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Roberti’s Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio & Sumptuary Laws: Fashion Skirting the Law

Roberti’s Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio & Sumptuary Laws: Fashion Skirting the Law

Ercole de' Roberti,  Ginevra Bentivoglio,  c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.220.

Ercole de' Roberti, Ginevra Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.220.

Women of the Italian Renaissance shared their personal story through fashion.  The choice of fabrics, the cut of a sleeve, or the embroidery on a bodice communicated a particular detail about the wearer.  While only a few pieces of clothing from that period have survived, Renaissance painting, particularly portraits, provides a generous glimpse into Renaissance fashion.  Offering such a representation, Ercole de’Roberti’s Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio depicts a wealthy, noble woman, whose clothing reflects her position of power and influence in society. 

During the Renaissance, lawmakers, particularly in Italy, attempted to control fashion through sumptuary laws that regulated what men and women could wear, from headdresses to shoes.  Through these sumptuary laws, the lawmakers sought to curb the excessive and even immoral consumption that they believed was wasted on finery. While over 300 laws were enacted over three centuries, expenditure on luxurious commodities ultimately grew during the same period of time, prompting the lawmakers of Renaissance Italy eventually to abandon sumptuary laws as a means to control certain aspects of society.  But why did these numerous sumptuary laws essentially fail? Potential insight into the deficiencies of these laws lies with an examination of the laws themselves together with Renaissance fashion.  As an “artifact” of Renaissance creativity and society, Roberti’s Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio provides a useful backdrop on which to investigate the flawed relationship between sumptuary laws and women’s fashion as well as the roles each had in society. 

Ercole de’Roberti and Ginevra Bentivoglio

Ercole de’Roberti (c. 1455/56-1496) was one of the most important painters working in Ferrara and Bologna during the fifteenth century.  (Lippincott 2003). Roberti’s surviving oeuvre of approximately 35 paintings reveals a high level of technical competence and an astute awareness of narrative drama.  (Lippincott 2003).  He painted with “artful mannerism” with an emphasis on line but not solid form, while the bright primary colors of his paintings resembled that of an illuminated manuscript.  (Manca 1992, 4-5).  During the period in which Roberti painted, artists were transforming the individual in art from the subservient role in religious paintings and altarpieces to a more central spotlight that portrayed the social conventions of the day.  (Bayer, Christiansen and Weppelmann 2011, xiii-ix).

Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio (c. 1474/1477)

Roberti painted the companion portraits of Ginevra (1440-1507) and her husband, Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1443-1508), early in his career.  Ginevra had married Giovanni in 1464. Giovanni ruled the city of Bologna from 1463 until his expulsion for tyranny in 1506.  Tempera on poplar panel, the portrait presents in profile view an idealized representation of Ginevra typical of fifteenth-century Italian portraiture.  Her gaze is unemotional and even lifeless.  The white, gauzy kerchief on her head covers her gold hair.  Ginevra is wearing a line of jewels embroidered down the sleeve and the front of her dress and a string of pearls around her neck.  The flat, dark fabric of the drapery behind her accentuates her pale skin and somewhat stiff posture.  Beyond the drapery, lies a fanciful landscape with gold and azure architecture and crumbling rocks.  (Boskovits and Brown 2003, 603). 

Ginevra’s dress, like that of other Renaissance women, was a public symbol used to display the wealth and social status of the wearer.  (Belfanti 2009, 264).  The great expense of the embroidery and precious stones unmistakably signaled the sitter’s wealth for viewers contemporary to the portrait.  While living in Bologna, Ginevra herself was no stranger to sumptuary laws.  The women of Ginevra’s bridal cortège for her wedding to Giovanni II Bentivoglio were planning on wearing dresses that violated Bologna’s sumptuary laws, which were promulgated in 1453 by Cardinal Giovanni Bessarion, the papal legate to Bologna.  Bessarion had informed the canons of the church of San Petronio, where Ginevra intended to be married, that if they allowed Ginevra’s wedding to take place at their church, then they would be excommunicated.  Upon arriving at the doors of the church of San Petronio, the members of Ginevra’s bridal party were turned away, and the couple were married in the church of San Giacomo instead.  Despite this last-minute change, Bessarion followed through on his threat, and the Augustinians of this church were excommunicated but then later absolved.  (Killerby 1999, 269).

Sumptuary Laws

With varying specificity and purpose, sumptuary laws fundamentally regulated what men and women could wear, although more broadly speaking they also regulated extravagant spending and consumption in other areas such as furniture and food. Both the Catholic Church and the secular governments of Renaissance Italy passed sumptuary laws, with the most prolific period occurring between 1300-1500 in northern Italy. 

The sumptuary laws related to apparel restricted the use of luxurious textiles and expensive decoration on clothing such as gold and silver thread embroidery.  Some sumptuary laws restricted the wearing of jewelry. Venice in the fourteenth century passed a sumptuary law that regulated the wearing of pearls.  Other laws focused on specific details of dress, such as the length of a train or a sleeve. Early sumptuary laws, those promulgated during the thirteenth century, tended to restrict one aspect of luxury consumption; but as time progressed, the laws became more complex, covering clothing worn at certain events, such as weddings, feasts, and funerals.  (Killerby 2002, 34-35). 

“Taming of the Shoe:” The Purpose of Sumptuary Laws

What was the primary purpose of the Renaissance sumptuary laws or the intentions of those who promulgated them?  During this period, some regarded fashion as immoral and as an exercise for the “lust for new goods.”  The lawmakers believed that those who wasted too much money on finery were “guilty of the sin of avarice.”  (Killerby 1999, 265).  Women were often blamed for wearing clothing that perpetuated the sin of Eve.  Like Eve who tempted Adam, Renaissance women were allegedly using clothing to tempt men sexually or perhaps to entice men to commit the even greater sin of spending money to buy more clothing.  (Killerby 2002, 118).

As a more economic, as opposed to moral, concern, the legislatures also believed that the large quantity of money that was tied up in clothing and jewels could otherwise be converted into profitable trade.  The lawmakers hoped that the sumptuary laws would curb spending in one area (fashion) in order to encourage spending in another area that bolstered the trade of their particular city-state.  While not overtly stated, the sumptuary laws targeted a third objective: to restore the “hierarchy of appearances” between the social classes that was eroding due to urbanization and the rise of the middle class.  (Belfanti 2009, 269).  Fashion provided members of various social classes with a useful vehicle to proclaim the class to which one belonged or to which one aspired.  During this period of economic change and social mobility, the sumptuary laws afforded, for those with the proper authority, a tool to control society and to maintain the distinctions between the various ranks. 

Enforcement of the Sumptuary Laws

The laws themselves outlined details for their enforcement, which included fines, forfeiture and seizure of prohibited items, and even excommunication from the Catholic Church.  The laws generally would specify a particular government official to oversee the enforcement of the laws.  Some cities instituted a special magistracy as a venue for the prosecutions of sumptuary law violations.  In Bologna, these magistracies were known as “notaries of vice.”  (Killerby 2002, 144).  Located throughout such cities as Florence, Perugia, and Venice, denunciation boxes in the form of mouths carved in stone on the outside wall of the government office encouraged civilian enforcement of the laws as well.  (Killerby 2002, 149).

The Fashion of Failure

Despite the excessive number of laws enacted, the sumptuary laws eventually failed to curb expenditure on luxurious commodities, especially fashion.  (Killerby 2002, 133).  But why did the sumptuary laws of the Italian Renaissance ultimately fail?  The breakdown of the laws likely arose not from a lack of enthusiasm or energy for enforcement as seen with Ginevra’s own wedding but something else entirely. 

Nature of Women’s Fashion 

The primary subject of the law, women’s fashion, fundamentally impeded the sumptuary law framework. Italian Renaissance painting, such as Roberti’s Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio, preserves critical evidence of Renaissance fashion, when very few articles of clothing have actually survived the centuries.  The meticulous realism of Roberti’s technique allows us to inspect the exquisite decoration of women’s fashion, such as the pearls and precious stones that line Ginevra’s dress.  With Ginevra stoically sitting in profile, the viewer cannot help but focus primarily on her dress and fashion.  Ginevra’s dress is the highlight of the portrait and likely played the same featured role in Ginevra’s public life. 

Renaissance fashion was not only highly visible in society but also portable and easily changeable, and thus, in constant flux.  (Killerby 2002, 112).  As the inherent nature of the sumptuary legal framework demanded the statutory text to identify specific items of clothing, the lawmakers had to repeatedly rewrite the laws in order to accommodate and capture the changes in fashion.  (Killerby 2002, 160).  For example, a particular style for a headdress may come and go before the relevant law proscribing it could be drafted and passed.   Conversely, the passage of a sumptuary law targeting women’s clothing also precipitated a change in fashion.  (Killerby 2002, 161).  Women of social power and influence such as Ginevra adapted their own style to avoid the purview of a particular sumptuary law.  These trendsetters of Renaissance Italy deliberately tweaked the particular manner in which they would wear jewelry, for example, to evade the sumptuary laws.  Laws that must respond to constant change with frequent revisions and even anticipate future developments are an unsustainable and untenable framework for regulation. Thus, the very nature of women’s fashion contributed to the failure of sumptuary laws. 

Role of Wealth

Ercole   de' Roberti,  Giovanni II Bentivoglio,  c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.219.

Ercole de' Roberti, Giovanni II Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.219.

Sumptuary laws sought to limit, through the regulation of fashion, an overt and ostentatious expression of wealth.  However, the demonstration of wealth with one’s clothing performed a significant function in Renaissance society, underscored by the companion portraits of Ginevra and her husband Giovanni II Bentivoglio.  In both portraits, the clothing of husband and wife clearly communicate and emphasize the wealth of the sitters.  The very purpose of these portraits was to represent the affluence and means of the subjects to any and all who viewed the paintings.  At a time when political power and social status were precarious, a demonstration of financial prowess helped to bolster and justify one’s position in society.  Giovanni and Ginevra Bentivoglio themselves relied upon this social mechanism.  When Giovanni appointed himself as the ruler of Bologna in 1462, he held jousts and tournaments and “endowed his reign with courtly trappings,” such as art, to secure his somewhat tenuous grasp of power.  (Boskovits and Brown 2003, 603).  He remained in power until 1506 when he was expelled for tyranny. 

The language of the sumptuary laws specifically targeted this behavior.  For example, Lucca’s 1336 sumptuary law sought to “restrain the lavish expenses” made by its citizens.  (Killerby 2002, 31).  The preamble of a 1290 Sicilian law stressed the evils from superfluous expenses.  (Killerby 2002, 35-36).  While the statutes explicitly targeted a gratuitous presentation of wealth, the overall framework instituted by the laws acknowledged and accounted for the social benefits and services of such actions in Renaissance society.  The governments granted its citizens licenses to wear luxurious items for a limited time such as during the visits of important dignitaries when flaunting the wealth and success of the city was more imperative than the explicit and articulated purposes of the sumptuary laws.  (Killerby 1999, 257).  Additionally, many of the enforcement mechanisms for the sumptuary laws were too weak to deter any violators.  Fines were so modest in relation to the cost of goods that some women treated the fine as a “luxury tax” and flagrantly ignored the laws’ prohibitions.  This disconnect with the stated purpose and the actual operation of the sumptuary laws indicates that perhaps the enactment of the legislation was more important than the tangible outcome or impact of the law, ultimately immobilizing the entire legal framework. 

Sumptuary Laws For All?

The failure of the sumptuary laws also lies with the absence of a blanket proscription that applied to all sectors of society.  The laws instead targeted in effect upper class women.  Generally, Renaissance women were excluded from the public sphere. (Killerby 2002, 115).  In her portrait, the drapery behind Ginevra shields her from the landscape beyond, emphasizing the woman’s place in the private interior.  In the companion portrait, her husband, wearing more opulent clothing, stands closer, almost to the very edge of the opening in the drapery.  This subtle distinction, whether consciously intended or not, underlines Ginevra’s place in society as opposed to her husband’s.  While the drapery links the two portraits, Giovanni’s particular position and posture highlights his authoritarian role in both private and public domains.  

With the woman’s position principally relegated to the private realm, fashion and clothing gave women an opportunity or a semblance of a public voice, albeit indirectly, and thereby a target for the sumptuary laws to restrict women’s role and influence in society.  Women’s clothing was the particular focus of sumptuary laws in the fifteenth-century, with more laws regulating women’s fashion than men’s clothing.  The lawmakers sought to target the rapid decline in marriages and the fall in birth rates, which they attributed to the opulence and excessiveness of women’s fashion.  (Killerby 2002, 113).  Comparatively, the lawmakers largely exempted men’s clothing from such oversight on the basis that men’s clothing played an important role regarding their public, political, and ceremonial responsibilities.  (Killerby 2002, 115).  One woman, Nicolosa Sanuti (who happened to be the lover of Ginevra’s husband), petitioned against a sumptuary law that she felt was inappropriate and too severe for women.  The law specified the number of dresses, type of fabric, and jewelry, but Nicolosa argued that such finery is emblematic of honor and virtue and advertises the fame of the city.  (Killerby 1999, 264-65).  While these same reasons parallel those used to exempt men’s clothes from the sumptuary laws, the imprecision and imbalance inherent in the application of these laws ultimately weakened their power and durability.  Nicolosa’s petition and the sheer number of laws focusing on women’s fashion demonstrate that the laws did not accurately embody legitimate government concerns but were merely an avenue to control and perhaps even subjugate women, particularly those of the upper class, during the Renaissance period.

The Last Stitch

The failure of the sumptuary laws appears to originate at the center of the laws themselves.  The laws used fashion in order to regulate various social, moral, and economic aspects of Renaissance society.  Women’s fashion, like art, carries multiple meanings and roles.  During the Renaissance, both fashion and art fueled the local economy and trade, served as vehicles to demonstrate wealth, and pronounced the holder’s place in society. But certain pieces of fashion, like a portrait, portray something more personal that lies outside the law’s purview.  Renaissance portraiture, including Roberti’s portrait of Ginevra Bentivogliodepicts a transformation within art with the representation of a specific individual instead of a more common religious figure.  Reluctant to evolve with these developments in society, the drafters of the sumptuary laws were instead devoted to the ethical and moral priorities of the previous centuries, which eventually led to the laws themselves going out of fashion.


Bayer, Andrea, Keith Christiansen, and Stefan Weppelmann. 2011. "Preface." In The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann. New York: Yale University Press.

Belfanti, Carlo Marco. 2009. "The Civilization of Fashion: At the Origins of a Western Social Institution." Journal of Social History 43 (2): 261-283.

Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown. 2003. "Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century; The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art." Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.

Killerby, Catherine Kovesi. 1999. "'Heralds of a well-instructed mind': Nicolosa Sanuti's defense of women and their clothes." Renaissance Studies 13 (3): 255-282.

—. 2002. Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500.Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lippincott, Kristen. 2003. Roberti, Ercole (d’Antonio) de’; Grove Art Online.Accessed August 28, 2018. http:////www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000072385.

Manca, Joseph. 1992. The Art of Ercole de'Roberti. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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