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The symbolic power of silk in Renaissance Florence

posted on 16.02.2017, 03:29 by Nicholls, Emma Hayes
This thesis explores the conceptual possibilities of silk in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Florence. Perhaps more than any other fabric, silk told a story about its owner's place in the here and now of Renaissance Florence. The rise of Florence's silk industry over the course of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was rapid and conspicuous. It also coincided with a period of aggressive territorial expansion: in the century following the first devastating wave of the Black Death in 1348, Florence tripled its territory. At the same time, the city contracted politically, increasingly being seen as a family possession of the Medici. The thesis thus looks to silk as a way of understanding how Renaissance Florentines were thinking about themselves and their times. In particular, it uses silk to explore the place both of women and of femaleness as an idea abstracted from individuals in the new polity that emerged during this period. At least since its introduction to Rome, silk has been associated with wanton women and effeminate men. Moreover, perhaps 90% of those who worked within the silk putting-out system were women and children, a proportion that was much higher than in other textile industries. The chapters of the thesis address three key arenas in which silk had particular utility, analysing it as an expression of civic identity, an instrument of selffashioning and a way of claiming economic means as cultural capital. In these various ways, silk negotiated the intersection between cognition, material culture, and economic and political systems of control in Renaissance Florence.


Principal supervisor

Peter Howard

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre


Campus location



Faculty of Arts