Developing a Northern Italian Persona (1400 – 1600)


Many of those who join a living history organization do so to concentrate on research of the arts and sciences for the chosen time period. Of those hobbyists there are quite a few who go beyond picking a time and place and topic of study. These are the ones this post concerns, the ones who desire to develop a persona. Really, anyone who takes part in a living history event *is* already a persona. They are not themselves, really, when they are actively participating. They are already concerned with what their persona would have worn, cooked, hewn, smithed, or sewn. They may even have picked a name appropriate to another time and place to be called during said events. My mundane background happens to be in the social sciences. I would say that persona development is really just another art or science that you hone when you endeavor to add depth to your living history skill set.

So, let us start with a common definition. In general, a persona is the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. The word is derived from the Latin persona, meaning an actor’s mask, and is a designator for characters in a drama (Britannica). In literature, a persona is the person understood to be speaking/thinking in the story. For our purposes we will define a persona as a social role or character adopted by living history “actor” while at events.

How does one go about developing their social role? Just the same way they developed their skill with calligraphy, woodwork, cooking, metalwork, or heraldry – one step at a time (passo dopo passo). Before you know it, you will look back and see the long way you’ve come and realize that it is a very natural process. Keep this phrase in mind: piccoli passi (baby steps!).

Step One: When and Where
If you had decided to learn to sew you would settle on a time period (for the SCA it is pre-1600 AD). You would then learn stitches that are known to have been used then. The same for cooking, rapier, or carpentry. So, the same for personae. Pick a time and place. Once you decide on when you are and where you are (or where you are from) the next steps are easier.

How much detail you get into from when and where is really up to you. Let me describe my own path.

Map of Italian City-States

Step Two: Who
My time and place is northern Italy circa 1499. Two major city-states at that time were Florence and Venice. So when I went on to choose my name it was easy to do a bit of research and find out what the ladies during that time and place would have been named. Typically, they had a given name and a patronymic surname. Sometimes, starting in the late 15th Century, they also had a middle given name. Their first name would be family based, their middle name would almost certainly denote their saint, and their surname would have evolved from a male forefather. In my case I *wanted* to be Giada, the Italian name for Jade… but it turns out that the heralds could not find Giada documented as a given name until the 20th Century. So my choices were Gianna and Giata. I did not like either. I wanted Giada! However, in order to have a registered name I took Giata, and resolved in my heart to say it like it was Giada anyway. As time passed I really began to value having an accurate name, though. So now I pronounce it like it should be and say a thank you to the heralds for their wisdom 🙂

Some enthusiasts will never want to go any further than, “Hi, I’m Ragnar, and I’m a Viking.” So these first two steps are all you need…. but since you’ve come this far, why not read on?

Marzocco by Donatello
Florentine “Marzocco” by Donatello

Step Three: What Shall I Wear?
For me, that four word inquiry was of utmost importance. So, next I picked more appropriate garb. Of course I started with a T-Tunic like all the newbies were doing once upon a time. I quickly tired of the vagueness of that attire and yearned for something that would place me in Italy after the 14th century. Master Charles de Bourbon and Mistress Mary Grace came to my rescue. I did not sew, so they allowed me to commission their expert skills for a few nice gowns. Going to events in my Italian garb felt great! I also picked the appropriate headcovering, socks, and shoes. Read more about What Not To Wear here. I also began to peruse Google books to learn more about what Florentines and Venetians wore and why. This helped me get familiar with what does go together versus what does not. Fashion in Italy changed a lot in a short amount of time in the 15th and 16th Centuries, so picking a small window for me was essential. Of course, I do go back in time during the sweltering months and wear ~what my persona would consider~ classical Roman garb 🙂

Dress-Italienischer_Meister_The Betrothal 1475
Example of Dress in the Veneto circa 1480 (Gamurra & Cioppa)

Step Four: Branding
My next big step was deciding on my heraldry. I wanted something appropriate for Florence so I chose the giglio (fleur de lis) as the primary charge on my device. I chose a pattern that was documented in use in Florence and Venice in the 15th Century (a single primary charge and a chief on which 3 secondary charges are displayed). It was easy to ask the heralds for links to an Italian armorial and they also gave me guidance on my badge, making it suitable for an impresa, which the Italians loved.

Miniati and Mini
Page from an Italian Armorial circa 1588

I made sure to *use* my heraldry, too. Once it was registered by Laurel I commissioned a large standard from a merchant at Gulf Wars and displayed it proudly outside my period tent. Later, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Madame Cynthia du Pont, who made me two silk banners (one for my own heraldry and one for heralds point, for I had found my niche there!).

achievement 2014
My Achievement by Bill Knight

Step Five: To Infinity and Beyond!
From there I really found a comfortable place. I used my persona endeavors as a springboard for research projects. I researched and wrote papers for Kingdom A&S on “Friendship in Renaissance Florence” which gave me a good idea of social relations among men and women, I studied Italian games to teach classes at various events, I learned the ins and outs of female garb over two centuries in northern Italy so I could verify that my own was appropriate (as a point of personal satisfaction and pride), I wrote papers on garb and games for A&S, I learned about Florentine handwriting and letter-writing in order to enter in the creative writing category at A&S, then I read even more about women in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan so I could teach other classes on their toilette, their mannerisms, and their saloni. After all that I became apprenticed to Dame Dredda to benefit from a mentor’s guidance and took on even more responsibilities in the SCA. I also started this blog so I could compile all this cool stuff I was learning so it could benefit others. I began translating alchemical recipes from primary Italian sources and dabbling in herbalism.

Ghirlandaio circa 1485. Notice the trim on her gamurra, her accessories and jewelry. Paintings can inform your dress choices.

Now, I choose my path based on it’s applicability to my persona. When looking for classes or choosing a new topic to research I think, would Giata have known about this? Then I find the answer. Then I share it 🙂

Birth of the Virgin by Carpaccio c. 1506
Birth of the Virgin by Carpaccio circa 1506. Notice the layout of the bedroom, lack of chairs, prominence of chests, pets, attire of servants versus nobility. This painting helped inform me on the Renaissance home.

So your path may differ from mine. Instead of garb and games and alchemy you may delve into archery and leatherwork. You might start with finding out what kind of bow your persona would have used. You might begin making a quiver of leather for your persona and come across great information on how leather was tanned, dyed, and decorated for your time and place. Then just think of the satisfaction you’ll have when completing and wearing your item. Each little step gives your persona more depth. One day, someone who has chosen the same time and place as you might ask you why you chose to make your quiver that way and you can share your knowledge with them. It’s a wonderful feeling!

Step Five: Advanced
When you become comfortable with your persona basics of time/place/name, why not add to them by asking the following questions? The answers will add to your knowledge base, but more importantly they will give you more depth and scope to feel comfortable in the skin of your “social role”. These are things you know about yourself, so when you interact with others you don’t necessarily start with telling them the story of your name, your parents, your siblings, etc. However, when you interact with others you do mention pertinent bits of your own story, like if someone is talking about their hawking hobby, you might say that your brother was a great hawker. How would you contribute that if you didn’t know if you had a brother? Exactly. Think about who your persona *is*. These questions will help:

What is your age?
Do you have a nickname that your family calls you?
What are your parents and siblings names?
Are they alive?
Are you married, single, widowed, etc?
What do you call your land, village, or town?
What do others call it?
What kind of home do you have?
How many people live in it? Are they relatives?
How do you record dates?
When were you born? Where were you born?
What religion are you?
What holidays do you celebrate?
Who rules your town? Your country?
What major events have occured during your lifetime?
How is your day divided?
What do you eat?
How do you keep time?
What kind of education do you have?
What is your daily routine?

These references will also help. Please share them:

Italian Name References
Academy of St. Gabriel
College of Arms
Giata’s Italian Name Article

Garb References
Other Research Papers and Class Handouts

Armory References
Italian Armorials

Game References
Gioco dell’Oca
Other Games

Writing References
Script in Italy
Letter Writing

Persona References
Provocative Characters
Other Research Papers and Class Handouts

Italian Women in Period
Caterina Sforza Riario de’ Medici
Isabella d’Este
Gaspara Stampa

2 thoughts on “Developing a Northern Italian Persona (1400 – 1600)

  1. I’m just working on an Italian persona myself, though not Northern (Aragonese Naples actually). I’m struggling with the “what I want” vs “reality” issues myself, so this gave me some perspective. Thanks. Would love to chat if you are available to kinda ‘bounce’ my ideas off before I submit to the mighty heralds.

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