(The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, reference librarian for Italy, European Division.)
Bella figura in Italian literally means “beautiful appearance.” The term is used worldwide to define the essence of Italian style, and refers to Italians’ ability to infuse their daily lives with style and beauty, combined with their natural sense of pleasure and desire for social interaction. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, asserts in “Fashion, Italian Style,” that the refined Italian taste, of which Americans are very fond, derives from a combination of elements, including the importance of family, regional craft traditions, as well as aesthetics and sensuality.
Italian fashion and the evolution of its style are linked to women’s periodicals of the 19th century. The Library of Congress recently acquired two rare, bound volumes of “Corriere delle Dame: Giornale di Mode, Letteratura, Belle Arti e Teatri e Notizie Politiche” (Ladies’ courier journal of fashion, literature, art, theater, and political news) with 71 issues and 79 fashion plates for the year 1842, and 72 issues and 82 fashion plates for the year 1843.
Italian fashion magazines actually date back to the 18th century, with “Giornale delle Nuove Mode di Francia e d’Inghilterra” (Journal of the new fashions from France and England) published in Milan between 1786 and 1794 (reprints) and “Donna Galante ed Erudita” (Elegant and erudite women) published in Venice between 1786 and 1788 (list of contents).
However, while the 18th-century periodicals basically transmitted information about French fashions, the journals in the following century also reported on wider societal concerns, using the added images of Paris fashions to entice readers. “Corriere delle Dame,” published weekly, appealed to the desire of its readership for new styles, with novelty and mutability at the heart of fashion, but it also revealed the very first clues of an authentic Italian style—in connection with the country’s emerging identity as a unified nation. This journal, published between 1804 and 1875, was one of the longest-running 19th-century fashion periodicals. It was published during Italy’s wars of independence before its unification in 1861, under King Victor Emmanuel II (1820-78).
“Corriere delle Dame” was founded in Milan by the author and early feminist Carolina Lattanzi (née Arienti) in 1804. Its weekly issues included one or two fashion plates with the newest styles from Paris, or Moda di Parigi. Lattanzi rather astutely launched “Corriere delle Dame” in the year preceding French Emperor Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy (in May 1805, in the Duomo, or cathedral, of Milan), in anticipation of the balls for this grand event. She made it her mission to make sure that Milanese high society dressed appropriately, and also very fashionably, for this outstanding political occasion. Lattanzi had been a radical and greatly favored Napoleon who initially represented revolutionary ideas, such as doing away with the oppressive class system, although he later turned into a dictator.
With this publicity stunt and the insertion of advertisements targeting Napoleon’s Milanese court and high-ranking bourgeoisie, Carolina Lattanzi cleverly amassed a considerable following of about 700 subscribers by 1811. Under her direction, “Corriere delle Dame” also concerned itself with Italy’s national issues by publishing a supplement called “Termometro Politico” (Political thermometer, reprint), specifically dedicated to political issues. Lattanzi made the promotion of local craftsmanship one of the tenets of her direction of “Corriere delle Dame.”
Previous to her fashion-press marketing ploy, Carolina Lattanzi paid lip service to Napoleon while complaining about Italy’s servitude to Parisian fashion, and she chastised Italians for their lack of pride in their own culture as a model of artistic beauty, even though by that time it was already revered worldwide.
Balls, operas at La Scala, and other extravaganzas continued to provide the main reason for publishing fashion plates from Paris at the time when “Corriere delle Dame” changed ownership to publishing entrepreneur Giuditta Lampugnani, on Lattanzi’s death in 1818. Unlike Lattanzi, Lampugnani acted solely as the owner of the periodical, while delegating the compilation of individual issues to famous journalists and intellectuals in Milan, such as the influential journalist Carlo Tenca. With the Austrian House of Habsburg back in control after Napoleon’s fall from power in 1815, the political supplement “Termometro Politico” ceased publication, but civic matters were still addressed in articles providing a social critique of contemporary customs.
During Lampugnani’s administration, “Corriere delle Dame” established its almost unrivaled role as the preeminent Italian women’s periodical. Alongside fashion and theater soirées, Lampugnani promoted the inclusion of long excerpts from newly published novellas, especially by French and English female writers, translated into Italian. For instance, a translated excerpt from George Sand’s “Un hiver à Majorque” (“A Winter in Mallorca”), published in 1842, graced the pages of the first January 1843 issue of “Corriere delle Dame.”
Throughout the 1840s, “Corriere delle Dame” continued to display French designs. Italy’s unification was yet to come, so the lack of a cohesive Italian language and culture meant that “Corriere delle Dame” had to continue featuring “Moda di Parigi,” or Parisian styles. To their credit, Giuditta Lampugnani and her sons Alessandro and Giovan Battista, editors-in-chief of the magazine from the 1840s onward, stressed the importance of developing original Italian fashion designs. In the heat of the First Italian War of Independence against the Austrian Empire, 1848-49, “Corriere delle Dame” published not only articles, songs and poems filled with patriotic sentiments, but also fashion designs inspired by national pride. It would still take a long time for Italian fashion to finally come into its own, but the first signs of an authentic Italian style are documented in “Corriere delle Dame.”
Additionally, the poetry by Italian women authors in “Corriere delle Dame” was a precursor of subsequent women’s writing and discussion forums in turn-of-the-century magazines. The inclusion of literary excerpts had a dual function. The growth and popularity of periodicals created a new demand for cultural information, even among those who previously had not had access to such news, e.g., women. It also widely promoted cultural and linguistic standards that a new class of Italian liberal intellectuals felt were necessary for nation building.
From its inception, the life of “Corriere delle Dame” (1804-75) was entwined with Italy’s political progress toward unification (1820-61). During its long history, “Corriere delle Dame” changed owners and directors, and shifted points of view in favor of, or against, contemporary rulers. It never neglected, however, its fundamental effort to support fledgling Italian national interests, at least in the form of promoting the local fashion industry and craftsmanship.