commissioned a façade to serve as the unifying factor of all three elements, and added the large ballroom. His mother's garden was a typical formal Italian giardino that Stibbert turned into a romantic English park, with temples, loggias, cascades, and a little lake where he could boat in the summer.
Though deeply attached to his mother and her native Tuscany, Stibbert was educated in England, at Harrow and later Cambridge, and his years in England as well as the friends he made there were highly influential to his outlook and interests. At the age of twenty one he returned to Italy and for a brief moment took part in the stirring events of the times, serving in Garibaldi's army against the Austrians. He was awarded a medal for military valor, and his name is inscribed on a plaque under the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Florence, which lists the Florentine youths who served with distinction in the Italian War of Independence.
After this brief interlude he dedicated the rest of his life to his collection, which soon took the shape of a museum—"my museum" he called it, "on which I have spent so much care and money." He also kept a careful watch over his inherited fortune, leaving it intact, if not larger, at his death. By about 1880 the museum was already a reality, and Queen Victoria was among the first visitors during her stays in Florence. In 1887, on the occasion of the unveiling of the new façade, Stibbert opened his museum to "all and sundry" for three weeks. The façade was designed in the neo-Gothic style, and three days of medieval pageants were organized to celebrate its completion. There was even a formal ball in the city hall (Palazzo Vecchio), in which Stibbert took an active part. But besides that he evidently felt that his museum was so much in character that it ought somehow to be incorporated in the celebrations.
It was the world of knights and damsels that Stibbert wanted to re-create. His idea was not to collect a series of masterpieces, although he acquired with great acumen. He bought incessantly, spending vast sums to obtain what he wanted. His focus changed over the course of time, but a constant factor remained: the objects had to come to life. The Cavalcades that are still the dominant feature of the museum were created by him with great attention to detail. Down the middle of the Knights' Hall a procession of sixteen mounted knights advance two abreast. Preceded by a herald, four German horsemen in splendid sixteenth-century (called "Maximilian") armor appear; followed by four Italians dressed in armor by some of the most famous masters of the time (e.g., Pompeo della Cesa); succeeded by four Turkish riders of the Ottoman Empire. From above a life-size St. George and the Dragon look down upon them. The horses are all of the proper size and weight, some heavy enough to carry the massive armored Europeans, others light enough to meet the needs of the swift warriors of Islam. Stibbert himself had a large stable and made sure that mistakes were not made in the equine reproduction.
The physiognomy of the knights was also chosen with care: Here walks a German Landsknecht, there a Persian foot soldier. A smaller hall, copied from the Alhambra in Spain, houses the Indian Cavalcade, with mounted maharajas and their guards. Yet a third Cavalcade represents Samurai warriors and archers. These "life-size dolls" were executed in Japan in the 1880s and bought by Stibbert together with the Japanese arms and armor on display. Some of the boxes were even found unopened at the time of his death.
Stibbert must be reckoned among the pioneer collectors of Japanese art. The country opened up in 1868, and his earliest purchases are from 1870. He visited the great international exhibition in Paris where Japanese objects were first shown, but the main bulk of the collection was acquired from antique dealers in Florence and London. The collection numbers 1,800 pieces and is considered the largest outside Japan. Stibbert's passion was arms and armor. He began buying soon after the Samurai caste had been abolished and their arms were beginning to come on the market.
He was equally fortunate with his collection of Islamic arms. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when Turkey was modernizing her army, the contents of the St. Irene fortress came up for sale. Stibbert's purchases provided the museum with an extraordinary selection of fine weaponry from the Islamic world.
Although Stibbert traveled widely in Europe and visited London regularly, he only once crossed the Atlantic Ocean and once the Mediterranean. In 1869, in Cairo for the opening of the Suez Canal, he attended the first performance of Aida, and ventured as far as Thebes. His sketchbooks are full of impressions of this journey. His most important purchases of Egyptian art, however, preceded this period. "Egyptomania" may in fact be called his first overwhelming interest. As early as 1859 he commissioned a small "Egyptian" temple to be built by his lake, with a procession of little terra-cotta sphinxes leading up to both the front and back entrances. In 1864 he bought two important sarcophagi, one of them complete with mummy, as well as a series of antique bronzes.
Apart from these Egyptian artifacts, the Stibbert collection spans chronologically from the late fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. Stibbert's last hero was Napoleon. To the emperor's memory he dedicated an entire room, once he had been able to acquire the sumptuous petit costume Napoleon wore for his coronation as King of Italy in 1805.
The vast Stibbert Museum building unites the founder's museum and his personal dwelling, including a series of furnished reception rooms and the private rooms on the floor above. The installation in both sections is still of the nineteenth century, largely as Stibbert left it. His vision permeates every corner and hovers over every object. He created it, and through some quirk of destiny it has remained almost unchanged. This is the particular charm of the museum, and visitors soon fall under its spell. However, the very size of the collection and the amassing of objects in the showcases make it difficult to see them all, let alone enjoy them individually.
Today the policy of the museum is to arrange small exhibitions in a separate modernized section of the building. Here, year by year, selections of objects from the main collection are shown and a story woven around them. The most recent was dedicated to Japan ("Dragons and Peonies"). The most popular, "Dress for the Body—Body for the Dress," offered a comparison between European and Middle Eastern ways of dressing from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Europeans, in conformity with their robotlike armor, shaped their bodies with corsets and stays to suit their ideals and ethics; their Eastern counterparts were generally willing to let the body be, covering it with loose, highly colorful, voluminous garments. Armor, costumes both European and Eastern, and corroborative paintings and prints all came from the museum itself, as if the idea of the exhibition had already been in the mind of its founder.
Frederick Stibbert was indeed a remarkable figure, even for the second half of the nineteenth century. He had a vision, and he had the means to make his vision a reality. His museum and his monumental book stand as testimonies to his wish to share this with posterity.
Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti
Director of the Stibbert Museum
Excerpted from European Civil and Military Clothing by Frederick Stibbert. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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