Saturday, June 8, 2013

Zibellini Family

When people walk into my booth, I get a wide range of reactions to my zibellini.  While there have been a few who were pretty neutral, most people tend to either LOVE them ("OMG that's adorable!") or HATE them ("That is so creepy!").  What, you ask, is a zibellino?

Dona Isabel de Requesens
Zibellini (pl.) were full-body pelts worn as a fashion accessory by stylish ladies in the 1500s, most commonly in Northern Italy.  They used sable or marten pelts most often, but ermine and even lynx were also used.  At first they were just a plain pelt with a chain attached at the mouth, but as time went on, Zibellini frequently had their heads replaced with gold or gilded silver replicas.  There is also mention of artisans using jet or crystal instead of metal.  Regardless of the material used, they were usually encrusted with jewels, and sometimes enamel work.  In our day, zibellini are sometimes referred to as "flea furs" on the mistaken assumption that ladies wore these furs to attract the fleas away from themselves and onto the furs.  This is a myth: why would a flea want to leave a nice, warm, food-filled body for an empty pelt?  Besides, if you were a rich lady, would you want to advertise your personal cleanliness issues to the masses?  No, zibellini were worn for high fashion, not personal hygiene!

The first mention I can find of a zibellino is from a 1467 inventory of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.  It describes “a marten for putting around the neck, the head and feet of gold with ruby eyes, with diamonds on the muzzle and paws.”  The first portrait I know of that features a zibellino is the 1518 Portrait of Dona Isabel de Requesens, vice-reine of Naples.  She wears her unadorned zibellino draped over one shoulder.  What I believe to be the earliest portrait depicting a decorated zibellino is the 1536-37 Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere.

Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere
Extant portraiture shows a wide range of upperclass & wealthy women wearing their zibellini proudly, including Queen Elizabeth!  By the mid 1500s, zibellini had become so popular that sumptuary laws concerning them were being passed all over Italy.  At first they tried to control how they were decorated: “In order to avoid any superfluous costs and to get used to in some ornaments some honest and decent/proper, it is ordained and ordered that regarding zibellini and fans, they cannot make heads, or handles, or other ornaments in gold, silver, pearls, or jewels but it is tolerated that they can be attached with a gold chain if the said chain does not exceed between fifteen and twenty scudi and not more.”  (March, 1545; Bologna, Italy)  Obviously that wasn’t very successful as the original laws were often amended to be more permissive.  The law shown above was amended as follows: “…it is encouraged that the gentlewomen content themselves with the first ordinance rather than use this new license.” (October, 1545; Bologna, Italy)

When I decided to make my first zibie (as I affectionately call them), I wasn't sure how to go about it.  I ended up over complicating things, but I learned what not to do!  My first attempt turned out cute enough, but I knew I could do better.  For one thing, my "good in concept" idea of adding whiskers didn't work well.  The whiskers got bent, snagged on things, and generally looked like crap after just a few outings!  That was unacceptable to me, especially since zibies were supposed to be a sumptuous luxury item!  I decided that using crystals as "whiskers" was a much more practical choice, plus it made the zibie that much more sparkly!  One choice I made in the beginning turned out to be a good one, sculpting with polymer clay.  I decided to keep using that as my medium because it is economical, easily obtainable, comes in a wide variety of colors, and is pretty durable.  (Some day I hope to add zibies with cast metal heads as well, but that's a topic for another post!)

Antonio, my first zibie

I made a couple more, but the basic execution still wasn't quite right.  Argento was the first incarnation of my current style of zibellini.  The actual construction method was much better than before, but I still wasn't happy with the results:


I worked on refining the process, especially in blending and proportion.  After more experimentation and honing my sculpting skills, I was finally pleased with my creations!  Too add to my happy, I found a really neat product that allowed me to apply a thin layer of real metal over the surface of the clay!  Here are a few examples of some of my recent zibellini:

"Fire and Ice" made with a silver mink
"Celibri" made with a stone marten
Custom zibie made with an American marten
"Elphaba" made with a chocolate mink
I also played with using bright colors of clay and leaving the surface color as-is:

"Pavone" made with a champagne mink

I was having so much fun with my new creations that when I found myself in possession of several mink tails, I decided to make a smaller version of them, which I dubbed "Zibabies."  A little later came "Zibitties" who, being made with ermine tails, are the tiniest of my Zibie Family.

"Boschetto" (brown mink)

Caryn's custom order "Iacopo" (kit fox)

Gypsy's custom order (white mink)

Zapp's custom order (lynx)
Lisa's custom order (ermine)
And as if that wasn't enough, I decided my fox pelt needed to be "zibified" (Zipini) and my blooming interest in Victorian and Steampunk fashions inspired me to make fascinator zibies (Zibirdies) who have brooch pins so they can be attached to a hat, or shoulder, or...?

blue fox

Egyptian vulture





red phoenix

Little did I know that one little experiment to make myself a fun accessory would lead me off into such fun with fur and feathers!  I think my Zibellini Family is the best example I have of taking a product that people like and expanding the line to interest more people, yet stay true to the "feel" of the original.

To see more portraits and some extant examples of zibie heads, click here.

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