Venetian Chopines: Material culture keys to understanding similarities and differences between China and Venice, noble women and courtesans [abridged version]

The Renaissance period of Italian history was one in which the Republic of Venice prospered as a major port of trade between Europe and the East. The city-state thus accumulated an exceptional amount of wealth, and conspicuously consumed material culture of all sorts and influences, both occidental and oriental. Some of the most aesthetically pleasing masterpieces surviving from this era consist of objects related to fashion, including footwear. (Photo courtesy of The Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada. Sixteenth-century Venetian chopines.)

My interest in Renaissance fashion and footwear led me to the discovery of twenty-nine pairs of actual three-dimensional chopines surviving in collections worldwide. Maybe so many have survived due to their unusual form, elegant appearance, complexity of design, and numerous incorporated materials used to produce such ornate platform shoes. For an example of the variation among surviving chopines, three different specimens are reproduced here (from the Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The origin of chopines is unclear. Rumors abound among historians of Mediterranean fashion, and throughout texts on the subject of shoes. The most common answer to their origin is that they emanated from Turkish women's bulky bathhouse clogs, apparently worn to keep delicate feet from directly contacting heated and slick marble. Another source hypothesizes that the style reached Europe from the Orient long before Renaissance times--in ancient Greece--when actors wore platformed footwear on stage. According to this deduction, maybe the style was part of a general Renaissance--an awakening--which included classical styles of dress. (Image from Secrets of the Harem, p. 18)

Is it possible to say that the style and design of the chopines originated spontaneously in Venice? Did their general design appear in Venice from an Eastern prototype, afterwards modified by local artisans? Or could the shoes be part of a general influx of oriental invluences in the city along with other forms of material culture including textiles, porcelain, musks, perfumes, herbs and spices? (Image of Jacopo Bellini's Annunciazione in which both the Archangel and Virgin 's vestments were made of Chinese textiles.)

Exotic usually meant oriental--and several Eastern influences (based on Confucianism's ideals of female confinement and subjugation) do seem to be present in the chopine, possibly in the three-dimensional form itself, but certainly in the manner in which the high platform heel restricted women's feet. In this way, Venetian women's physical confinement can be traced to a similar fashion in China, footbinding, which, if successful, created the ideal three-inch Lotus foot or Golden Lily. (Image from Yao Lingxi's Cai fei lu.)

Another common ideology existed behind Venetian chopines and Eastern footwear sources: the concept of women's feet as sexual objects. The covered, mysterious foot enclosed in beautiful footwear probably enhanced the organ's appeal in both Venetian and Chinese cultures. But the West again interpreted an Asian concept on a less extreme level--feet were to be modestly kept under a long skirt, yet they needed not be permanently disfigured and treated as the main sexual attraction of a woman's body. Considered to be a subtle yet highly erotic painting shows drawn bed curtains from which one Lotus foot emerges in the air, indicating a woman's unseen encounter. (Image from an unnamed Chinese Erotic Album.)

Female Western feet were seen as a symbol of chastity, to be hidden from view. In fact, the only feet seen (whether bare or covered by footwear) in Venetian art are those of courtesans or prostitutes, in addition to paintings of Venus, the goddess of love, usually depicted completely nude. One pair of chopines can be seen in an etching by Cesare Vecellio where they are places next to a woman dyeing her hair (while arranging it with a heart-shaped comb and admiring her beauty in a mirror). Her chopines have been removed from her feet implying that she could be some grade of prostitute. (from Cesare Vecellio's Habiti Antichi et Moderni

Another courtesan is seen dressed as Cleopatra, sitting in a throne next to her bed, awaiting a lover, while her left foot emerges from under her skirt revealing a beautiful pair of white and red chopines. (Sixteenth-century painting by Paris Bordone, now at the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.)

An example esists of a woman walking to her marriage bed in chopines, delicately stepping towards her derobed husband who awaits her with open arms. Although this painting represents a seemingly honest bride, she is represented in an extremely sexual situation. (Painting by Giovanni di San Giovanni, now at the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.)

The lowest kind of prostitute known simply as a 'puttana,' 'prostituta al bordello,' or 'meretrice pubblica,' holds her skirt several incles shorter than those normally worn, allowing her high-heeled chopines to be seen in full view, indicating her total availabliity. (from Cesare Vecellio's costume book, Habiti Antichi et Moderni)

Giovanni Grevembroch etched a lower-class 'puttana' in his fashion guide as well. This woman wears thin slipper-like shoes and lifts her skirt to show not only her feet but also a good portion of her calf, something crude for the time, even considering this woman's line of work. (from Grevembroch's Gli Abiti de'Veneziani di quasi ogni eta' con diligenza raccolti e dipinti.)

In Italy, women's feet, in contrast to China, were not their main physical attraction however. The Italian woman was known for an aesthetically pleasing face, breasts, and waist. No permanent damage was done to the bust in the West, but the waist, often tightly corsetted, could lead to miscarriage and infertility in women, and hair was often plucked or shaved from the forehead in imitation of classical sculpture. (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, termed by many as the idealized Renaissance beauty, by Piero di Cosimo.)

Another parallel between bound feet and chopines is that both altered a woman's natural way of carrying herself. The female gait changed in the West with the introduction of heeled shoes in the fifteenth century, and in the East since footbinding became a tradition during the Five Dynasties Period (ca. 1000 AD). Women's movements became increasingly different from men's. Here, Benedetto Caliari's painting entitled Giardino di villa veneta, depicts a woman carefully and daintily stepping towards a gondola whose gait indicates she is wearing heeled footwear.

Exceptionally wealthy noble women in Venice demonstrated their superiority in a material way by wearing on their bodies extravagant items, including very tall chopines. The more restrictive to movement the platforms were, the higher the status of the woman (just like the Chinese believed in relation to the tiniest, thus most prized, feet). (Photo of the tallest surviving chopines, at the Museo Correr, Venice, Italy.)

Maybe chopines were the physical manifestation of an aristocratic woman's state of confinement? Maybe a woman chose to wear chopines because, having literally all that money could buy, she eagerly purchased the latest fashions, longing to possess exciting new forms of material culture? It is possible that these noble women enjoyed the physical superiority they attained when literally and symbolically towering over the rest of society. (Anonymous drawing, now at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, France.)

Wealthy Venetian patrician men had excessive amounts of time and money on their hands and were ultimately attracted to the greatest women of Venetian society, the 'Renaissance' women, a kind of female version of Castiglione's courtier. Cortigiane were skilled in all arts, including music, dance, poetry, conversation, wit, charm, general sprezzatura, and certainly love. These types of free-acting and free-thinking women were self-educated and successfully created a kind of niche market in society, being available to noblemen and foreign merchants willing to spend small fortunes on them. (Etching of a courtesan playing a lute, by Giacomo Franco.)

Courtesans earned extraordinary reputations and their skills rivaled those of educated nobles in society. Veronica Franco, for example, wrote and published poetry, actively participated in a literary academy of Domenico Venier, and was patronized by noblemen, and by Henry de Valois, on his way to becoming King Henry III of France. The reputation of this new class of women who earned European fame became so great that 'men went to courtesans to define their place in society, as part of the Renaissance elite' (Guido Ruggiero). This paradox is extraordinary. (Painting of Veronica Franco (?) by Tintoretto, now at the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA.)

Why did intelligent and truly free courtesan women wish to restrict their movement by wearing chopines? Were aristocratic women's fashions and footwear truly identical to courtesan women's fashions and footwear? Can we know for sure what fashionable nuances existed, if any? On a physical, superficial level, there appears to be no difference in the taste and style of the two classes of women who are even admittedly confused by sixteenth-century Venetians. (Anonymous etching of three seemingly identical women: Venetian Bride, Venetian Matron, Venetian Courtesan, now at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, France.)

The two kinds of women certainly shared a love for luxury. The two kinds of women appear in all remaining contextual pictorial evidence as physically identical: as the incarnation of Renaissance wealth, luxury, decadence and eclecticism. (Etching of a Venetian noble woman ' a' sa toilette,' by Giacomo Franco.)

Vittore Carpaccio's painting of two women makes one question whethey they are courtesans or patricians. The context of the portrait proves their occupation as courtesans, however, since exotic and erotic elements symbolically abound: high heeled red chopines which have already been removed from one woman's feet, the presence of the peacock and parrot and other exotic pets representing luxury, and the dwarf who carried highly sexual connotations in Renaissance iconography.

Since dress in the Renaissance reflected one's status and class, how did courtesans get away with imitating styles supposedly created for only virtuous patrician ladies? The answer to the tolerance towards courtesans might lie in the fact that because these women were patronized, deeply admired, and in fact loved by nobles--the lawmakers and power mongols of the Republic--these men let their lovers become superior to the law. (Etching from Vecellio's costume guide, Habiti Antichi et Moderni.)

As a final note, the elitist nature of this project must be highlighted. In Venice and elsewhere at this time, most people, and certainly most prostitutes, suffered and lived miserably, earning just enough to survive. Unfortunately in the realm of Renaissance material culture studies, including those traditional historical studies based on archival or other textual documentation, little has remained of more marginal people--little has remained from even the dominant culture of that time, who, for posterity, obsessively consolidated wealth, power, and material culture.