Having begun this calendar year with a week-long trip to Florence to attend a training seminar on early modern Italian archives run by the Medici Archive Project, at the end of November I returned to Florence to try tackling the Archivio di Stato di Firenze for myself. Armed with a list of potential sources and my notes from the week with MAP, I spent four days in the ASF working out what types of documents might be useful for my next chapter, transcribing items which seemed relevant to my current chapter, and becoming highly enamoured with one particular early modern individual and his extensive wardrobe. Unsure of how fruitful the documents I had requested would be, how much I could get done in a few days, and whether I would actually be capable of transcribing or translating anything, I had embarked on the trip without great expectations, seeing it primarily as an exploratory mission for potential further escapades in Italian archives. So it was nice to return home with a few new useful sources and scraps of information for my thesis.
Being cooped up inside the archive all day meant that I had limited time for exploring Florence itself, but I did manage to venture into a few museums, dashing into the Uffizi one evening for a temporary exhibition on Ardengo Soffici, a painter who I’d never heard of before but who was well worth discovering, and getting up horribly early on Sunday morning to be in the Accademia when it opened at 8:15, making the most of the last couple of hours I had in Florence before my train to Pisa. Having visited the Museo Gucci on my last trip to Florence, this time it was the turn of the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, another museum created by an iconic Italian fashion brand housed in a grand palazzo.
The Museo Salvatore Ferragamo is much larger than I’d anticipated, a warren of rooms under the brand’s main shop in Florence where temporary exhibitions can be displayed. Their current exhibition is Tra Arte e Moda (Across Art and Fashion), which aims to discuss the dialogue and relationship between art and fashion, whether they constitute two separate fields and where the spaces of overlap emerge. It began with a room on Ferragamo himself, describing him as an artisan who was producing shoes influenced by and reflective of modern art: ‘His shoes testify to the fact that he was constantly reflecting on traditional Tuscan craftsmanship, on one hand, and on contemporary art on the other’. A large array of shoes which he created were on display, and they reminded me of Elsa Schiaparelli’s designs, that mixture of the beautiful, creative, playful and wearable. This room was almost the most interesting, both aesthetically, but also in terms of the questions it raised for me about the connection between artists and artisans, art and craft. The issue of when does an object become a work of art in itself wasn’t really addressed in the exhibition, and although many of the other items on display were clearly influenced by works of art or artistic ideals, not all exhibited real skill in their creation or beauty in their design.
The main bulk of the exhibition included a hotchpotch of different types of interactions between artists and designers and intersections between fashion and art. There were the garments which had been directly influenced by specific artists or paintings, reproducing their aesthetic through their surface decoration, as in an Alexander McQueen outfit made of a fabric patterned with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Yohji Yamamoto jackets based on Joan Miro’s artworks, and a coat by Mila Schön inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobiles. There were the artists who had segued into fashion design or who collaborated with designers, such as Sonia Delauney, Mariano Fortuny, and Thayat (who worked with Madeleine Vionnet). There were the artistic movements whose ideals and philosophy got translated into clothes, as with the Arts and Crafts movement and Futurism, which created a manifesto arguing for the use of colour and asymmetrical elements in men’s clothing, a ‘vestito antineutrale’. One room focused entirely on a particular mid-twentieth-century Italian designer, Germana Marucelli, and her collaborations with artists both in the garments she produced and in the decoration of her atelier. The final room was on the 1990s, claiming that by this point the dualism of art and fashion was now obsolete, with designers now exploring the porous relationship between them and focusing on the body; most of the exhibits here came from the usual suspects i.e. Hussein Chalayan, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Maison Martin Margiela, and Yohji Yamamoto.
I left the exhibition not really sure of what it was trying to say, whether it was trying to make some kind of overarching argument about the relationship between art and fashion or not. Visiting it in the evening after a full day in the archive probably didn’t help, but to me the information boards for each room seemed unnecessarily wordy, theoretical and dense, complicating the issue at hand. (Sample sentence, on Germana Marucelli: ‘The relationship tying her to contemporary art was not an idiomatic “loan” from one language to another, but a recodification of aesthetic principles from one form to another’). The material presented was a rather odd collection – small additional rooms housed covers of Interview magazine, advertisements for fashion magazines drawn by Andy Warhol, and pieces by Yinka Shonibare. Although it showcased the variety of ways in which fashion and art can intersect, it didn’t feel like the curators had managed to tie these disparate sections into a cohesive whole.
On the Saturday of my trip, I abandoned the archive and Florence and headed out to Prato for the day. I wandered around the cathedral and the house of a fourteenth-century wool merchant and bought the most amazing biscotti. But the main reason I had ventured out to Prato was to visit the Museo del Tessuto, which celebrates Prato’s long history as a major centre of textile production. The museum houses a mixture of temporary exhibitions, permanent galleries, and modern textile art installations. The first room was a temporary display of highlights of the museum’s collection, arranged in chronological order from the sixteenth century onward. It’s an amazing collection, including textiles, garments and subsidiary materials like fashion plates and sample books, and there were lots of seriously stunning items on display. The next room explained the different ways of producing textiles and the different fibres they can be made from in an engaging and interesting way, and then upstairs were rooms dedicated to Prato’s own history of textile manufacturing. It was nice to see a fashion museum where production (and therefore issues around technology, economics and locality) were so heavily emphasised.
The Museo Salvatore Ferragamo is not the only Tuscan institution to currently house an exhibition on the theme of Tra Arte e Moda: a number of other galleries are showing temporary displays under the same banner which focus on small case studies within that broader theme. The Museo del Tessuto’s exhibition as part of this is Nostalgia del futuro nei tessuti d’artista del dopoguerra (Nostalgia for the future in post-war artistic fabrics). It focuses on the work of a number of Italian artists who created designs for textiles in the 1950s, and it felt heavily biased towards the ‘art’ side of the fashion / art equation. The exhibits include designs on paper, tapestries, rugs, paintings and silk scarves; the exhibition shows artists turning to textiles as a new form of media and surface for them to decorate, but there is generally little sense of how many of these designs were actually produced as fabrics and how they would have functioned as part of a garment or once draped around the body. Silk scarves, for example, look great displayed on the wall, but surely once they are wound around the body much of their decoration becomes invisible? Unlike in the exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum a couple of years ago, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol, save for an armchair there aren’t any instances of these fabrics having been turned into 3D items on display. The emphasis of the exhibition does seem to be on the creation of ideas, rather than the afterlife of those ideas in actual fabrics and objects. It highlights the role of textile design competitions at the Milan Triennale in pushing artists to start imagining textiles, but honestly a conference being held in the room next door made it impossible to concentrate on the introductory text for the exhibition, so I may have missed something about how the display saw itself contributing the broader questions of Tra Arte e Moda.
Unfortunately, dealing with fashion and fabrics in the Florentine archives meant that I didn’t have time to visit the other exhibitions on as part of Tra Arte e Moda. I like the idea of having multiple small intersecting exhibitions on a wider theme, allowing it to be tackled from a variety of angles based on the strengths and contents of different collections. The relationship between art and fashion is certainly a broad enough topic to merit such an approach, but I felt that Tra Arte e Moda hadn’t quite sufficiently managed to introduce the issue through an “overview” exhibition or articulate how more concentrated case studies added to the overall argument. The Museo del Tessuto itself though is definitely well worth a visit if you’re in the area.