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Reading clothes

While reading Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, Elissa Weaver, professor of Italian, was struck by the curious role of clothing in the 14th-century text.

When characters encounter misfortune, she explains, they lose all or part of their garments, regaining them when their luck turns. "This was an important element in Boccaccio's narrative style," she says. "I noticed how he could use clothing as a symbolic language, and that many of the same uses are found in other arts, especially the figurative arts."

That's what led Weaver to curate the exhibition A Well-Fashioned Image: Clothing and Costume in European Art, 1500-1800, on display at the University's Smart Museum of Art until April 28. Her co-curator is the Smart's Elizabeth Rodini, PhD'95, who coordinates an endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support collaborative projects between University faculty and students and the Smart Museum. Weaver and several graduate students are at work on a scholarly catalogue of the 30 pieces in A Well-Fashioned Image, including portrait paintings from the Renaissance era, sculptures, religious images, and costume books, assembled mainly from the museum's permanent collection.

The costumes depicted in each work, says Weaver, served to advertise and fashion social order. The artists also used costume to offer personal commentaries -allegorical, historical, or moralizing-on their subjects.

In Royal Saint with a Ring (1465)-which shows a Renaissance-era man clad in deep hunter green, red tights, and no shoes-fashion serves as a bridge between the sacred and the secular, says Weaver, the saint's stocking feet "making him tangible and approachable." In a 1738 drawing of Anne Boleyn by Jacob Houbraken, Henry VIII's second wife is adorned in rich textiles and jewels, representing not only her loveliness but also her royal status-revealing the artist's religious and political sympathies. "This is clothing as commentary or allegory rather than the history of dress," says Rodini. "There is a vivid sense of how people are judged based on what they wear."

Undress is also a prominent theme in the show-and one ripe for interpretation. In Actaeon Surprising Diana and Her Nymphs, the naked goddess encounters a hunter, whom she punishes for gazing on her by turning him into a stag and setting his own dogs upon him.

"The nudes show the vulnerability of women," says Weaver, "and at the same time, their power."


  > > Volume 94, Number 3

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Liberal talk, realist thinking
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The winning punch line
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Physics for breakfast
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