Sumptuous textiles and Leonardo in Renaissance Florence


Leonardo had a fascination with curly hair. His own hair, as one early biographer attests, was long and curly, and his beard “came to the middle of his breast, and was well-dressed and curled.”  He evidently took pride in his appearance.

Besides his well-dressed hair and curled beard, he had a taste for colorful clothing. Florence was renowned for its luxurious textiles— silks and brocades with names like rosa di zaffrone (pink sapphire) and fior di pesco (peach blossom). But most of these exotic fabrics were exported to the harems of Turkey because sumptuary laws— regulations against ostentatious dress— meant Florentines necessarily favored more sober colors. Not so Leonardo, whose wardrobe in later life, an audacious mix of purples, pinks, and crimsons, flouted the dictates of the fashion police.


One list of his clothes itemized a taffeta gown, a rose-colored Catalan gown, a purple cape with a velvet hood, a coat of purple satin, another of crimson satin, a purple coat of camel hair, dark purple hose, dusty-rose hose, black hose, and two pink caps.

King, Ross (2012-10-30). Leonardo and the Last Supper (p. 26). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.


Florence had a thriving cloth industry, and Leonardo designed numerous machines for the textile trade, such as hand looms, bobbin winders, and a needle-making machine that he calculated would produce forty thousand needles per hour and revenues of a mind-boggling sixty thousand ducats per year. All of these inventions he no doubt hoped would find their place in Florentine industry. In about 1494 he drew plans for a weaving machine, and in the same pages he outlined a project for a canal by which, he claimed, Florence’s Guild of Wool Merchants could transport their goods through Tuscany and, by extracting revenues from other users of the canal, boost their profits in the process. These pursuits reveal the breadth of Leonardo’s interests, the scope of his ambitions, and the depth of his conviction that there was no task that could not be improved through technology and invention. None of his plans seems, however, to have tempted the hardheaded merchants of Florence.

King, Ross (2012-10-30). Leonardo and the Last Supper (p. 119). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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