Faculty of ArtsAustralian Institute of Art History

The Barberini heraldic lampas from the National Gallery of Victoria

Chirara Buss During my too brief visit to Melbourne, last February, in order to participate in the important symposium “The Power of Luxury: Art and Culture at the Italian Courts in Machiavelli’s Lifetime” organized by Prof. Jaynie Anderson from the University of Melbourne Australian Institute of Art History, I had a chance to view the storage rooms of the International Fashion and Textiles Department at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Dr. Roger Leong, curator of the department, was so kind as to show me some of their most precious pieces of historical apparel, embroidery and textile, during a most exciting afternoon. While going through a drawer in search for Milanese woven silks (my actual most important research), I had a glimpse of a bee brocaded in gold on a purple ground.  “A Barberini heraldic silk!” I couldn’t help but shout. And so it was, as we were able to ascertain when Roger Leong very kindly had the object unpacked from its non-acid tissue paper wrapping. But my “expertise” proved obsolete, as the piece was complete with a full coat of arms embroidered on it, and it was indeed the coat of arms of the Barberini family. Actually it was not just a fragment of heraldic silk with an embroidery, but a full object: the cover for a fold-stool. And the NGV 1956 entry card attributed it to Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini, pope 1623-1644), the most illustrious member of the Tuscan family, and dated it to the 1640’s.

But here problems of attributions set in, because the coat of arms bears the insignia of a bishop, so the fold-stool must have been destined either to Maffeo Barberini when he held one of his various bishoprics or to one of the three Barberini relatives he elevated to Cardinals, hopefully after a brief interval as bishops. In either case the date of the lampas manufacture would have to be recalculated, starting from 1602. 

These questions make the object worthy of an investigation that I plan to make in the next few months as its results could shed light on some yet unknown aspects of the material culture of early 17th century from at least three points of view.

First of all, it is a perfectly conserved fold-stool cover, complete with original braids, fringes, tassels and lining, and as such it represents a very rare furnishing from the first half of the 17th century as well as parameter for other incomplete specimen. Second, through its personalized pattern motifs, once confirmed for which member of the family it was made, the lampas will be dated with precision thus anticipating by quite a few years some of its specific weaving characters. Last, but not least, some of the lampas technical features indicate a Milanese manufacture, and it will prove particularly important to understand why members of the Florentine mercantile “aristocracy” active in the Papal States would order such an important woven silk from Milan, considering that all the Barberinis had strong political ties with France and were quite hostile to Spain, then governing Lombardy.  Of course, the silk could have been a gift, but in that case it must have come with all the other pieces of the liturgical vestment, and possibly in all five liturgical colours, as was the norm for such gifts.

Many are the leads to be followed, and I feel they are worth following because the study of a textile in all its technical, material and formal details almost always results in wedging a new small dowel into the puzzle of social history.


Dr Chiara Buss





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