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"Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520-1620" on view at the Metropolitan
Bartolomeo Danieli (Italian, 1610–1643). Plate with lace design, from Vari disegni di merletti (detail), 1639. Published by Agostino Parisini & Giovanni Battista Negroponte, Bologna. Etching; Sheet: 11 5/8 x 15 3/4 in. (29.5 x 40 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937 (37.47.2[7r]).

NEW YORK, NY.- Printed sources related to the design of textile patterns first appeared during the Renaissance when six intricate, interlaced “knotwork” designs, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and later copied by Albrecht Dürer, marked the beginning of a fruitful international exchange of pattern designs. Starting in the 1520s, small booklets with textile patterns were published regularly, and these pocket-size, easy-to-use publications became an instant success, essentially forming the first fashion publications. These books were not made for the library but for the active use of their 16th-century owners across all levels of society, who were interested and invested in textile decoration as a means of self-expression and transformation of their households and dress. Users of the books tore out the pages and pasted or nailed them to workroom walls for inspiration. Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620, an exhibition drawn largely from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collections, combines printed pattern books, drawings, textile samples, costumes, paintings, and various other works of art to evoke the colorful world in which the Renaissance textile pattern books first emerged and functioned.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints boasts one of the world’s most important collections of early textile pattern books. The last time these books were featured in an exhibition at the Museum was in 1938, when the collection had been established. Recent conservation work on these books, facilitated by a grant from the Museum by the Library Division of the New York State Education Department, has provided the opportunity for a new exhibition to highlight this remarkable collection and focus on the interesting stories the books tell about textile pattern design and the want for models; enterprises in early book publishing; and artistic exchange throughout Europe.

During the first quarter of the 16th century, the market for publications of textile patterns quickly expanded and the exchange of designs and ideas was established between Italy and the countries north of the Alps. The small booklets, each containing a few dozen pattern designs, were published on a regular basis, their publishers proudly advertising the novelty of the patterns they had collected from all over Europe. The books became highly influential sources that both instructed and inspired many in the arts of making embroideries, weavings, and lace, as can be seen in surviving costumes and textiles of the period. Although pattern books are now often perceived as mere auxiliary tools for those not clever enough to come up with their own designs, the illustrated title pages, introductions, and publishers’ notes in these prints and booklets suggest a function and appreciation that was far more complex. The wide reach of these publications meant they were easily adapted for educational purposes, instructing women and young textile makers in the art while simultaneously dispensing advice on proper conduct and a virtuous lifestyle.

The Metropolitan Museum’s encyclopedic collection allows for meaningful, multifaceted presentations that support and enhance these stories and illustrate the popularity of the pattern books and their ubiquitous use throughout Europe. Fashion and Virtue features, for example, contemporary embroidery samples from the collection of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and portraits from the collection of European Paintings that show the many ways in which embroidery and lace were used in contemporary costume. Objects from the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute, the Robert Lehman Collection, and the departments of Islamic and medieval art also are on view with select loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum Bautzen (Germany), the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Fashion and Virtue is organized by Femke Speelberg, Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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